I just returned from a workshop on gender-based violence organised by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Venezuela and the UNDP. Speakers at the workshop included Maria Leon, Minister of Women’s Affairs and Nora Casteneda President of Banmujer or Bank for the Development of Women. The two women explained the gains made by women as a result of Bolivarian socialist revolution in Venezuela. A record which was truly amazing in the attempts made in empowering women towards achieving gender equality, reported candidly by both women, who also outlined the challenges women in that country have as yet to overcome.
The Bolivarian constitution is the first in the South (and possibly the world) to recognise women’s housework as a legitimate economic activity producing wealth and contributing to the social welfare of the population: "The State will recognise household chores as an economic activity that creates added value, produces wealth and social welfare. Housewives have the right to social security according to the law." (Article 88) As Maria Leon explained in Article 88 "the work of all previous generations of women are also recognised and valued".
In March 2007 the right of women to live a life free of violence became an organic law enacted by the National Assembly of Venezuela. Now the law must be effectively implemented. This includes setting up special courts or legal units to handle violence against women cases across the country, with some 19 courts already set up covering all regions. These courts were described as ‘new institutions of the Venezuelan state to eradicate violence against women’. The first courts were on violence against women were set up in Caracas on June 27, 2008.
These courts have the authority to temporarily arrest perpetrators of violence against women and prohibit them from leaving the country. The first dates for the trial should be set ten to twenty days after the act of violence, with sentencing on the same day with penalty and fines. Appeals processes exist. These courts were also described as ‘specialised organs on violence against women’ and as ‘weapons in the struggle against violence against women’.
According to Maria Leon, "Talking is not enough. Laws are not enough. Institutions are not enough. We need a cultural change in our views and outlook." This required mobilising women to become "a real force, a deterrent force, an army to combat violence against women and to change the notion of women as battered victims and weak human beings". To mobilise women some 25,000 ‘points of encounter’ for women are being set up where women have easy access to information and services without cumbersome requirements and bureaucratic regulations. These 25,000 ‘points of encounter’ will consist of at least ten women, who will then organise more women to create "an army to combat violence against women … the point is not only to decrease violence against women, but to eradicate it".
The Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality was set up on March 8, 2009. One of the first activities of the new Ministry was to organise a congress of women to consult women on the plans and work of the Ministry. A key objective of the Ministry is to advice the President on ‘human development with gender equality’ and the ‘active participation in the defence and guarantee of women’s rights in the revolutionary transformation of the country’. Linked to this a key task of the Ministry is to ‘design the criteria for allocating financial and social resources and investments targeting women, especially those who are marginalised and excluded, suffering discrimination, exploitation and violence … in order to promote a socialist production model with gender equity in the socialisation of the means of production’.
Maria Leon and other Venezuelan women speakers all emphasised the importance of the local popular power structures, the commune councils, in the mobilisation and empowerment of women. According to Leon "Peoples power, popular power, is most important [and] 70% of the commune councils are headed by women".
Nora Castaneda provided updates on the work of Banmujer. Banmujer is a key political instrument of the revolution in the economic and political empowerment of poor and ethnic minority women. Since 2001, Banmujer has redistributed wealth of around US$179 million in 106,616 microcredits to poor women. In 2008 alone it approved a total of 13,689 microcredit loans worth US$35 million.
Meanwhile in Cuba pathbreaking proposals and measures are being advocated and discussed amongst the entire population to advance gender equality in relation to sexual rights, spearheaded by the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX). According to CENESEX Director Mariela Castro this year’s celebration of International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia will be held in Havana on Saturday, May 16. It will be dedicated not only to youth, but also to the family, "so that fathers and mothers can better understand their homosexual or transsexual children."
The National Assembly (Cuba’s parliament) will include in its work agenda an initiative to reform the national Family Code, which has been effective in Cuba since 1975 and contains proposals on gender identity and rights of "sexual minorities." The initiatives include the legal recognition of the same sex unions, whereby they will enjoy the same rights as consensually united heterosexual couples.
In June 2008 a resolution of the Ministry of Public Health leganised the performing of sex change operations on transsexual persons. Resolution 126 establishes the creation of a center for integral healthcare for people who are transsexual, which will be the sole institution in the country authorized to carry out total or partial medical sex change treatments.
This is a far cry from the former Soviet project with its idealisation of motherhood or anything in the experience of the Chinese revolution. And it is a distinct trend in the opposite direction to what is taking place in a number of industrialized countries in the West, the US and Australia included, where the trend is to take away a range of even formal rights won in gender equality and related sexual rights.