Venezuela Leads the Way: Welfare Mothers and Grassroots Women Are the Workers for Social Change!

There is screaming, hugging, chanting, and many shhhs; the group takes a momentary pause in their celebration to hear the news.  A delegation of 70 women from all over the world, including, India, Uganda, Guyana, the UK, and the US, stand together in the community of La Padera, Venezuela, awaiting the details.

Juanita Romero, also known as Madre, explains that President Hugo Chávez has just given the news that we have all been waiting for: the implementation of Article 88 of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Constitution.

Photo by Cory Fischer-Hoffman

This diverse group, which makes up the Global Women’s Strike, has been visiting the grassroots projects that are the foundation of the Bolivarian Revolution.  After three exhausting days of visiting medical clinics, land committees, food program houses, and educational missions, the Global Women’s Strike has been strongly impressed that it is the grassroots women who are building this process. 

“Women are the ones that are leading the projects.  They are always there and they are always the majority,” says Nicola Marcos from Guyana.

The Global Women’s Strike was formed to win economic and social recognition for unwaged caring work.  Since the addition of Article 88 in the Bolivarian Constitution (1999), the Global Women’s Strike has built many relationships with grassroots communities in Venezuela.  

Article 88 declares:

The State guarantees equality and equity between men and women in the exercise of their right to work.  The State recognizes work in the home as an economic activity that creates added values and produces social welfare and wealth.  Housewives are entitled to Social Security.

The Global Women’s Strike has consistently commended the inclusion of Article 88 in the Bolivarian Constitution.  While participating in numerous Venezuelan Solidarity groups, and criticizing the United State’s attempts to destabilize the process, the Global Women’s Strike has been also pushing for the implementation of Article 88.

Due to the persistence of Nora Castañeda of the Women’s Development Bank, and the grassroots women of Venezuela, Article 88 will be realized.  Coinciding with the Global Women’s Strike highly publicized delegation, Chávez announced that this unprecedented right would be implemented

On February 2nd, in a speech delivered in the Teresa Careño theater in Caracas, Hugo Chávez proclaimed that, on the first of May, International Worker’s Day, 100,000 Venezuelan female heads of households would receive 380,000 Venezuelan Bolivares per month ($185).  This is about eighty percent of the Venezuelan minimum wage.  In the following six months, another 100,000 women will begin to receive payments in recognition of their work.

“Caring for others is accomplished by a dazzling array of skills in an endless variety of circumstances.  As well as cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundering, planting, tending, harvesting for others, women comfort and guide, nurse and teach, arrange and advise, discipline and encourage, fight for and pacify.  Taxing and exhausting under any circumstances, this service work, this emotional housework, is done both outside and inside the home.”  says Selma James, international coordinator of the Global Women’s Strike.

It is not only the work in the home, but it is also the caring work in the community that serves as the base of the Bolivarian Revolution.  In the community of Los Teques, like so many others, this vital work is overwhelmingly led by women.  President Hugo Chávez has claimed that he will “eliminate poverty by giving power to the poor”; in Los Teques, a city that is both rich and poor, urban and rural, the poor are not waiting to be given the power — they are taking it.

In a poor barrio where many of the community members have squatted their land, the nurses and doctors of the San Juan Evangelista Health Clinic describe the free preventative, curative, and rehabilitative health care that they provide to the community.

The Clinic is part of the Barrio Adentro Healthcare Mission, where Venezuelan and Cuban doctors live in the communities in which they serve and provide free healthcare to some of the poorest in Venezuela.

San Juan Evangelista Health Clinic serves 400 families and works in close collaboration with the health committee, one of the many community committees that have formed to assure that government programs and missions reach the grassroots and that the community members play a role in shaping them.  The Health committee includes nurses and doctors who work in the clinic in addition to community members, mostly women, who do the unwaged community work.

One of the nurses from the San Juan Evangelista Health Clinic shared, “I am in the health committee, the land committee, and I am the spokesperson for my community; people trust me.  I do all of this work as social work, without receiving any wage.”

Sharon Lungo, an activist from Los Angeles who participated in the Global Women’s Strike’s delegation noted, how in Venezuela, the focus is on building and “addressing the injustices by building the alternatives.”

At the bottom of a steep hill, Sylvia Gonzales Rodriguez met the 70 women from the Strike with a big smile.  She is in charge of the “food house” which feeds 150 people in the community: mostly people who are unemployed, have drug addictions, are pregnant and nursing women.  She works with four other women preparing hot food from scratch with the staples she receives from the state subsidized food program called MERCAL.

“There are other food programs that are not involved in the revolutionary project, which give food to children.  We ensure that the whole family eats, not just the children,” says Sylvia.

This food kitchen is an integral part of all of the other Missions.  If there are children or parents who receive food and have never learned how to read and write, they are integrated into the Educational Missions.  If there are unemployed people who lack certain skills, they are integrated into Vuelvan Caras, the mission that provides job training to establish cooperatives.  “This is the basis of the [Bolivarian] process, that you learn by doing.”  Sylvia added.

Photo by Cory Fischer-Hoffman

In addition to mothering three children and running the “food house,” Sylvia is a midwife; she receives no wages for her work, which is so essential to taking care of her family and community.

In every project it was consistent: women were working to maintain the Revolution.  We asked many of the women how they sustained themselves.  Some women were married and shared in the low wages of their husbands; others worked in the informal economy, selling food or doing domestic work.  Most of the women were forced to obtain some waged work so that they could support their unwaged caring work.

We had walked along train tracks that were two centuries old, until we arrived in the small barrio of La Pradera.  Standing in front of another shiny new Barrio Adentro Clinic, an ecstatic Venezuelan woman shared with the group that Chávez had just announced that female heads of households would begin to receive a payment in recognition of their work, beginning on May 1st.

Everyone began to cheer shouts of Victory; the implementation of Article 88 would set a precedent for which the Global Women’s Strike and the women of Venezuela have been struggling for decades.

A number of women in the community mentioned that they would be eligible for this payment, and one woman enthusiastically joked, “Now I will work with more love!”

How Is Article 88 Different from Welfare in the United States?

Welfare in the United States has not been designed to acknowledge and award the labor of mothering.  It is based on the premise that work can only be done outside of the house and that women must enter the workforce in order to contribute to society.  The US Welfare system, in fact, does not award women who work in the home with social security but rather gives mothers a small amount of cash assistance, while they are forced to search for paid work.  The basic idea is that children who are born poor are innocent and deserve some basic support, but once they grow up and become mothers (or fathers) themselves, they have no “excuses” for being poor.

Women who have worked in the Welfare Rights movement have protested the oppressive cycle that forces women to place their children into under-funded childcare and themselves into low-wage work; instead, they demand that the care that they provide for their children and communities be acknowledged, valued, and remunerated.

Before Welfare Reform, AFDC (Assistance to Families with Dependent Children) provided some safety net for families in poverty, but, in many cases, it was not enough to live on.  Then, in 1996, Welfare Reform passed under then President Bill Clinton, the son of a single mother who pledged to “change Welfare as we know it.”

Mothers lost their entitlement to benefits, with states administering welfare, slashing budgets, enforcing degrading and exploitative “work programs,” inflicting strict sanctions, and in some cases establishing a lifetime time limit for receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families).  Mothers who have still access to benefits struggle harder to live on the insufficient cash assistance programs. 

Photo by Cory Fischer-Hoffman

Our lesson from Venezuela is that the very same women who are fighting for better schools, for health care and for community control of resources are the ones who become, out of their commitment to justice, to their families, and to their communities, the most important builders of the basis of a caring economy.

Nora Castañeda, president of the Women’s Development Bank in Venezuela, says, “The economy must be at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy.  We are building an economy based on cooperation and mutual support, a caring economy.  And since 70% of those who live in conditions of poverty in the world are women, economic changes must start with women.”

C.C. Campbell-Rock, a native of New Orleans, who was forced to leave her home on August 28, 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina, participated in the Strike Delegation to share about the efforts of the Hurricane Evacuee Council of the Bay Area (HECBA).  When asked what lessons her time in Venezuela has brought her, she replied, “It appears that the Venezuelan grassroots are really getting their 40 acres and a mule, and we are still waiting, after 400 years.”

An exhausted Juanita Romero, who chairs the land committee and who has been arranging all of the logistics of this huge delegation, reminds us: “If we organize, nothing is impossible.”

Cory Fischer-Hoffman currently lives in Caracas, Venezuela, and she participated in the Global Women’s Strike Delegation in February, 2006.  She is a member of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition in Olympia, Washington.