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Gioconda Mota, longtime activist for women’s rights and persons with disabilities’ rights, and co‐coordinator of the “Desde Nosotras” (Amongst Us) report on women’s human rights in Venezuela. (Desafío Constituyente)

Women and the crisis in Venezuela

A Conversation with Gioconda Mota

Originally published: Venezuelanalysis (November 30, 2018)   | 

Just weeks ago, a group of feminist researchers released a groundbreaking report on the situation of women’s human rights in Venezuela. The report bears the name “Desde Nosotras” (From Us), and its 250 pages reveal–with hard data and thorough analysis–the key challenges facing the political, economic, health, sexual and reproductive rights of Venezuelan women today. VA sat down with Gioconda Mota who, with Alba Casorio, was the coordinator of this independent report, which comes out of the ranks of feminist Chavismo and aims to improve the gender politics of the Bolivarian Government.

Gioconda is a longtime activist for women’s rights and those of people with disabilities. She is general coordinator of Entrompe de Falopio and a founding member of the feminist network Red La Araña Feminista. Gioconda is also the director of Hay Alguien Allí, a foundation for the exchange of information regarding autism.

Since the beginning of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process, some progressive reforms have entered the country’s legal framework. For example, the 1999 Constitution guarantees women’s economic rights, while a 2007 law affirms women’s right to a life free of violence. Can you contextualize some of these advances for our international readership?

If there are important advances in the Bolivarian Process regarding women’s rights, it is in improving the existing legal framework. On the one hand, the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has a groundbreaking article, Article 88, which recognizes that housework generates value and wealth, and that “social security” should be granted to homemakers. Additionally there are laws and norms that address the right to having a life free of violence, particularly the 2007 law, which represented an advance at the time and and still does, ten years later.

We can also point to some victories in the area of labor, for instance, the 2012 labor law, which guarantees maternity leave and breastfeeding rights. Nonetheless, there are legal issues where there hasn’t been any advance despite [grassroots] mobilization. That is important to mention because all the legal advances so far have gone hand in hand with organization and demands from the feminist movement. They have happened with a lot of pressure from below, with debate, and with mobilization and action.

So what are the issues that are still a priority in the legal realm? The issue of bodily autonomy, the right to legally interrupt pregnancy–that is an urgent struggle. There is a great deal to do in the realm of sexual and reproductive rights, which implies access to sex education throughout the whole schooling process, access to contraceptive methods, etc.

Also, in the political realm, issues of parity and alternation should be brought to the forefront. We are a country where there has been an extraordinary process of political awakening, and women have been the most active participants in it, but there haven’t been positive measures put in place so that women can participate politically in equal conditions.

That happens through norms and laws. It doesn’t happen spontaneously in a sexist, patriarchal society. There have been important oversights in this regard and even some steps backward. Up until 2007, there was a law establishing a minimum of 30% participation for women in representative posts. Venezuela’s Supreme Court eliminated it on the basis of it being discriminatory. Then came a promise that a fifty‐fifty parity law would be brought out in the National Assembly…but it didn’t happen.

Finally, another important field for struggle is in the realm of dissident sexualities. The Venezuelan State does not recognize same-sex unions, nor does it recognize trans identities. There have been some steps regarding dissident sexualities, but they actually have been very timid, and they haven’t been put in practice.

So, as you can see, there are many fronts of struggle remaining.

Ratio of claims filed (denuncias) to guilty verdicts (sentencias condenatorias)

Ratio of claims filed (denuncias) to guilty verdicts (sentencias condenatorias). Source: Statistical Information System of the Judicial Power. (Desde Nosotras)

The report on women’s human rights that you produced points to the critical problem of gender violence. The document says that in 2016 (the last year in which state published statistics) there were 97,858 formal accusations of gender violence. Of those, only 14,863 went to court and a mere 1,277 resulted in guilty verdicts.(1)

In Venezuela, politics on the state level fails to grasp the structural problem of gender violence. This is a deep cultural problem: violence against women has cultural and economic roots, and the battle against it should be multidimensional. As I indicated, there have been some legal advances regarding access to justice, but the results have been very limited. In part this is due to there having been practically no advances in the area of prevention, and prevention must go hand on hand with a cultural transformation.

That, of course, seems like a gigantic undertaking because it is the struggle to bring down patriarchy itself! However, that doesn’t mean that specific steps can’t be taken which would open up a path toward cultural transformations. For example, a reform in school pensums and teacher formation, developing media campaigns, controlling media to eliminate sexist stereotypes, etc.

The spaces that reproduce and consolidate sexist and patriarchal culture in our society must be changed. We are convinced that, with a coordinated effort, we will be able to first reduce and eventually eliminate this societal scourge. But the truth is that, since the state hasn’t made an analysis of the structural problem of sexist violence and domination, solving this problem isn’t really on the government’s agenda. That is why the advances are so slow.

As I mentioned before, the area where we have advanced most is in the legal framework. However, we should also take a close look at what’s really happening in the judicial system: the legal framework is established and a new kind of institutional [framework] emerged with it–this includes a special prosecutor’s office specialized in gender violence, public defense lawyers focused on the issue, gender offices to orient the police forces–but that hasn’t changed the character of the administration of justice, which is sexist to the core. We find ourselves face to face with situation where the main lawbreakers are those who operate the justice system. If we look at the situation case by case, we can quickly see that some 90% of the cases are dismissed and, as the numbers that you mentioned show, the rate of conviction is well under 2%. In fact, the degree of impunity is overwhelming.

The sad truth is that women go to the justice system expecting (and, of course, needing) a legal solution. There, however, they run into many obstacles (from reporting the aggression to investigating it and bringing it to trial). Along the way, they suffer a process of revictimization and institutional violence against women which begins to crush them once again.

Faced with this situation, what has the state done? The state has injected resources into the education of public officials, but this educational process has, for many reasons, not yielded the desired results. Since the problem hasn’t been solved, a new set of strategies must be developed so that women don’t find themselves in a labyrinth of revictimization whenever they seek justice or protection or both.

Now a proposal for reforming the 2007 law against gender violence is making the rounds. It’s a proposal that comes eleven years after the [initial] law was passed, and with the years we have learned of its limitations and oversights. This reform proposal, which comes from the feminist base, calls for real punitive measures to be taken against the public officials who don’t abide by the law in investigations and procedures associated with gender violence. Nowadays, if an official ignores a blatant case of gender violence–a femicide, for example–nothing happens! So the reform proposes to punish those who disregard or discard complaints.

Gender violence is one of the most serious human rights problems in Venezuela today. We are talking about some 120 reported femicides in 2016. If you compare that with other Latin American countries, the numbers may be considered relatively low, but we have to take into account that there isn’t a monitoring institution (nor a coordinated effort) to track cases of violence against women. So we know that this number underrepresents the problem.

Further, when we talk about femicide, we should also take into account maternal mortality rates, which we [the feminist movement] consider indirect femicides. We are talking about 756 maternal deaths in 2016(2). So, again, attention to women’s human rights continues to be one of the most urgent issues that our society should address.

Together with Paraguay, Venezuela has the most backward legislation regarding abortion in the whole continent. Although the struggle to make abortion legal here is not new, the Chavista feminist movement has staged important mobilizations during the past year or so, demanding that women gain control of their bodies.

The decriminalization of abortion is a historical struggle and a global one. The feminist movement in Venezuela was demanding the right to voluntarily interrupt a pregnancy long before the Chavista era (all taking place within the framework of the right to bodily autonomy and the right to decide about our bodies).

After all, we should decide how many children we want to have and when. But there has been very little willingness to pay attention to this issue from above. Year after year, we make our demands for the decriminalization of abortion, we organize street actions, and we present technical reports such as CEDAW. In truth, the feminist movement has made all sorts of demands and proposals.

In Venezuela, the only cases in which abortion is legal are when there is a very high risk to the life of the mother: that is the one and only justification! This year feminist Chavistas–the autonomous movement, not the institutionalized one–tried to make their demand to decriminalize abortion heard. We marched and rallied; we made a petition to have our demands discussed in the National Constituent Assembly; and we delivered reports and proposals. Members of the Assembly received our petition, and we were told that a debate about the issue would be opened in the constituent platform. That was back in June and still nothing has happened!

In general, there is little receptivity from those in power, and that is due to the religious baggage of decision-makers. That doesn’t just mean their pure, inner religious beliefs but rather their calculations regarding the vote count and how the decision to support decriminalization would impact their personal political careers. Nonetheless, there is a collective effort to decriminalize abortion, and we will be heard!

You referred earlier to a contradictory political situation of women in the Bolivarian Process. On the one hand, during the past twenty years there has been an explosion of women’s participation in spaces of local or barrio level organization (committees, communal councils, communes, CLAP). On the other hand, the participation of women in higher spheres of politics and power is very limited. For instance, less than one out of every four high government positions (ministers, parliamentarians, constitutional deputies, and governors) is held by a woman. What is going on here?

First, we should make it clear that the expansion of women’s participation in public life and political activity in the Bolivarian Process is totally unprecedented. Why is this important? To get a mass of women out to the sphere of domestic labor–out of the private universe and into the sphere of political engagement–that is a big step forward. When women began to participate in communal councils, in social organizations, in committees, when they became engaged in educational missions… all that was very important. It was a process of empowerment and [a process of generating] autonomy.

On the other hand, the government has made “feminist socialism” a rallying cry, saying that our revolution has “the face of a woman.” At the same time, it emphasizes that women are key to the revolutionary tasks. However, this discourse should be analyzed from a critical perspective, because it turns out that women reproduce gender roles in the context of community participation.

What does this mean? If we fail to insist that male counterparts assume equal responsibility in community participation and care, then women will be the only ones who organize, who administer the distribution of food in the barrio, and who coordinate health care or cleaning projects. As such, the role of women as unpaid caretakers is projected from the domestic, private sphere onto the community level and into the public sphere. This means that our analysis of this phenomenon–which empowers women but also increases their responsibility as caretakers–must also incorporate a critical perspective.

Additionally, as you mentioned, this participative boom doesn’t necessarily mean that women enter decision-making spaces, spaces of real power. A culture of masculine representation prevails. So, for example, even though women are the majority in the PSUV and the majority of those organizing committees and communes, at the end of the day less than one out of every four positions that involve representation or power is held by a woman.

That means that we are not participating in the political sphere in conditions of equality. Also, when we see women in ministerial roles, they don’t run strategic areas such as economy or oil. Instead, they end up assigned to areas such as [the Ministries of] Women, Tourism and Indigenous Peoples, that are generally considered less important in our society. (That is not only a cultural conception: if you look at the institutions women run, it turns out they are the ministries with the lowest budgets.)

All this is very important because when women don’t hold spaces of power, then our society is failing to recognize our capacities. It is a symbolic message. So, as you can see, in the area of political participation we have much to do. We need to advance so that women participate in decision-making spaces.

Maternal deaths

Maternal deaths. Source: Annual Mortality Reports from the Healthcare Ministry, years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. “Semana Epidemiológica” N°52 bulletin, years 2014, 2015 and 2016. (Desde Nosotras)

In today’s world, 70% of the poor are women and girls, and the gendered character of poverty gets worse in the Global South. In Venezuela, the weight of the crisis has fallen on the shoulders of women: women are the majority of those standing in long lines, the ones who feed large families, and women suffer firsthand the critical condition of the medical system.

Indeed the feminization of poverty is a global phenomenon.This has to heavily weight on women’s economical life. Our society imposes on women alone all the responsibilities regarding life and care. All that added weight falls on women, who also participate in the productive realm.

Women are often the only party responsible for the reproductive tasks of nurturing, feeding, and caring. Obviously, no human body can take all that without being affected. This is all the more true in monoparental households(3) with four, five or six mouths to feed: from children to the elderly to the sick. So we are talking about the singlehanded care of the family and, nowadays, also the care of the community.

What do we observe in Venezuela’s profound crisis? The crisis spreads more rapidly in the world of women. You mention women standing in long lines to purchase basic goods, but they also search for medications for the sick, bearing the brunt of the healthcare system’s deterioration. Since women are the sole caretakers, they are also the ones who have to find solutions if a baby is sick, if a mother needs blood thinners. All this happens in a context where the mere reproduction of life has become more and more complex, and it sinks women into deeper and deeper spirals of poverty.

This means that, even though in Venezuela there has been a wider incorporation of women into formal spaces of labor during the last decade and a half, that participation is now being reduced, as the other responsibilities for care demand more and more time. Therefore precarious labor is also on the rise amongst women.

We also have to be very clear about the effects of the crisis on the healthcare system. Maternal mortality has risen at an alarming rate. There are some numbers from 2016 that are simply terrible. Since then we haven’t had any official data, but everything points to an acceleration [in deaths] of this kind. The increase from 2015 to 2016 is more than 60%. In that year [2016], 756 women died during delivery or in the puerperium phase, while the year before we had 457 deaths. As I mentioned, the Ministry of Healthcare has not released official data for 2017 and 2018, but we are quite aware–through news and social media–that the situation is worsening.

There is a further problem, which is access to contraceptives. Contraceptives is simply inaccessible for the majority because of their cost. Today a monthly round of the pill costs 7000 Bolivars, while the minimum wage is 1800 Bolivars. The state does not provide contraceptives, so we find a rapid growth of abortions carried out in precarious and unsanitary conditions. In the end, there are many facets of women’s life that are being seriously damaged: from her sexual and reproductive life, to healthcare for her children and for the elderly.

In the last few years, we have witnessed the emergence of a feminist movement that considers itself Chavista, but that is autonomous and attempts to take the government to task on a number of issues. Can you tell us about this?

I have an optimistic reading in this regard. In the past two years, the feminist movement has been growing, with a rich diversity of left-leaning variants, and it is also intergenerational. In the past, feminism in Venezuela was associated with academics or with older women who participated in the earlier waves of mobilization for women’s rights. Today, we see the emergence of a younger feminism, a feminism with ties to the world of art and culture, and a pluralistic feminism associated with university students. Additionally, there is a feminism that operates more in the street, through public exhortation rather than through institutions, and that does not seek just limited reforms, as was the case with the hegemonic tendency in the feminist current for a while. In this feminist awakening, we see that many socio‐political organizations (which involve both sexes) are beginning to incorporate feminist elements into their programs, and they participate in feminist mobilizations not as individuals, as used to be the case, but as organizations.

Indeed there is an awakening with a special political nature. We are talking about a feminist movement that considers itself to be Chavista–it is anti‐capitalist and simultaneously anti‐patriarchal–but it also takes the government to task. When I say that it takes the government to task, I mean that the movement supports the government and in particular identifies itself with the popular and communal project of Chavismo, but it is making bigger demands because of its growing strength. All this has happened because after twenty years there are so many areas where we haven’t advanced or where we have actually gone backwards. This movement has much to do.

The movement addresses the government in a multidisciplinary way. On the one hand, through the institutions, where demands and requests are filed. On the other hand, proposals are made public, briefs and documents are generated, and there is work in the realm of communication, where we now have at least two television programs addressing gender issues and more than seven feminist radio programs, in addition to websites, etc.

The feminism on the rise is also more and more committed to unity. The feminist movement is growing, and it understands itself as a social movement that supports this socio-historic, political process of great importance. But it isn’t afraid to insist that the state and the government do what they must do.

On June 18, diverse feminists groups concentrated in front of the National Constitutive Assembly demanding to be heard

On June 18, diverse feminists groups concentrated in front of the National Constituent Assembly demanding to be heard. (Red La Araña Feminista)


Notes

  1. The hard data in this interview comes out of the “Desde Nosotras” (From Us) report. The data in that document comes out of different sources, some governmental, some based on field research, and some from international organism such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It should be noted that since 2016, the Venezuelan government has not published updated economic and social statistics.
  2. Venezuela has a ratio of 95 women dead for every 100,000, which is well above the continental average of 69.
  3. Four out of ten households in Venezuela are monoparental (female). These households are far more likely to enter the statistics of extreme poverty.
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