Women the heart of Venezuela’s revolution

October 19, 2017
Committee and commune leader Elvira Dorante. Photo: Jonathan Chai-Chang Azterbaum

One of the most important aspects of Venezuela’s pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution has been its promotion of women's empowerment through community organisation.

To get a sense of how this grassroots process of community organising is developing and the role women are playing in the process, we visited the Ataroa and Lomas de Leon communes as part of the Venezuela Analysis international solidarity delegation in late August.

We were welcomed to the Ataroa commune by Adela Rojas, a social worker and health organiser in the commune. Rojas is part of the commune’s women's committee and a parliamentarian in the Ataroa Commune.

A common feature of community organising in Venezuela is the large presence of women in leadership positions.

We met Rojas as she was on her way to the Caruciena Hospital, which was set up by the commune.

Popular power

Rojas explained there are five laws dealing with popular power, including a law on communes, the new communal economy and a law on social oversight or audit.

“These laws allowed us to make decisions that meet our needs. It is no longer the elites or the bourgeoisie making decisions, now it is students, farmers, homemakers, ordinary people” who are making the decisions, she said.

The social missions, which were an initiative of the Venezuelan government and which seek to provide people with access to basic services such as education and healthcare, are located in the poorest communities so that the people who need them most have access to these services, said Rojas.

We also met with activists from the women’s and gender equality committee of the Lomas de Leon Commune.

Committee and commune leader Elvira Dorante told us: “Most participants in the group are women. Men have to accept and respect women’s space. The way we treat each other in this space is the model for how we should always treat each other.

“Feminism is at the heart of the social missions; they are based on solidarity, respect and seek an understanding of the meaning of equal status.

Women’s organising is carried out in harmony, learning from each other and in conjunction with creating self-sustaining productive systems, said Dorante.

“Here, we produce tomato sauce, artisanal soap, fried green plantain chips, sweets and liquid soap, and run a communal savings fund.” One companera (woman comrade) helps facilitate a recycling initiative within the commune to collect plastics, added Dorante.

Article 88 of the Venezuelan constitution enshrines the right of housewives to receive a monetary payment in recognition of the domestic work they carry out in the home.

“Women here have committed funds from their payment to a communal savings account dedicated to the production of tomato sauce”, Dorante said.

Gender violence

Dorante told us: “We view patriarchy, not from a theoretical point of view, but from an understanding of our experiences of gender-based violence and realising it has been normalised, for example, through obstetric violence from doctors who abuse us, with slaps, crude language, medically enforcing labour when the mother does not want it, etc.

“Lack of consciousness normalises abuse, so that even the cleaning staff perpetuate it. There is non-stop violence around us, including music, children’s stories, etc.”

The women’s and gender equality committee holds an open meeting to listen to other women every Thursday. About 20-30 women attend these meetings. They also discuss upcoming activities and political themes.

When they needed a meeting room to ensure privacy, President Nicolas Maduro gave them building materials for an office. The local community built the meeting room.

Dorante said: “Before, we could not speak in depth about what was going on in our lives. One current weakness is that with all the revolution has done in terms of increasing women’s responsibility and engagement, it means we have put aside our personal needs and left behind our private spaces ... the lack of private space does nothing to help our capacity to develop.”

Venezuela’s gender-based violence law is among the most advanced in the world. It recognises 21 different types of violence, including psychological, physical, obstetric, harassment, media and symbolic representation of violence.

Police are still not up-to-date on laws, so other women generally accompany an abused woman when making a report and complaint. Despite the law, the process is very slow – misogynist police often give women the run around and put the blame on them.

On dealing with domestic violence, Dorante said: “We talk to women who may be abused, allow her to disclose it in her own time; we build up a relationship. Women come to us, through connections to the community council, through word of mouth or from individual encouragement from friends.

“In cases where there is a known or suspected case of abuse, one of us will approach her and introduce ourselves as a spokesperson for the committee and say, ‘I’m here because we’re doing a census’, and the conversation unfolds from there.

“We investigate the level and kind of violence, but work with the situation at hand; we talk among ourselves about how to approach each individual case. Companera Reina and others serve as safe houses. If one of us is being abused, Elvira is our community’s link to a feminist network, the Movement of Women for Life.

“Psychological support for abused women comes from the Centre for Women’s Services, the Centre of Attention to Women. The Centre is not as readily available as it should be, and each group has its own ways of healing.

“Although we have no hard data, we have noticed powerful changes. In the community council, women speak up; it used to be only men before. They are not afraid to speak about reproductive health in assemblies or to make proposals.”

Abortion rights

Dorante said: “With respect to the issue of abortion, we address it in all spaces. In Venezuela, abortion is illegal under all circumstances. The current situation where we have no access to contraception, especially since 2015 due to the fraudulent actions of pharmaceutical companies, has made us have to confront this issue even more.

“We have seen abortion occur in places where we’d never imagined they would occur. Given the current blockades on contraception and medicine, abortion is both much more common and more dangerous.

“Our hospital is small, but we see five to seven women daily in the process of going through an abortion or looking for Plan B.”

“These days, there is no limit to the age at which women get pregnant, from 12 to 50 years old, which means even higher health risks. Health risks to women are compounded by lack of access to contraceptives,” said Dorante.

Decriminalising abortion is “one of the biggest debts owed by the revolution to women.”

Dorante emphasised the question of vasectomies as the preferred birth control for women, as they are always the ones stressing about birth control and unplanned pregnancies.

Virginia Martinez, an activist with the Movement of Women for Life, spoke to us about the struggle to decriminalise abortion: “The leaders of the revolution have said they will not speak about abortion, and it is prohibited to do so in the National Assembly.

“But we are not a political party, so we have debated it and presented a proposal to the National Constituent Assembly,” which was elected on July 30 and entrusted with coming up with proposed reforms to Venezuela’s existing constitution.

“The Plan for Humane Childbirth we are working on is a result of what we have seen in the Caruciena Hospital here in Lara state, through the work of our allies in the revolution.

“Before, we had the Plan for a Safe and Happy Maternity, but the idea of a wanted child meant the subject of abortion had to be broached, as did the lack of care during pregnancy and the public health issue of women dying due to unsafe abortion.”

A survey of 35-40 women preparing to give birth at the biggest hospital in Lara was recently carried out and the majority said that their contraception failed or that they did not have access to contraception; that they did not want to be pregnant; or that they went through with the pregnancy because their partner wanted it.

The survey found that 70% of pregnant women did not plan or want to be pregnant.

The Plan for Humane Childbirth involves a worker or advocate who supports more than 50 women and provides them with everything required for a safe and healthy pregnancy. It is being carried out in partnership with the Ministry of Popular Power for Woman and Gender Equality.

Asked what feminism has to do with socialism, Martinez said: “It’s what [late president Hugo] Chavez always talked about, and it would be a contradiction and barbaric to create socialism – in a society where the majority are women – without feminism.

“Sisterhood is subversive”, said Martinez, “it’s the first enemy of patriarchy and the first line of trust or defence for women.”

“Change has been slow, but women have gone from not recognising violence as such, to defending their rights”.

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