The Incomplete Feminist Revolution

In her latest column, VA's Andreína Chávez explores the contrast between grassroots feminism and women's demands versus government-led initiatives.
feminist revolution
The latest edition of "The Subversive Truth" tackles the need to prioritize Venezuelan working-class women in order to propel forward the socialist project.

Growing up, I used to love listening to my mom recalling the day I was born because it resembled an absurd 90s comedy, with weird plot twists and everything. Years later, I realized that despite the funny elements, this was actually another story of how working-class women survive and how their demands go forever unheard.

If you bear with me for just a little bit as I tell my mom’s story, you’ll find out why women’s rights being reduced to an afterthought in Venezuela’s revolutionary struggle has seemingly condemned this working-class liberation process to endless setbacks, with or without US imperialist aggression. One main reason is that we have not overcome our bias against women as reproducers or moved past some bourgeois ideals.

The “funny” story, the one I grew up hearing, is this one: 

On April 28, 1990, my dad had just left town for a temporary job so my mom had to ask the neighbors to take her to the hospital. Despite having given birth to three kids before, she was initially confused. These pains felt familiar, a clear indication of labor, but I was four weeks away from full term!

There was nothing to do though, babies don’t wait for anything or anybody. On board the neighbor’s old Chevrolet Malibu, my mom embarked on a long trip to the hospital. Only the car broke down when they were somewhere near their destination, forcing them to take shelter from the scalding sun under a tree while they waited for the car to be fixed.

Fate, however, had a different plan in store. An agitated beehive nestled in that very tree was displeased by the disturbance and before she knew it, my mom was being chased by a swarm of bees and running for her life. Luckily, she barely got stung and her sprint led her to the doorsteps of the hospital. My mom, always quick-witted and humorous, managed to find relief in the situation and laughed it off. After all that adventure, the birth turned out to be quick and easy and, for a preemie, I was alright, perhaps smaller than your usual newborn, but height has never been my forte.

Cute and funny, right? As I said before, this 90s sitcom had another side. A few years ago my mom told me the whole story: in the aftermath of my birth, she found herself lying on blood-stained sheets all night in the hospital bed because nobody bothered to change them, and was unable to sleep in the unbearable Maracaibo heat in a small room crowded with women and their newborns. They had little water and only one meal a day. On top of it, if someone complained, they got a nasty “reminder:” You didn’t whine while making the baby.

Only a few years before having me, my mom also had two clandestine abortions as she and my dad went through financial struggles that led them to decide that was for the best. The same story of emotional and physical abuse is repeated here as she went through these procedures. Around that time, her best friend bled to death while giving birth in a case of clear medical malpractice that never got investigated as was (is) the norm.

Truth be told, I was shocked to see my mom in this new light: a woman who had to bear and survive violence because being working-class meant the doors were closed to her for decent medical treatment, whether that was to give birth or terminate an unwanted pregnancy. It’s like there’s no good choice for poor women.

Over three decades since my mom’s experiences, things have either not changed or worsened for working-class women. In part due to an asphyxiating US blockade; but also because there’s also no political will to answer women’s demands and legislate in their favor. Not to mention, the government’s economic policies have dismissed workers’ rights, affecting largely poor women, while prioritizing macroeconomic indicators. 

There’s popular feminism and government feminism and they walk on different sides of the road. The first one prioritizes women’s right to decide over their bodies with sex education, free contraceptives, quality public healthcare and legal abortion, while also aligning with workers’ struggles for better wages. The second centers on the role of women as mothers, and lately, as entrepreneurs, so that they self-exploit more.

Buying contraceptives and even period products is a luxury. As a result, Venezuela faces the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America, with 97.7 cases per thousand in girls aged between 15 and 19. This alarming statistic perpetuates the cycle of poverty, making it impossible for women to break the wheel, let alone participate in any revolution.

A huge contribution to this problem is abortion being illegal as it affects mostly poor women, who usually don’t have any alternatives. Venezuelan grassroots feminist collectives estimate clandestine abortions could be the third cause of maternal death, but a nine-year statistical blackout from the government keeps us from getting access to the numbers!

Undeniably, there have been some government efforts to dignify women when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. In 2017, the Maduro government created the “Humanized Childbirth Plan,” which has trained thousands of community activists as doulas and recovered maternal wards in some public hospitals. 

I’ve heard and read beautiful accounts of women who received guidance and companionship throughout their pregnancies thanks to this program: women who gave birth in clean beds and nice rooms while holding their moms’ hands through the process. They were met with love, not aggression.

However, while this program is still active, it’s not enough anymore. It probably never was. These days, one often hears the horror stories of women giving birth in the most terrible circumstances, just like my mom did. Their lives always hanging in the balance. 

Not too long ago, I met a 20-year-old pregnant woman who five days later died while giving birth. Her family told me she suffered an eclampsia, experiencing a seizure that led her into a coma. The hospital lacked essential resources, including basic IV fluids, making it impossible to provide her with proper care. 

That’s when I realized that these women’s social programs were just a bandaid. The country needs a comprehensive state policy to restore our public health system and an emergency plan for women.

While it is true that the US blockade has to end so we can heal our war wounds, it is also true that there are things within our government’s capacity right now. A good start would be legalizing abortion, distributing free contraceptives, and focusing on recovering our hollowed-out hospitals instead of making the business sector happy and richer.

Truth is, nobody wants to talk about stories like my mom’s. All that pain makes people uncomfortable or even angry because it contradicts the official narrative of an untarnished socialist government. But if we don’t talk about them, how can we ever expect any change? 

It is time we make everyone shiver, sweat and twist in their seats with these tales, especially our politicians and our male comrades who speak of liberation and fighting US imperialism but never address women’s actual demands.

Let us remember that the Bolivarian Revolution would have been impossible without poor women who carried on their shoulders every single electoral process and social program since 1999. Wherever you are, it’s always working-class women who fight hardest for the socialist revolution to succeed, yet their rights always come last.

Collective emancipation and achieving socialist ideals won’t happen until the government remains on the same sidewalk as popular movements and asserts women’s rights, prioritizing their lives and sovereignty over their own bodies. As of now, our feminist revolution remains incomplete.

Andreína Chávez Alava was born in Maracaibo and studied journalism at the University of Zulia, graduating in 2012. She immediately started working as a writer and producer at a local radio station while also taking part in local and international solidarity struggles.

In 2014 she joined TeleSUR, where in six years she rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief, overseeing news, analysis and multimedia content. Currently based in Caracas, she joined Venezuelanalysis in March 2021 as a writer and social media manager and is a member of Venezuelan artist collective Utopix. Her main interests are popular and feminist struggles.