Since 1992 the feminist organization Mujeres por la Vida [Women for Life] has been working out of what we now know as the Ataroa Commune in Barquisimeto, Lara state. The organization carries out popular feminist education and promotes anti-patriarchal communes. It also defends women’s sexual and reproductive rights and helps victims of machista violence. In this interview, we talk to Virginia Martínez, one of Mujeres por la Vida’s key organizers, about the patriarchal organization of Venezuelan society and the challenges her organization faces.
How does the patriarchal system express itself in Venezuela?
Patriarchy implies the reproduction of historically-imposed roles based on the oppression of women. Here, in what we now know as Venezuela, the patriarchal model came with the colony. Women are socially relegated to the private sphere, to the care of others, while men are expected to work in the public sphere.
This structure shapes every stage of our lives and all spaces of our society. It is a system of domination and control of women's bodies and wills.
To understand the organization of patriarchy in Venezuela, we should first understand that, regardless of class, caregiving is exclusively feminine. Additionally, most women in the popular sectors are single mothers: they don’t only take care of the household, but also have to assume the family’s economic maintenance.
It should also be noted that in Venezuela motherhood is a social obligation for women: it is unacceptable for a woman to decide not to have children. Women who are not mothers are judged and pushed aside by society. The woman-mother correlation is taught at an early age.
Finally, in addition to the feminization of social reproduction work, machismo also expresses itself through violence in Venezuela, as in any other patriarchal society.
The Bolivarian Process incorporated women into the political sphere, but it also delivered an additional responsibility to women: the care of the community. Do you agree?
This is correct. While the Bolivarian Revolution expanded women's political participation, which brought about much satisfaction and learning, it also doubled social reproduction work: now women must work, take care of their families, and care for the community [communal councils, CLAPs, etc., and other territorial organizations are mostly women’s organizations]. Our political participation came with an expansion of our social reproduction responsibilities.
The Defensoría Comunal de las Mujeres Juanita Ortega [Communal Women Defender’s Office] is a project of Mujeres por la Vida. Is this a self-managed project? How many women does it attend?
Mujeres por la Vida is committed to communal feminism. That is why we have been promoting communes and communal councils since around 2008. The Communal Council Law includes an interesting feature: the Committees for Women and Gender Equality. These committees gave us the opportunity to boost educational and training processes beyond our original sphere of action. They also allowed us to come together with women who share a popular feminist perspective.
From the Committees, we promote feminist communal economy and advocate the right of women to a life free from violence. We also give sexual and reproductive health workshops. In fact, we discovered the Committees as an appropriate space to empower women and to deal with cases of machista violence.
In 2015, we began a program promoting “defensoras comunales” [communal ombudswomen] as an offshoot of the Committees for Women and Gender Equality. The program prepares women to detect and accompany machista violence victims. That initiative, of course, required that we be trained in order to prepare women at the local level so that they, in turn, would become ombudswomen.
This is how the Defensoría Comunal de las Mujeres Juanita Ortega came to exist. In 2015, the Defensoría – which is an autonomous and self-managed space – began to operate in the Carucieña Hospital in Barquisimeto. The hospital is a strategic location since victims of household and obstetric violence go there.
In the beginning, we attended two to three women a week, but as our work became better known, more women came in for support, and now we receive some 50 women per week. There some receive psychological care, while others receive legal aid: we explain to them how to file a complaint or open a case through the Attorney General’s Office. In other words, we give them the tools they need to exercise their rights and demand justice. We often accompany them to the police station or the Attorney General’s Office.
We do this because it is common that those in charge of receiving complaints will not file them, and sometimes they will even “re-criminalize” the victims. Fortunately, along the way, we have met people who now listen to us, and some public authorities have improved their attention to the victims.
We have also built alliances with institutions to improve care for victims of machista violence. In fact, our accumulated experience helps us navigate these processes. Today, when a case of machista violence comes up, we can count on allies in public institutions, and that is very important.
However, our work at the Defensoría is not just about helping the victims; it is also a space for preventing machista violence. We offer education to the Committees for Women and Gender Equality, explaining patriarchy and the different ways in which violence against women may express itself.
The Defensoría is now a reference point for women in Lara state. When a woman faces machista violence, her neighbor or her friend will advise her to come to us. Or when there is a situation of obstetric violence in the hospital, someone locates us to accompany the victim.
Femicides are the most visible expression of machista violence. The Femicide Observatory ascertained that in 2020, 256 women were victims of femicides. That represents an increase of 53% compared to 2019. Among other factors, we could point to the increase in extreme poverty and the Covid-19 confinement. How do you explain the increase in femicides?
Indeed, machista violence is growing: confinement, the crisis, the economic blockade, all these are factors that increase violence.
We have seen a spike in machista violence at the Defensoría, although we haven’t had any femicides. We are sure that through our collective work, through legal and psychological attention, we have managed to save lives. We have had very complex cases that would have ended up in a femicide if we had not been able to intervene.
Another facet of the crisis is sexual trafficking and forced prostitution. This is a huge concern of ours, and it needs immediate attention from the authorities. No data is available regarding sexual trafficking and forced prostitution, but we know that the numbers are going up.
The data that we have is, as you mentioned, femicide data collected by the Femicide Monitor. Sometimes the Attorney General [Tarek William Saab] also releases numbers. The statistics are alarming and that is why a feminist emergency should be declared. We want to generate more educational spaces, but the state must act now in a speedy manner: we need a national campaign so that victims get attention and so that they understand the route to filing a legal complaint or a restraining order.
Most of the women who became victims of femicides considered filing a complaint, but the system is sexist so they did not find a channel to be heard. It is common that women will go to a police station, but if they are not bruised or bleeding, they will be sent back home.
In the meantime, we continue promoting conversations so that society does not interpret women as men’s property.
In recent years, there has been an increase in maternal mortality. Despite some institutional efforts – such as the Humanized Childbirth Plan – the lack of medical personnel and resources, as well as obstetric violence in maternity wards, continue to be a problem. You accompany pregnant women through their gestation period. What can you tell us about your work?
In 2015 and 2016 we began to see an increase in maternal deaths. The feminist movement worked to make this visible and demanded a response. That is when the Humanized Childbirth Plan was set in place. Some of the problems have been addressed, although many others remain.
When we saw the rise in maternal mortality, we went to Barquisimento’s Central Hospital, which is the largest maternity ward in the region, to investigate what was going on. What we saw is that many of the women who were admitted had precarious health conditions, suffered maternal malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, etc. Also, the crisis makes it difficult to obtain adequate contraceptive methods. At the time that we carried out the study, more than 70 percent of the women had had an unplanned pregnancy.
We found that many of the women only had one or two prenatal checkups because they didn’t have the money to go to the doctor or get the tests. In the crisis, women are putting their families before themselves.
Additionally, hospitals do not have the supplies they need. When a woman is about to give birth, she has to arrive at the maternity ward with all the necessary supplies: gloves, implements for a cesarean section should it be needed, etc. If a woman does not bring these supplies, she will not be allowed in or will not be properly cared for. That is why nowadays pregnant women acquire the supplies for childbirth during the course of their pregnancy.
Around 2016, we decided to accompany vulnerable and at-risk pregnant women. We help women get free appointments; we support them with some treatments and vitamin supplements; we help them jump through the hoops.
Additionally, the Defensoría provides free contraceptive methods. In fact, in the last quarter of 2020, there was a reduction in the number of births in the territory where we work. We believe that is in part due to our social work.
How many women do you attend on a weekly basis?
We place some 130 contraceptive methods [IUDs or intramuscular injections] a week at no charge.
La Morada is another Mujeres por la Vida initiative: a space for women's sexual and reproductive health. This is particularly important in a country under blockade and in crisis, where contraceptive methods are exorbitantly expensive, and where abortion is penalized.
La Morada is a center for sexual and reproductive care and justice, and it expands the work of the Defensoría.
La Morada is the result of an alliance between several women's organizations. We received the support of Todas Nosotras Violeta to condition a space belonging to the Ataroa Commune in Barquisimeto.
As in the Defensoría, in La Morada we distribute and place contraceptive methods free of charge. We also have a doctor who gives counsel to pregnant women. This is particularly important now because hospitals are not offering prenatal care since the beginning of the pandemic, as it is not a prioritized service.
The work in La Morada is intense, but it is beautiful and fruitful, and the word is spreading quickly.
We also accompany women who suffer machista violence, and we go to different communities to give talks, sometimes with the participation of as many as 250 people. With these conversations, we broaden our radius of action.
La Morada was attacked over a month ago. In the beginning it looked like just ordinary theft, but now things point to it having been a politically-driven crime. Can you tell us what happened?
On January 27 La Morada was broken into. They stole medical equipment, furniture, contraceptive methods, and medication. Obviously, this was a huge blow to us. The following day we filed a complaint and the police opened an investigation.
However, after the 27th, there were recurrent attempts to break into La Morada, so we had to set up nightly watches.
On the night of February 6, four men broke into La Morada during a blackout, but the police intercepted them. The most surprising thing is that these men came in with tear gas canisters, molotov cocktails, and gas masks. They were not just coming in to steal whatever was left, they were breaking in to harm us!
The men were captured on the spot. However, much to our surprise the Attorney General’s Office gave them house arrest, which basically means that they are now free!
Moreover, one week later, on a Friday, which is when many women come to La Morada, we were besieged by men trying to intimidate all of us. The police got involved, but the men were able to escape.
The pattern of behavior displayed by these thugs leads us to believe that the initial theft was not just a theft: there are political motives behind these actions.
Have the police or any other state authority given you further information?
One week ago, the authorities located some of the stolen goods and detained people allegedly connected with the events. Unfortunately, they did not give us any further information.
The attacks have come to a halt for now, but we are still on the alert. We have also received a lot of solidarity and support both from the local community and from friends abroad. We feel strong and more committed than ever to keep our doors open!
Indeed, your work is extraordinary! In Venezuela, abortion is criminalized and that puts the lives of women at risk. I understand that you also give advice to women about abortion.
In the perfect storm that combines the penalization of abortion with the economic crisis, many women are opting for unsafe methods to terminate their pregnancies. They also have to deal with mafioso sectors to acquire the pills.
While we don’t accompany terminations of pregnancy, we can offer confidential information about procedures that are publicly available, such as World Health Organization protocols. The information we provide is just that: information that can save the lives of women and ensure their freedom.
Needless to say, we are for the decriminalization of abortion. That is why we make the following slogan ours: "sexual education to decide, contraceptives to not abort, legal abortion not to die.”
As you mentioned before, Mujeres por la Vida is committed to popular and communal feminism. What does popular feminism mean to you?
We think feminism from within, from the grassroots, from the communes, from the spaces where popular power is built. That is why education and accompaniment are part of our daily militant work.
We work against the logic of patriarchy, and we think that in Venezuela we can win. Our feminist pedagogy aims to make visible what is latent in our society: from the internalized mechanisms that reproduce the patriarchal system at home to the institutional structures that bring machista domination full circle.
We do all this from below, in the communal council or in the commune, and in the barrio with the women who are most affected by the system. However, the problem must be attacked at the root. That is why we are constantly promoting educational spaces, spaces of encounter and debate, and spaces to build new relationships among ourselves.
We are committed to constructing an anti-patriarchal commune, which will emerge if collective work and feminist practices are set in place.