Coloring Venezuela’s Gender Debate

With the passing of the new Venezuelan Constitution of 1999, women’s groups applauded that a long fought battle for legal gender equality was won. However, the war for practical equality is still being waged, and the way in which it is most effective to wage it, is far from clear.

With the passing of the new Venezuelan Constitution of 1999, women’s groups applauded a long fought battle that ended, and began, with the recognition of equality, a pension for housewives, and gender inclusive language.  Held up by human rights groups, women’s rights organizations, and feminists as one of the most advanced constitutions in the world, in terms of its gender vision, the Constitution recognized the rights of Venezuelan women as equals with their male counterparts in the framework of the law and promised to “adopt positive measures in favor of persons or groups,” such as women, “that are discriminated, marginalized or vulnerable.”

While the battle for legal equality was won, the war for practical equality is still being waged, and the way in which it is most effective to wage it, is far from clear. 

Only eighteen of the one hundred sixty five National Assembly Deputies, or about 11% are women.  Only two out of twenty three governors are women (8.7%) and only 20 out of a total of 335 mayors are women, a mere 5.97%.  In fact, according to data produced by the National Electoral Council, women only hold a total of 10.06% of all publicly elected offices and the majority of female representation is concentrated in the individual state legislative bodies.

While discrimination cannot, of course, be eradicated overnight, these statistics and Venezuelan reality suggest that even legal equality seems but a façade, hollow words, an empty promise, an ideal achieved only on paper. 

In recognition of this explicit incongruity, the National Electoral Council (CNE) passed a resolution on April 1, 2005 that legally obliges all political parties to run an equal number of men and women to any deliberating body. In spite of the fact that the CNE lacks a legal mechanism to hold parties to this standard, the newly created “Unified Command of Women for Unity and Parity” has the role of processing the complaints of excluded women and of taking their cases before the Supreme Court of Justice to ensure that their rights are upheld.

Such a measure is applauded by Vargas City Council Member Gladys García. At the age of fourteen, García became active in the political party Movement towards Socialism (MAS).  Today, thirty years later, she speaks of how her battle consisted more of defeating male members of her own party than of convincing the people of Vargas that she was qualified to hold her first pubic office,.  Male dominance and power continues to reverberate throughout each and every political and non-political organization, leaving no socio-economic strata untouched.  For García, the CNE resolution opens the door to power for females who would otherwise be excluded.

Yet the resolution has others, such as National Assembly Deputy Liliana Hernández (Justice First), questioning exactly how feasible and effective it is to devote resources and energy to addressing female exclusion through political measures, and indefinitely pushing what she considers to be the principal causes, such as social environment and living conditions, to the backburner. Hernández contends that the CNE resolution is a measured victory because discrimination is not limited to the political sphere. “There are women in high positions of power and they have not pushed forward reforms or changes that have improved the living conditions of women… As long as structural problems remain unresolved, such as poverty, unemployment, social security and drop out rates, women will always be marginalized and will not have the ability to participate,” Hernández cautions.

The government’s response to an increasingly vocal gender studies debate has largely been to pump out legislation recognizing (or declaring) gender equality. The Director of the Center of Women’s studies at Venezuela’s Central University, Magdalena Valdivieso believes that it is essential for governments to acknowledge the marginalization of underrepresented groups and to adopt measures that favor them. “Over half of the population is female and supposedly the composition of the political class should mirror society.  However, this is not what occurs in practice.  [Women] have obtained the highest level in university instruction, have prepared themselves, have done the work at the base of the parties and even still have not achieved access to power. What else do women have to conquer?” she asks.

According to Valdivieso, advances in gender equality thus far have been limited to the ratification of equal opportunities and conditions for women to run for office. A solid legal framework recognizing women’s rights and equality is undoubtedly an indispensable foundation, but women’ rights groups must be wary of affirmative action limited to the political realm due to the fact that it speaks nothing of the support, financial or otherwise, that a party should give its candidates.  While it is certainly not time to throw in the towel and disregard this strategy, it is imperative to recognize that in essence gender inequality must be defined as a holistic problem:  social, cultural, economic and political, and it must be tackled as such. 

A necessary complement to legislation would be to address both men’s and women’s attitudes and behaviors, attacking inequality not only from a top-down strategy but also from the bottom-up. The Bolivarian Revolution has already taken on some initiatives, albeit in a limited form.   The gender inclusive language of the Constitution recognizes women as human beings;the National Institute for Women is raising awareness of women’s issues; and the Women’s Bank is empowering women through microcredits and workshops. However, as recognized in the General Comment 28 Human Rights Committee, “inequality in the enjoyment of rights by women throughout the world is deeply embedded in tradition, history and culture, including religious attitudes…”  Indeed, gender perspective, or lack there of, is reflected in all aspects of life.  How you walk, write, think, work, interact –all reflect perspectives of gender. 

Thus it becomes apparent that the nascent Article 9 of the Law for Equal Opportunities for Women, which obliges the Education Ministry to “incorporate new teaching methods from preschool onwards, oriented to modify socio-cultural norms of the behavior of boys and girls” is perhaps the most effective weapon in the war for equality.  Article 9 entails an approach that revolves around tearing down the traditional educational parameters and wiping out the hidden curriculum (validated by society and culture) in schools that teach gender roles and seek to maintain the gender status quo. By transforming the educational curriculum, teacher training, and the revision of textbooks, from preschool onwards, prejudices, behavior patterns, and traditional stereotypes of women will be eradicated and the analytical lenses through which we look at gender roles and identities will be forever altered.  In other words, instead of a band-aid at the age of forty, the Bolivarian Revolution is dispensing the vaccine at the age of four. 

Yet political parity continues to stand at the forefront as a means to measure advancement of women’s rights. While a 50-50 representation in all political bodies would be an achievement in and of itself, the bottom line is that if a society is truly gender blind, the focus for measuring progress in women’ rights would shift from percentages to cultural factors.  In this framework, a woman would not ask herself if she is acting submissively or aggressively, if her pants are too tight or her skirt is too short, if it is too dangerous to walk in x neighborhood at midnight, or if it was her fault that a man raped her. Rather, she would be free of such considerations and what counted would be her equal opportunity in all realms.

The world needs to find a way to learn to take pride in the differences between blue and pink while simultaneously looking at them in grayscale.  While legislation is an important start, it is just that, a start.  Political change, for it to be lasting, will have to be complimented by economic, social and cultural change – a holistic approach for a holistic problem.