Venezuela: Activists demand new constitution enshrine abortion, sexual rights

Feminist and LGBTI organisations gather outside Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, in Caracas on June 20.

Women’s and LGBTI rights activists presented Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC) with a series of proposals to legalise abortion and expand sexual and reproductive rights on June 20.

This comes in the wake of the vote in Argentina’s Congress to legalise abortion, and at a time when the issue of abortion has gained added importance given the impact Venezuela’s economic crisis has had on women.

The ANC was elected last July with a mandate to reform the nation’s constitution. Among the proposals presented to the ANC’s Commission for the Rights of Women to Equality and Gender Equity were: the right for each person to fully or freely exercise their sexuality; guaranteeing everyone the right to an integral sexual education from primary school; access to free contraception for women and men; the right of women to live a life free of violence; and the freedom to form any type of family, free of any religious impositions.

Also included was a call to create a carer system to avoid situations where women are forced to stay home or automatically made responsible for looking after children, the sick or elderly; and that where people do take on the role of carer they should be remunerated like any other job.

The proposals were presented by a range of feminist and LGBTI organisations, including La Araña Feminista (Feminist Spider), the Information Network for Safe Abortion (RIAS) and the Left Cultural Front.

In terms of abortion rights, Araña Feminista national coordinator Nancy Gonzalez told Venezuelanalysis: “Our proposal is explicit. The new constitution must have an article that states that women have the right to decide over their bodies and that they can interrupt, unilaterally, in a voluntary way, a pregnancy.”

“The state must guarantee [the option to abort] in secure conditions through the 12th week of gestation,” she added.

Despite important gains for women’s rights made during Venezuela’s pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution, abortion remains illegal and punishable with six months to two years jail. Together with Paraguay, Venezuela has the most restrictive abortion laws in South America.

The existing constitution, approved in 1999, declares that life begins at conception, thereby denying women control over their bodies and their right to voluntarily interrupt a pregnancy. The only case in which an abortion is allowed is when a doctor decides that childbirth poses a threat to the woman's life.

In response, many women have been forced to seek clandestine abortions, often with deadly consequences.

A statement by feminist collective Las Comadres Púrpuras on June 20 noted that information compiled by the Safe Information Abortion hotline showed that close to 20% of maternal mortalities between 2001 and 2008 were related to abortions. In 2006 alone, almost half of the patients that the Concepción Palacios Maternity Hospital dealt with (4321 out of about 10,000) had attempted an abortion.

The hotline said it attends to about 450 calls a month from women, of which they estimate 65% go ahead with an abortion.

The current economic crisis has made the issue of legalising abortion all the more pressing, with the level of shortages of contraceptives reaching 80% at the end of 2016. The crisis in the health sector has also fuelled a rise in the number of infant and maternal mortalities in recent years.

Araña Feminista’s Daniela Inojosa told AVN that they plan to make sure this debate reaches the floor of the ANC. “We have to convince more than 300 constituent members that this is a public health issue, that poor women are the ones that are dying because the rich are able to pay for abortions. This is a problem of inequality, of allowing the gap in inequality between the rich and the poor to grow. We need to legislate so that this becomes a public policy of the state.”

“We are asking that they allow us to exercise our right to speak before the entire ANC,” Inojosa said, adding that the various organisations plan to protest outside the assembly again on June 28, and on the 28th day of each subsequent month until their voices are heard.

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