Gender in the Venezuelan Elections

What was the role of gender and women’s issues in the recent regional elections?
Venezuelanalysis.com spoke with Professor Alba Carosio, life-long
feminist and director of the Women’s Studies Center at the Central
University of Venezuela.

By James Suggett & Alba Carosio
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Last July, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) mandated that some candidate lists must be composed of half female and half male candidates in order to qualify for the November 23rd regional and local elections. What was the significance of this, and what was the role of gender and women’s issues in the elections? Venezuelanalysis.com spoke with Professor Alba Carosio, life-long feminist and director of the Women’s Studies Center at the Central University of Venezuela.

Alba Carosio, please explain the CNE’s rule about gender equality in candidacies, and describe its significance for these elections.

This issue of gender equality in candidacies has been discussed in women’s movements across the world and very intensely in Venezuela over this past year. A well-developed draft of an Organic Law for Gender Equity and Equality, which also contains the issue of candidacy equality, has been approved in first discussion in the National Assembly.

It is one of the principal concepts of contemporary feminism and 21st Century Feminism. Women have been struggling throughout different generations of rights. First, we fought against being completely invisibilized, against a situation of brutal oppression. Perhaps in many societies, like in Venezuela or in Europe, the fight against this type of oppression is no longer the top issue for 21st Century Feminism. Now, we want something beyond there not being any oppression. We want to participate in half of all decisions. Given that half of the people in society are women, the concept of candidate gender equality means equal participation of men and women under equal conditions, circumstances, and opportunities in all social decision-making. So, this concept is very important.

Moreover, it means not just a vindication of justice for women, but a broadening and enhancing of the democracy that we have today. When we talk about democracy, we have to define what class of democracy we are talking about. Greek democracy was a very restricted democracy. All people who had rights and access to citizenship had equal conditions and the same rights, but this was a greatly reduced number of people. In fact, women, slaves, children, etc. were not part of that democracy. In the same way, in our own Latin America, which has been a profoundly unequal society, democracy was restricted.

All these processes of change that are coming about and the shift toward socialism mean precisely the broadening of democracy, that democracy be really effective. It means democracy gives opportunities and proportions equal conditions for participation to men and women.

Several mechanisms to make this concept into reality have been worked out, and a first step is to achieve gender equality in the lists for political offices.

Can you explain those lists, please?

It refers to the political offices that are elected by political party list, and not by individual. This is the case for the state and municipal legislative councils, but not the governors and the mayors.

In this system, we vote for all the legislative candidates that appear on the list of one party. The percentage of the vote that each party receives is the percentage of the legislative council that will be occupied by that party’s candidates. If the PSUV received 60% of the vote, then the first 60% of the candidates from the top of the PSUV list will become legislators, and other parties will occupy the other seats, according to the percentage that they won.

Gender equality in all this means that on the lists, the candidates alternate woman, man, woman, man, woman, man, like that, so that when legislators are taken from the top of the list to fill seats in the councils, it comes out more or less equal, although not exact.

Within the electoral campaigns in these elections, what was the role of women? Were women subordinated into roles defined by gender? What type of culture of women’s participation is being created in Venezuela?

I would say that in Venezuela, at least in what we might call the forces of change, women have overcome the defined role of, for example, coffee server. This does not mean that women no longer serve coffee. Right now, we are in a stage in which women are the first to be considered for serving coffee, although sometimes men serve it, but the women also participate in discussions. The conditions are not equal, but women participate quite a lot in the discussions.

It has become politically incorrect, as you say in the United States, for a man at a meeting to say to a woman, “shut up and bring me a coffee.” With the great strength and charismatic leadership of President Chávez, who has declared himself a feminist, hard work has been done to combat large issues like violence against women. This issue has not been, perhaps, at the top of the political agenda, but it is penetrating people’s mentalities.

Women participate a lot, overall, in what has to do with social and local matters. We still have not made women’s specific issues a central concern of political campaigns and women’s movements. Although women’s participation has arrived, very important and relevant women’s issues, such as women’s health services and co-responsibility for domestic work and child rearing, have not arrived to political campaign agendas.

Women are considered primary actors, I would say, at the local level. They are in charge of perhaps even a bit too much of local responsibilities. It is very clear, one can see a broad participation of women, and nobody takes their right to participate away from them. Perhaps there are people who try to manipulate certain posts, such as for example the president of the council, which sometimes even the women prefer to be a man. But nobody can say that women are actually just there to serve and help and not participate.

But, what is still lacking is that the issues of importance to women be at the top of the agenda, so that their be gender justice and social equality. Issues like co-responsibility in care work, unemployment benefits for unemployed women or women who work in the home or take care of relatives. There are, of course, initiatives like the Mothers of the Neighborhood Mission, which are important, but issues such as reproductive and sexual rights must be worked on much more. They do not have the relevance or priority that they should have. In this campaign, given the great polarization that there was, they were not at the top of the list.

Can you deepen your analysis of the role of women’s issues in electoral campaign agendas?

Yes. I’m saying, they were on the agendas, but they were on the side. And there was a little bit of using, women being used. Used in the sense that women, because of their own historical education and the role the have had to play in society, women are more worried about social matters, human well-being, making sure basic services function, like water. Women are always very concerned about water and water is an issue that is very related to women, too.

So, at times there is a utilization of all this feminine strength to put it at the service of solving the everyday problems of the people. This can at times be very difficult because everyday life has its own very relevant laws. It is not bad in itself, but we forget that in order to solve these problems of everyday life, there must also be support for the women as people. We cannot demand without giving sufficient support. At times, women are burdened with a bit too much.

We are in a stage of recognizing all these strengths that women have. Now, we must make a leap toward recognizing and instead of using, supporting and promoting co-responsibility in all of society.

I am going to make it more concrete for you. For example, in many community councils, a broad majority of those who participate are women. So then, women come and take charge of organizing the Mercal, supporting the Barrio Adentro clinic, and struggle to keep the public cafeteria open. These are all social programs that offer support in everyday life and have to do with the everyday well-being of the people. They require an enormous quantity of management, and a huge proportion of this is done by women.

So then, what happens? Women have a triple workload: The workload in the home, the workload at work, and, let’s call it the social workload. This is very positive in the sense that it is the recognition of a great effort that women are making. But we should also give them support, right?

For example, there should be childcare as part of every community council. This would bring more co-responsibility. As it is, everyday tasks are handled by women, while the men take charge of the grand ideas, plans, and abstract revolution.

But revolution, day to day revolution, is the revolution that changes things. We reproduce in the social realm, in our local government organisms, what we have in the home. Nobody can be socialist in their community if they are not socialist in their homes.

An important issue in this election was crime and security. What role do women play in this problem and its solution, in the prevention of crime?

It is important to reflect on this issue, it is true. The vision of this administration and of this process toward greater social justice is focused on prevention. This does not mean that it has had all the success in the world because it hasn’t. But there is a focus on creating a life free of violence.

And we discover that insecurity attacks principally young males. When we look at the mortality rates between women and men, it is impressive. In 2006, 17% of deaths between 15-19 years of age were women, and 83% were males. For every woman dead, five males die. Six out of ten deaths of young males are violent, and 93% of the jail population is male.

Here, we certainly do have a problem that has to do with gender, not just with women. It has to do with masculine education. It is an education in Venezuela and many other parts of the world in which women are educated to care for others, to cultivate peace, and men are educated for violence and sexism. The way to demonstrate masculinity is violence, and a male cannot let himself be one-upped by another male because he loses his masculinity.

So, it is necessary that we attack this problem in the communities. It has to do with idleness and the attention we give to youth, and with equality in relationships and high school education.

The role that women can play is to mediate and transmit outward to our social surroundings these virtues of care and peace, so that these are not only associated with women but also with society.

But as long as women are the only ones who are doing this and there is no co-responsibility, we are always going to have more idleness in the male part of the population. As long as women remain overly busy and do not have free time, and men have more free time, violence will increase in the communities.

If more men are engaged in organizing Mercal, Barrio Adentro, and the public cafeterias, and they join the Misión Cultura and occupy themselves with cultural activities, there will be a decrease in violence.

Co-responsibility is a very important issue in all of these matters.

If in these elections there had been half female and half male candidates in all the races for governors, mayors, and legislative councils, what effect would this have had? Would women’s issues have been more on the political agendas, or are public offices too rigidly defined by masculine characteristics?

The fact that some women who participate in politics have certain masculine attitudes is logical. They have had the opportunity to arrive because they have certain strong characteristics, stronger than many men because they have had to struggle against and overcome a series of discriminations, at times declared and at times hidden.

But this is a symbolic matter. The fact that there are women participating in politics, in addition to being an issue of justice, in addition to being a demonstration of democracy, is also something symbolic.

A way to progress is to make what is most visible in society more equal, in the sense that you see, for example, and I have spoken to several women about this recently, in Chile and in Argentina, where there are female presidents, now little Chilean and Argentine girls can fantasize about being president. And this is a huge difference.

Before, if you were a girl in my generation, I come from the generation of the 1970s, we had an extremely limited experience with democracy, in books and in reality. What could we dream of being? Teachers, secretaries, but never president or legislator. So, it is very symbolic.

This does not mean that everybody who becomes a politician is the best; there are many who are bad. There are men who are bad politicians and men who are good politicians. There are women who are bad politicians and women who are good politicians.

But there is at times a perception that all women who enter politics should be very very good, that they should do everything well. This is where we see a lot of sexism, there is like an unequal standard of measurement.

There are women from the Right and from the Left. We have Cristina Kirchner, who is center-left, and we have Condoleezza Rice, who is on the right, and we have Sarah Palin, who is… UF! AY! She is scary, right? And there are also women and men who are on the Left.

It could be that women, because they have been historically more related to everyday life issues and children, and they give more importance to the affective aspects, are little by little allowing new issues to come into politics.

But first and foremost, this is a question of justice.

Tell me a little about the symbols of women that are used in Venezuela, positive or negative.

Without a doubt, a symbol of women in general and of the conduct of revolutionary women is Manuela Saenz, the lover of the Liberator [Simón Bolívar]. She gives us a symbol of how a revolutionary woman should be. She was a hardened, war-worn woman. She was never frightened. She was a free-thinking woman who did not feel tied to anything except her own convictions. Of course she also had a great affection and loyalty; not only did she fall in love with Bolívar, she was capable of dedicating everything. This symbol of Manuela Saenz has been a very recurring symbol for women.

In the office of the Ministry of Women’s Issues, they have posters of many prominent women in the history of Venezuela, and the majority of these women are warriors, women who fought in the Independence War and were captured and taken prisoner, etc.

They are called Las Avanzadoras [The Advancers] who not only accompanied the male soldiers but also fought. The most legendary is Manuela Saenz, but there are others, too. [Women’s Issues Minister] María León herself was a guerrilla.

In Venezuela there are other very prominent symbols of women, too. In the 1970s, the symbols of femininity were the Misses [of beauty pageants]. In fact, Venezuela was said to be the country with the most beautiful women in all of Latin America, that it was a country that produced Misses and this was our product for export.

It was said that Venezuelan women are so beautiful because they are a mixture of African, Indigenous, and white.

Moreover, Venezuelan women make themselves up a lot and they have been characterized as the women who consume the most beauty products, women of the beauty industry. In Venezuela there is a very powerful industry of plastic surgery and breast implants.

A constant search for perfect beauty has been cultivated in youth culture, and in the adults too. It has a lot to do with the publicity and the media and the dons of consumerism too. There is an obligation to be erotic and young and have perfect measurements, and not to sweat, or to only sweat erotically.

This has produced a very sexual, manufactured, perfected, and eroticized image of women’s beauty. This is a symbol of the Venezuelan woman.

Now, another type of space has been opened for another type of values. These values are not in line with the exclusive standards of bodily beauty set by the private establishment. In the face of this, we are constructing this other face. It is the face of the woman of the people, the working woman, the woman who has a lot to do, so she does not always have time to make herself up; the woman whose body does not answer to the dons of consumerism. The woman who occupies herself with her society, she appreciates herself as she is, as a Venezuelan. This symbol of women has been made very prominent by this government, and during these elections.

And Negra Matea, the black woman who nursed Simón Bolívar when he was a baby? The government has also promoted this as a symbol of women.

She is the symbol of the slave woman, the caretaker, the self-sacrificing woman, the woman who nurtures above all. She symbolizes the slave women who did so much for our Latin American nations, who cared for and fed so many children.

When people say that women did not work, well they must have been just a few, because the majority and especially the slaves worked a lot. The Negra Matea is a woman who feels vindicated in this child who, although he wasn’t her own, was like her own flesh. And she is another example of this other type of space and image of women that is being opened.

Can you describe the structure of the women’s movement in Venezuela, please?

The women’s movement is formed by various movements that are moving forward in parallel.

There is what we could call the popular branch, a popular movement of women that includes the women’s meeting points, those who participate in and benefit from INAMUJER, the women organizing in communities and community councils, the women who receive benefits from the Mothers of the Neighborhood Mission, and some women’s collectives. These are distinct groups of women that are obtaining different levels of organization and levels of consciousness. There are some with great consciousness, people who have been working with women for years and years, and there are others who are more incipient. But overall, they make up the popular sector of the women’s movement.

Then, there is what we could call the state structure. The Women’s Issues Ministry, the Women’s Bank, led by women who come from feminist movements from the past, and other groups of women who occupy various public offices and functions of the state, in the ministries, National Assembly, and governor’s and mayor’s offices. These are the democratic women who have been achieving gender equality in politics and who are occupying more and more of these positions.

In addition, there is feminism organized into non-government organizations (NGOs), which are women from the middle and upper-class sectors.

And finally, we have what we can call academic feminism, the universities and the women’s studies centers, who are trying to contribute some knowledge.

Amidst all this, cross-cutting it, are the militant women in political parties. We might call this another branch of the movement. Women from the four other branches that we have discussed participate in political parties. I would say that today, given the great politicization of Venezuela, the vast majority participate in some party.

To conclude, do you have any other thoughts about gender in the elections that you would like to share?

I come from the militant feminism of the 1970s, and I think that now an enormous opportunity is being opened. It is a situation of change in Venezuela and in Latin America that is very propitious for fulfilling women’s demands.

Now, also, we have to find the ways to do it, find within ourselves the ways to explain, influence, and participate, and there are things that we need to revise. Perhaps like never before we have all these opportunities open.

Also, we have taken some very bad steps backward. The issue of abortion is terribly stalled. It is incredible what just happened in Uruguay, that in the 21st Century a president takes the luxury of vetoing a fundamental demand of women that is supported by 60% of the population in a country that has always been free-thinking.

The horizon is open, but we cannot let our guard down.

Thank you very much for your time, Alba Carosio, I appreciate it very much.