On January 23rd, Venezuelans initiated a new attempt to put an end to authoritarian rule. Fresh-faced leader Juan Guaidó, who galvanized the opposition again, may be the man who leads the country towards democratization.
So far, most strategy formation is happening behind doors, given the high levels of repression in Venezuela. From the few images we have seen, however, one thing is striking: there are virtually no women present in designing and executing these strategies.
All key strategists, both national and foreign, appear to be men: Julio Borges, Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma, Carlos Vecchio, David Smolanksy, Lester Toledo, and Luis Almagro, to name a few. The only notable exceptions to this pattern are Maria Corina Machado and Delsa Solorzano, who over the past years have shaped national politics. Despite this, their roles still seem secondary when compared to those of men. Female under-representation makes Venezuela’s incipient spring vulnerable. Here’s why.
It is mostly male leaders who gather around Guaidó, and it is mostly men who are designing and planning the Venezuelan transition from within and outside the country.
In 2000, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 specifically “[reaffirmed] the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and [stressed] the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”
Scholarship on democratization processes and peace negotiations has shown that women play an essential role in shaping political outcomes. If this is the case, however, why do we see that women continue to be underrepresented and under-appreciated in contemporary transitions?
The case of Venezuela is a perfect example to illustrate how, despite women playing crucial roles in mobilizing and organizing against an authoritarian regime on a daily basis, it is men who dominate public debates, discourse, leadership, and appointments to key offices within the opposition.
Venezuelan sociologist Verónica Zubillaga’s work on women’s responses to urban militarised violence in Caracás highlights the multiple ways in which grassroots women’s groups develop a specific type of resistant agency in dire consequences. She describes one neighbourhood where a women’s organisation was successfully able to negotiate a ceasefire with local armed actors.
We see no reason why these lessons can not be extrapolated and expanded to apply to the current political dynamics in the country.
Disappointingly, however, it is mostly male opposition leaders who gather around the newly sworn in interim president Juan Guaidó, and it is mostly men who are designing and planning the Venezuelan transition from within and outside the country.
The issue of women’s participation can no longer be regarded as a side show to the struggle for democratization because it represents a crucial component of a larger project to create a more peaceful and stable society.
We can draw on a plethora of examples that showcase the importance of including women in transitions and post-conflict situations.
In Northern Ireland, women like Monica McWilliams and May Blood played key roles in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. They created the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which directly influenced the content of the Agreement by broadening the agenda to include social issues. They were also able to reach across political and religious divides, build public trust, and “gave a human face to the conflict.”
In neighbouring Colombia, we also saw an active participation of women in Havana, at the main negotiating table, at the Gender Sub-Commission, as representatives for victims of the conflict, and as leaders of women’s organisations. Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, the director of UN Women noted of Colombia: "[women’s] success [and effective participation] underscores the evidence that the participation of women increases the possibility of achieving a Peace Accord.”
In Liberia, Guatemala, Burundi, Somalia, and Sudan, women and women’s organisations have been key in demanding the signing of peace processes. Research by UN Women highlights that women’s participation in peace negotiations increases the likelihood of durable peace.
On the other hand, scholarship and experience shows that the lack of balanced representation can have negative consequences for a post-conflict society. We can see this in the potential peace negotiations in Afghanistan, for example, where women fear that their lack of participation at the negotiating table will result in a roll-back of their rights, and “herald a new war on women.”
The issue of women’s participation can no longer be regarded as a side show to the struggle for democratization, because it represents a crucial component of the larger project; incorporating a gender perspective has the potential to transform representation, participation, political behaviours, cultural attitudes, and perceptions, but also to create a more peaceful and stable society.
If the opposition wants to be consistent with its discourse of creating a ‘Venezuela that works for everyone irrespective of colors, race or political beliefs’, then this new emerging political leadership has to push for equal representation in civil society.
Indeed, with this piece, we are not advocating that women participate in the transition to represent particularly gendered interests, although we recognise that these topics are also of crucial importance. Rather, we are calling for an inclusive and representative transition process that can set the basis for a more participatory and equal society post-transition.
Gender equality and equal representation are not “women’s issues” that can be addressed after the “hard issues” are negotiated. Equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population.
Women’s participation in agenda-setting will bring benefits for everyone.
We are calling for Venezuelan politicians to work towards such a society. But for this to happen, changes to the transition process need to occur now, not after Maduro leaves power.
If the opposition wants to be consistent with its discourse of creating a ‘Venezuela that works for everyone irrespective of colors, race or political beliefs’, as interim president Guaidó has consistently stazed, then this new emerging political leadership has to push for equal representation in politics, business, industry, and civil society.
But equality requires a real cultural change. This is why politicians and political parties, as actors who should reflect the society’s composition and interests, should bring women into the democratization process to make it more representative and sustainable over time.
A Spanish version of this article was previously published in Al navío. Read the original content here.