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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.
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.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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