Venezuelan Women’s Organizing




I

stand in an ocean of women, an ocean that
I am accustomed to swimming in these days. Women from all over Venezuela
have gathered in Caracas, proudly wearing red, the color of revolution.
They join in solidarity to protest a ruling that has annulled a
law designed to protect women and the family against violence. Maria
León, president of the government-supported women’s organization,
Inamujer (National Institute of Women), offers hope to the other
compañeras: “We will win because we have it in our hearts.
We will have justice.” 


In 1999 the people and the Chavez government collaborated in writing
a new constitution for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Venezuela
became the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to include
a gender perspective within its constitution. Little pocket-sized
constitutions and booklets of laws are sold on every corner and
the majority of women I know proudly carry a copy. The people strongly
believe in these rights, such as the constitution’s Article
88, the Equal Opportunity Law for Women, and the Law Against Violence
Towards Women and the Family. Influential governmental women’s
organizations, such as Inamujer and Banmujer, play an important
role in women’s liberation work, helping to ensure the implementation
of laws and programs supporting women through groups like Madres
del Barrio (Mother’s of the Neighborhood). 


These, among other laws and services, are great achievements in
the struggle for women’s rights. But when government laws and
protections serve as the source for organizing among women, does
this take away their assertiveness to claim/take our own power that
we, as women, rightfully deserve? As a woman, I have had little
faith in the laws of my country or in a constitution written by
“white men” in the 1700s, which continues to be interpreted
by new generations of white men. The system of government that I
know is historically rooted in hierarchical/patriarchal structures.
These penetrate every aspect of our lives, be it social, political,
or economic. 


“Women are always the ones who have to pay. This is how machismo
works, but it will not always be like this. We need to work for
our own respect. We have laws that protect us, people need to respect
the laws and respect us,” Lezly Belkys Lopez explains to me
during a women’s protest. 


The law, passed in 1998, was written and implemented by Inamujer,
which officially holds the main responsibility of “supervising
and evaluating policies related to the condition and situation of
women.” The annulled articles prohibited the perpetrator/violator
from visiting the home or workplace of the survivor. Inamujer mobilized
their locally organized groups of women throughout Venezuela (Puntos
de Encuentro) to protest these annulments, which were decided by
five male Supreme Court judges in May 2006 and cannot be lawfully
reviewed. Therefore, within the blink of an eye, the law has changed,
leaving women vulnerable. This example shows us that although Inamujer
and other groups fought incredibly hard to write and pass this important
law, five men holding an immense amount of power were capable of
completely destabilizing populations of women at risk. Here, I would
suggest that the reliance on “protective laws” is not
enough. 



T

hankfully, Venezuela has
more to offer than just “protective laws.” The government
encourages people to create changes from the base. Banmujer, founded
on International Women’s Day 2001, supplies micro-credit loans
to cooperatives consisting of 5-20 women to start their own business.
Each woman receives 2,000,000 Bolivares ($930) with a 12 percent
interest rate (6 percent if agriculturally related) to be repaid
within 3 years. These services have reached approximately 50,000
women each year, supporting the economic independence of poverty
stricken women throughout Venezuela. Not only is this institution
helping to decrease the feminization of poverty, it is also supplying
valuable empowerment skills to its users while fostering the idea
of a popular economy. The users have also formed local support networks
(Red Usuarias de Banmujer) to organize within the community and
patronize one another’s businesses. Women in Venezuela are
being offered opportunities that no government in their past has
given them before. 


Equally impressive and empowering is Article 88 of the Constitution,
which “recognizes work in the home as an economic activity
that creates added value and produces social welfare and wealth.”
The article also states that women working at home are entitled
to social security. Article 88 is not only the result of women’s
hard work, but also the work of women fighting for this recognition
all over the world. The words alone are strong, but little had been
done to implement this article until March of this year when the
government initiated the Madres Del Barrio Mission. Created by the
work ministry, Madres del Barrio began a 6-month trial period in
which almost 200,000 women in “extreme poverty” received
between 279,000372,000 Bolivares ($120$173) a month to help eradicate
poverty. 








When
women apply for this assistance, they are subjected to a series
of evaluations and interviews to determine the level of need among
the applicants. Carolina Vecatequi, a regional Caracas coordinator
for the mission explains: “The financial support is not the
main benefit. But, with this support, women will be able to enroll
and integrate into other missions. They will receive education from
Missions Robinson, Ribas, or Sucre, enroll in a Vuelvan Caras workshop
[mission that trains people in specific employment skills who form
work cooperatives] or be accredited a micro loan to start a collective
business.” At the end of six months, the monetary assistance
is terminated with the expectation that women have integrated themselves
in other social programs and services that will be able to provide
some income. This support is helping women in the struggle for liberation
and rights. However, there are aspects of this support that have
left me with questions. 


For example, at the opening lecture for Madres del Barrio, the creator,
Ivan Espinoso (a man), gave a PowerPoint presentation to an auditorium
full of women. After he finished, verbal fights broke out among
different women’s groups over who was going to receive the
aid first. The answer: those in “extreme poverty.” Then
women began arguing over which communities were the poorest. Since
the mission asks women to quantify their level of oppression, they
are placed in competition with one another for aid. Furthermore,
in this case, a man was instituting a program to help women gain
empowerment skills, but the women were not included in the formation
process. 


Madres del Barrio is one example of the Venezuelan government’s
good intentions, but it is also an example of the lack of connection
that the powers-that-be can have with the people they are trying
to help. I feel the government programs and protections cannot serve
as the catalyst for women’s organizing. Empowerment does not
come from laws and government programs. 


The women of Venezuela are truly the backbone of this country. They
are incredible organizers and are always looking after the wellbeing
of others.  


I have found much of the focus within groups of women to be primarily
based on women’s education of their rights and the laws, and/or
fighting for the protection/realization of such laws. I do not devalue
this work, as I believe it is important and necessary. But the repeal
of protections by the Venezuelan Supreme Court have shown us that
laws alone cannot protect us from the patriarchy within our cultures.
The necessity for such protections points to problems deep within
our cultures, cultures that breed violence, where inequality is
“normal,” where women must continuously struggle in order
to be respected and safe. The spaces for such discussion exist here
in Venezuela, but I have not seen these spaces being used to challenge
the roots of our oppressive, cultural norms. 



W

e need to create more self-sustaining
changes from the base that do not force women into situations where
we must constantly fight to protect and pass laws that grant us
safety. Of course, we can benefit from protections and programs,
but they are not solving the real problems. We must not accept uncritically
programs and protections given or approved by a powerwielding institution.
We must be the creators and the implementers of these changes ourselves.
We know what changes need to be made, so we must claim our power,
unite ourselves, and win back the right to name and create the world
we want to live in. I know that if any women are up to this challenge,
they are the courageous luchadoras of Venezuela.


 





Sara
Yassky has lived in Caracas, Venezuela for the past six months learning
and working with various women’s community groups. She is currently
in Mexico continuing such work.