The Meridenian Institute for Women and the Family is part of a national network of such institutions called into being by the 1998 law on violence against women and the family. They are tasked with helping protect women and children from abuse, challenging sexist gender stereotypes, and, in effect breaking the "Machista" elements of Venezuelan culture. They have expanded to incorporate a number of innovative initiatives such as Madres del Barrio (Mothers of the Slum), Mision Amas de Casa (Mission House Wife), and BANMUJER (the Women's bank). The following interviews were conducted with two of its members.
Jenny Marl Torres, Vice President of the Meridenian Institute for Women and the Family
Could you please tell me a bit about the history of this institution?
"It was born of a national level initiative in relation with the creation of the state level Institute of Lawyers for the Defence of the Rights of Women. In 1999 the equal opportunities law was passed, its roots led to the creation of the first law contra violence against women. It was a law against interfamilial violence, not specifically a gender law. This law was modified and so an organic law was passed on the Rights of Women Against Violence. This latter law called for the creation of institutions at all levels of state, in Merida this came into being in 2005. It was created to achieve gender equality through policy and defend the rights of women.
The institution has two central functions. The first is legal assessment of domestic problems. These problems then sometimes convert into denunciations because often women come to realise that it is not just a circumstantial problem, but something worse. The law says that there are no acts of conciliation, women can fear for their physical or psychological integrity and in such cases are obligated to denounce its source. We have to push this process. We then have a relationship with the police via which we report the denunciations. The intention is not separation of husbands and wives, but to ensure, always, that the women, the victims of domestic violence understand that denunciation is a means of protection for her and her family and that after it abusers are sent to courses with the intention of reuniting and not dividing families. We don't want a war between men and women, but to work with prevention and rehabilitation to achieve social justice, these two are largely to be achieved through education and this is our second central function.
Our culture won't change overnight, its really embedded and regressive. Merida is an extremely rural state and here the culture is yet more regressive, yet more deeply embedded. Patriarchy is incredibly well established. With a woman from a rural zone, who lives 8 hours from the towns, who has spent her entire life in a patriarchal environment which stresses obedience to one's spouse, and who doesn't know equality it is extremely difficult to explain that she has rights, that there are laws defend her. It's even harder to explain this to the men! That his wife should have the same opportunities as he."
So if knowledge is unequally distributed is the problem of domestic violence unequally divided as well? Is the problem worse in the Venezuelan countryside?
"The thing is we can't really answer this type of question. The problem of domestic abuse has been made invisible. If you know that in the house of your neighbours there are such problems, in general you won't denounce it, nor will the victim, and this contributes to making the problem invisible. And, when no one denounces it, it is virtually impossible to say that the violence is worse in the countryside or the city. It is known world wide that gendered violence doesn't have a social class, it can be found in upper, lower and middle class. This is because it is a problem of power inequalities, and of cultural traditions."
How many denunciations do you receive?
"In 2008 we received 231 denunciations, in this institution alone. We also performed 1019 legal assessments. We calculate that the number of people helped, via all these programs in addition to the channels of prevention is 5051."
How many successful prosecutions came from the 231 denunciations?
"Well we don't do the prosecution, we can only send on the denunciations on to the security institutions, the police, the public prosecutor, so we don't have those statistics."
I have heard that there is a lack of knowledge about gender violence among the police, does this create problems?
"Its not really a problem of knowledge, that exists. The problem is that of mentality, the right mentality simply doesn't exist in some public officials. We have problems with this, that police have ignored denunciations, that police have made fun of at women denouncing their spouses, that police have interrogated women about why they are doing it. Each official has to change, has to take responsibility."
So what are the main challenges you face in your functions?
"Well our aim of lowering the levels of violence require the cooperation of a number of institutions, it's a challenge for the police, it's a challenge for the municipal authorities, it's a challenge for the educational system, it's a challenge health system, it's a challenge for drug and alcohol control. Achieving this coordination of each institution in its proper environment, to eradicate this problem, is a major challenge."
So the purpose of this institution is to directly confront the problem of domestic abuse?
"Well that's a part, the violence, lowering it via a number of ways. But there is also the other part, to help women to stop extending this violence, by changing the social environment. We work with other social institutions, look a major problem which stops denunciations in relation to violence is economic dependence. So, we direct women to the relevant Mission and institutions which can help them achieve economic independence and break the circle of violence."
You said a root of the problem is the inequality of power in the home and that this situation has causes: material and cultural; which is the priority in equalising power relations in the home?
"It's a thing of cases. In lots of cases you find a professional woman earning enough to be independent and yet permits violence to be perpetrated against her. Here it's not about economic factors, it's about emotional dependence and cultural factors which shout that one must maintain one's marriage. I know cases of mothers who tell their daughters to stay with abusive husbands to maintain their relationships. It can also be a question of fear, where abusers say if you denounce me I'll kill you. So fear, cultural factors and economic factors all play a role, though this differs in different cases."
The community councils seem to me to offer a unique opportunity to combat gender violence given their position between public and private spheres (they are legally recognised organisations of up to 200 families which have become the focus of a micro level developmental projects). What do you make of this opportunity and what are you doing to take advantage of it?
"Its interesting that you bring this up. We here in Merida state are actually pioneers, beginning last year we started to combat gender violence by combining the Law for the Defence of Women's Rights and the Law of the Community Councils. We've started to create in the council Committees for the Defence of Women's Rights. We've even taken this proposal to the minister.
So, what is the vision? If a Community Council has a Committee which finds a case of domestic abuse what does it do?
"The first thing is to give a primary care to the victim. The law on the Rights of the Woman explains that the Community Councils are capable, legitimate, and obligated to carry out denunciations in cases of domestic abuse. So the members of the committee have a duty to report it to us, the competent institution. This is the procedure when there is a victim, but the intention isn't only to deal with the fact (of abuse) but prevent its occurrence. It's to avoid the situation where there is a victim. How is this achieved? Speeches, conferences, work through the means of communication and community work, doing everything to prevent its occurrence. 20 people work in this institute for a state of almost 900,000 people, comprehensive prevention work by us is difficult but not impossible."
How many of these committees currently exist?
"For now, only 15, but then we started late last year. We have to find out about when the Community Councils meet, present the proposal, etc. and it can be a slow process."
Could these changes not move very quickly? By modifying the law for the Community Councils?
"Well Yes. A clause in the law actually contemplates this, saying that in each council a committee should exist for each necessity of its respective community; health, education, sport, and, "Whatever other necessities found in the community".
So, the battle seems to be waged on a number of fronts: prevention, denunciation and prosecution. What are you doing to win the third, if as you say a barrier to effective defence of women's rights is the mentality regarding gender violence among the police?
"Formation. It's about formation via education. Education of officials in the police, in the health system as well. That's an important point, because sometimes when a woman turns up at the local clinic beaten and broken the doctors don't denounce the violence, even though the law says that they're obligated to do so."
Ok, to move onto a different matter, what do you believe are the key feminine symbols in Venezuela?
"I don't really know what you mean, symbols?"
Well, for example, one thing I've encountered in Venezuela as a foreign man is that a huge number of Venezuelan men boast of the beauty of "their women", so the symbol of the beautiful white Venezuelan woman seems to be a culturally important symbol.
"But that's not bad! Being beautiful isn't wrong. That's what we do as women, the image of the woman is beauty. Now, this can be bad when this is deployed to other ends, but I love it that we are recognised throughout the world as beautiful women. But also I like that they'd say that the Venezuelan women are more than beautiful, but are intelligent."
So, two questions. First do you not think that these beauty standards imply an objectification of Venezuelan women by men? Second, do you not believe that there are links between these standards of beauty and the proliferation of eating problems among Venezuelan women?
"Well, the marks of beauty, recognised worldwide because of the contests, of Venezuelan women do have some links to health problems. But I repeat, that they say that the Venezuelan woman is beautiful, is not something bad. It is only bad when accompanied by the statement that she is also stupid."
So you don't think the contests you mentioned represent an objectification in themselves?
"Well, the contests are contests. What percentage of women enter the contests that are recognised worldwide? Very few, very few indeed." em>But contests are held in every school and every mall in the country.
"Yes, there are contests, it's a fact. Last year we put out programs through the radio touching on this theme."
So do you believe that they are bad things?
"The thing is that the beauty has to be integral. Beauty is integral. It is in this respect that we need a paradigm shift. Beauty shouldn't just be physical, it depends on your understanding of beauty."
You don't think that here in Venezuela, now, there is a problem with the concept of beauty used? That it represents an objectification?
"Yes. When beauty is something purely physical yes. It is a perversion of the beauty of the Venezuelan woman. Developing an integral beauty is about education, is about participation, is about culture. It's about being more than pretty, I mean that's no bad thing but we are much more. We are mothers, sisters, partners, workers, fighters, it is across these spheres that we develop an integral beauty. And this idea comes from the constitution, the first to use both genders to describe each public office (Presidente y Presidenta), that the woman is more than a domestic creature having children, cleaning the home, making food, and washing dishes. The country needs this kind of integrated woman.
In addition we have begun to recognise the importance of the domestic work of women, that it is work just as any other, and this is recognised in the new constitution as well. Participation in the home, in the community, in the economy, in the politics of the nation, this is the integrated woman. There are number of institutions that recognise this, Mission Mothers of the Slum which pays a stipend to women who work in the home, recognising their huge importance in the community and their status as workers. Also Mission Housewife which has begun to form a union among women who work in the home. In these institutional and legal changes you can see reflected the concepts we're advancing, particularly that of integral development of the woman.
Yoari Garbrido - Chief of social unity in the Meridenian Institute for Woman and the Family
Could you tell me a bit about your project operating through the Community Councils?
"The institute is starting through the Community Councils the creation of committees for the Defence of Women's Rights. The Community Councils are the organisations currently located in the communities, and its them who are in charge of creating whatever type of committee is needed by the community. This is so that there can be an organ of the institute inside each community because who after all is best placed to know the problems of communities if not the communities themselves? So, we as an institution are trying to direct and verify the creation of the committee, but the committees are the ones primarily responsible for their development and operations within the community. The committees are created in accordance with the law on the Community Councils, it explains who can constitute a committee, in this case that of the Defence of Women's rights."
"We are also pursuing an integal education to empower women. An integrally educated woman who knows her rights is less likely to be abused."
What I'm trying to understand is what opportunities exist specifically because of community based action, why is it a good initiative?
"Because as I told you the community is best situated to know its own problems. For us, as an institution responsible for the whole state its very difficult to be present in each community. What's more is that the committees are also organs of denunciation, they are able to denounce abuse. In this way, if the victim doesn't want to denounce it (abuse) the committee can do it. Of course as well they can give a primary care to the victim, protecting her from imminent threats, and this is a really important function of the committees."
As a vehicle of denunciation why do you think the committees are more effective than this institution?
"Its not that they're better. It's that we are one institution in charge of the entire state. The Community Councils have a permanent presence in the communities."
It's said that the invisibility of domestic abuse makes it particularly hard to deal with.
Do you think the Community Councils offer special advantages in relation to the nature of the problem?
"Yes, as I told you the committees are capable of denunciation so it's no longer necessary that the victim, personally, is the person to denounce the problem. As you said it's a problem that has been made invisible, firstly because the woman herself is afraid of denouncing the crime, for fear of her spouse, for economic dependence or whatever other problem. If there is consensus in a community that domestic abuse is occurring in a home its more than a right, its an obligation as a citizen and member of the committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman to denounce it"
So do you believe that the committees would go ahead and denounce the abuse without the consent of the abused party?
"It's that they don't need the consent."
But do you believe they'd actually do it?
"Well, its part of the work they have accepted in the creation of the committee"
So each person, upon joining the committee has to ask himself or herself this, "am I prepared to denounce abuse in place of the victim"?
"Exactly, we don't want the creation of the committees for its own sake, as an institutional aim. The people must be conscious, the members of the committees must be aware of what that membership means."
How long have the Meridenian committees existed? There are 15 now I believe?
"Yes. The committees here in Merida were created late last year. We are the supervising organ, but it is the communities themselves that have to establish the committees. They have to call a citizens assembly because as written in the law, to create a committee the motion must be approved by the majority of that same community."
So how did these 15 start? Did you guys go to 15 Community Councils with the proposal?
"Yes, but we've been to much more than 15. We are distributing information across the entire state, but, up to now we have succeeded in 15 in that they have called assemblies and set up their committees."
So how's it gone? If you've been to a large number of communities and yet only 15 have set up their own communities?
"The people have always been interested, but the process of setting up a committee is a bit bureaucratic."
So all the communities have been interested?
"Yes, up to now yes. We've seen a lot of interest in founding committees."
So how many communities have you spoken to?br />
"This new year we've been in contact with 10 Community Councils. We've only met with one so far, which invited us because it had a meeting. Unfortunately they didn't meet the quorum to set up the committee, but they accepted the idea and should create one in the future."
What I'm trying to understand is what is the percentage of successes that you have had in forming the committees i.e. if you go to ten Community Councils?
"The success rate has been low. The interest in formation exists, yet still, the level of consciousness among the people of their obligations under the law is really low. The Community Councils convoke the assemblies, but achieving quorum has been a real problem."
How many denunciations have come through the committees?
"Well the committees formed right at the end of last year and up to now we haven't received any denunciations. We don't know whether no gender violence exists in those communities, if they haven't reported it; we don't know kind of time frame we should expect, it is a new project."
Is there any kind of material connection between this institution and the committees?
"No. Though sometimes we go to them and educate by spreading information".
Are these institutions feminist?
"No, not at all. In some places they think the institution is trying to split the woman from the man. This is completely false, our primary work is to strengthen the family connections, those within the family, in relation to the rights possessed by women just as by men. We work so that men realise their partners, sisters and daughters are valuable, and have rights independently that shouldn't be violated. Convincing the violent that what they are doing is wrong is part of our function in protection of the nuclear family."
Interviews conducted and translated by George Gabriel