Feminist Struggles in Venezuela: An Interview With Comadres Púrpuras (Part II)

Feminist collective Comadres Purpuras takes stock of the evolution of women's rights under Chavismo and looks at the feminist struggles ahead.

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Comadres Púrpuras organized a public debate on abortion on September 25. (La Clase)
Comadres Púrpuras organized a public debate on abortion on September 25. (La Clase)
By La Clase
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This is the second installment of a two-part interview with the feminist collective Las Comadres Púrpuras (Purple Comrades or Purple Sorority), conducted by leftist news outlet La Clase (Class). The first part was dedicated to concepts such as patriarchy, machismo, feminism and sorority, as well as taking a look at the causes of patriarchy in Venezuela. In this second part, the focus is on the struggles of Venezuelan women during the Chavista period since 1999, the “institutionalization” of feminism, and the challenges ahead.

What is your assessment of the situation of women in the Chavista period of Venezuela?

Well, going back to the beginning of Chavismo [with the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998], the constituent process of 1999 [which re-wrote the constitution] in particular was a very important moment in the history of Venezuela because it managed to involve all of the country’s sectors and a plurality of visions in the draft of a new constitution. This new constitution included the protagonist participation of the people as one of the fundamental rights. At this point, different female collectives, independently of their political tendency, took part in the process. This was very important because it was a point of unity among feminist groups.

I would not go as far as saying that there exists a feminist movement in Venezuela. These different experiences of Venezuelan women who contributed to the drafting of the magna carta to express women’s rights was a tremendous opportunity to bring us together because everyone’s goal was the same: the struggle for women’s rights.

During the period of Chavismo, an interesting situation has arisen. Since women as a social force were not organized in a movement, Hugo Chavez ended up calling for women’s marches.

Now, years later, we ask ourselves: how is it that a leader, a man, is the one calling for women’s marches, how is it that women are not doing this themselves. At the time, the youngest among us realized it, but this is an important discussion point regarding the experience of women’s groups.

During the Chavista period, with the emergence of new ministries and the extension of labor rights to young people, we at the Comadres Púrpuras believe that a significant number of young women ended up being co-opted [into the State apparatus]. This ended up creating an institutional feminism, feminism was institutionalized. Then, instead of an organized struggle for women’s rights, what happened was an organization of young women in different posts that worked only for the mobilizations called by Chavez. We are of the opinion that these young women brought on-board by the government simply march and applaud, but in reality there is no coming together of women to fight for their rights.

Nevertheless, with the creation of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, which had María León as its first minister, and then of the Institute for Women, a number of important policies were developed, such as care for women with breast cancer. This was a health issue that received little attention in Venezuela. Other issues included care for women with disabilities and the creation of courts for violence against women, which was a historic feat since not all countries have special courts dedicated to this issue. Finally there is the Organic Law on the Rights of Women to a Life Free From Violence, a document with a lot of advances since it now contains definitions of 21 types of violence against women, something which, again, is not found in most countries.

There were advances in matters of women’s protection, but as the current political process went on there was decline in these policies. Furthermore, there was initial enthusiasm in the juridical and political spheres [concerning these advances] but then no follow up, and the enthusiasm was lost along the way. Additionally, I want to point out that there was a destruction of the Women's’ Bank, which was a policy headed by professor Nora Castañeda, an important Venezuelan economist. This bank developed policies of socio-productive support for women, and is now in tatters, nobody even talks about it.

From this institutionalized and bureaucratic feminism there have been no policies or attempts to deconstruct the patriarchy that exists in day-to-day relations between men and women, as well as between the state and women.

I think our Chavismo had important moments and challenges, but also many shortcomings, among them the organization of marches that followed media interest and did not develop a deep reflection about the situation of women. In many marches on March 8, International Working Women’s Day, we saw no time dedicated for reflection on the labor rights of Venezuelan women, just slogans and music. There were never spaces to analyze if it was worth celebrating International Working Women’s Day when there were still so many labor rights to fight for, and we are in the same situation now.

I believe that, from institutionalized feminism, what took place was an entrenchment of patriarchy, and of the relations of power of men over women, and of women in positions of power of over other women. Patriarchy is more entrenched than ever, and the institutionalized women’s groups have only followed the directions from the government and the ruling party. In Venezuela there is a significant fusion between the government and the [ruling] party, and many of the women in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have not reflected about that.

What is the current reality and what are the demands of the feminist movement in Venezuela?

I cannot point to a specific moment in time, but we know that there was a breakdown of Chavismo as a movement, and people that previously identified with it no longer do so.

Therefore, there are three realities when it comes to women’s collectives: firstly those that remains tied to government interests and follows these interests all the time, with no right to question them. These groups are capable of going on delaying the feminist agenda on sexual and reproductive rights, including our decision over our own bodies, the voluntary termination of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, that is to say, abortion. These women do not even recognize the work of comrades such as Nora Castañeda in the Women's’ Bank, nor are they organizing younger women for the struggles ahead.

Secondly, there are other women’s groups who sympathize with the right wing, either the MUD or the Broad Front [re-named opposition coalition].

And finally, there is another kind of women’s groups, with pretty autonomous experiences and which are organizing in this space of constant denunciation and reflection on the situation of Venezuelan women. The Comadres Púrpuras are one of these autonomous, alternative groupings.

For the concerns of Venezuelan feminists, we have been fighting to open up the debate on the de-criminalization of abortion for many years. We know this cannot happen overnight, but at the same time the government is hardly opening up the possibility of debate at an institutional level. Now, in the bases, we certainly have the responsibility to open the discussion in society, and we are doing it little by little. It is not easy with the current economic and transportation problems which stop us from articulating among different regions, but technology has allowed for communication through social media.

We know that the grassroots have responsibilities, but state policies should also be enforced. We are in a twenty year-old political process with plenty of announcements but very little fruition of policies. That is why we insist that, with the de-criminalization of abortion, women will become citizens on a par with men, because as long as others decide over our bodies and maternity, we are supervised citizens.

Another demand is the access to different contraceptive methods, in which men should also take part so that they take responsibility for their sexuality and the responsibility does not fall squarely on women’s bodies. There should also be a variety of methods made available, because not all women work with the same methods, we are all equal in the struggle but not biologically.

Furthermore, we demand an awareness campaign on women’s rights in all state institutions, especially courts and the Prosecutor’s office, which currently have their backs turned towards women which suffer from violence. Not even complaints are being received, they are not doing their job and this is what we demand. The government should develop, promptly, an awareness plan for these institutions that tend to women that are victims of violence, because in truth what they are doing is doubly victimizing and blaming the women who suffer from violence.

Two years ago the sexual and reproductive rights plan was created, so let this plan be put into practice, ensuring better access to healthcare for women. Currently, we have absolute precariousness in the healthcare system, worse still in the places dedicated to women’s healthcare, like gynecology or obstetrics. We could also have a more extremist demand and ask that all those that do not fulfil their duty resign from their posts.

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“Abortion is not a crime. It is a right,” reads a banner held by Comadres Púrpuras in a demonstration. (La Clase)
“Abortion is not a crime. It is a right,” reads a banner held by Comadres Púrpuras in a demonstration. (La Clase)

Can the state guarantee a life free from violence against women or is it an actor that inflicts violence on women?

This is a contradiction and it speaks of the precariousness that Venezuelan society, and women in particular, find themselves in.

The state should certainly guarantee women’s rights and generate policies to protect women. But since these policies are not effectively implemented and there is no follow up or updating of the policies to adapt them to current needs, then the state is not doing its job and securing our right to life, to maternity (for those who wish it), and for those who are mothers, their children are not assured the right to education, healthcare, and food. This is a violation of human rights that is taking place in Venezuela.

As such, the state emerges as a violator of women’s rights, and the women inside the government are not fighting or demanding that protectory policies be applied. This makes them accomplices of the patriarchal violence inflicted by the state upon women. Silvia Federici and Rita Segato claim that the state is the main controller of men’s and women’s bodies. Michel Foucault also says describes it as the disciplining of bodies by repressive apparatuses. We believe that women’s bodies are really the place where violence is felt, not just the mind, even though psychological violence is very destructive.

Moreover, there are other kinds of violence, such as obstetric, which takes place in a public or private healthcare facility with the state as the executor or an accomplice due to a lack of supervision. Obstetric violence is realized by healthcare personnel against women who are pregnant, in post-birth, during an abortion or gynecological consultation. This is on the rise in Venezuela. Also, if the state does not guarantee the right to food, which is as basic as it gets, that is also a violation of the human rights of women.

It is clear that the state is guaranteeing less and less of the rights of Venezuelans. There is a weakening, a demobilization of popular power. In the experiences with more autonomy, such as the El Maizal Commune [in Lara state], you can see what they have gone through. They chose a leader to run for mayor, and weeks later, out of the blue, part of their crop was burned. There is an important demobilization of popular power, and consequently of women as well.

Women know that they were incorporated under the government of Hugo Chavez. It is not that they were totally absent before, as women took part in urban guerrillas, for example, but certainly Chavismo’s heyday allowed women to get involved in everything that had to do with communal councils. I think this is no longer so much the case, and this is because the current government is demobilizing us through bonuses and the [Local Supply and Production Committee] CLAP box. This is what is determining our life, alongside factors like transport problems which also stops us from articulating better.

There is also a process of militarization of the state, not just in military institutions but also civil ones. On the streets we see more security forces than ever, not just regular ones but also Sebin [intelligence services] and Faes [special forces] with hoods. We had never seen this as a society. The worst we had seen were the “pantaneros” of the Metropolitan Police [special group that used raids to kill social leaders], who nevertheless did not wear hoods. What we have now are intimidating figures which look to demobilize us through fear and terror, with those horrible masks.

This comes alongside the government’s policy of generating dependency through handouts. While it is true that the Madres del Barrio program [Neighborhood Mothers] was initially a policy to try and generate development for the worst off women, the poorest ones, and help them in their emancipation, we know how it turned out, generating greater dependence on state handouts. I do not want to disregard some of the experiences of Madres del Barrio, which have generated small socio-productive companies, but these projects have had no long term support. This means the policy was not effective, and the handout-policy was consolidated. These handouts are ever more present to generate dependence and demobilize, ultimately forcing us to lose autonomy. From handout to handout, the overall policy is of appeasement through projects such as the [massive and contentious mining project] the Orinoco Mining Arc.

Which currents of thought, or feminist authors, guide your actions as a collective?

We have several authors and feminist currents as references. It is true that there are different feminisms, whose main logic is to eradicate, overthrow and deconstruct patriarchy and machismo. This as an ultimate goal.

But there are different fronts in this struggle. There is the indigenous feminism, black feminism, trans feminism, which connects to the struggles of sexually diverse people, academic feminism and popular feminism. We try to give a voice to all these feminisms, but our pulpit is the city, and furthermore we are university educated.

Therefore there are many comrades that we study: Amelia Varcárcel is important to understand patriarchy, as are Marcela Lagarde, Silvia Federici and Rita Segato, who is kind of our guide at the moment. Martha Lamas, Francesca Gargallo, Andrea D’Atri from Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) in Argentina, are other references. But also in Venezuela there are feminists that have made important contributions, such as Gioconda Espina, Nora Castañeda, Alba Carosio, Argelia Laya, and all the comrades from the Center for Women’s Studies in the Central University of Venezuela (UCV).

Translated by Ricardo Vaz for Venezuelanalysis.com