Maria Hernandez Royett is a feminist activist committed to fighting patriarchal structures in Venezuela. She also researches the impact of US sanctions on the Venezuelan family. In this exclusive interview we learn about sexist violence in Venezuela and about an interesting new initiative that has emerged to assist and accompany victims.
We live in a patriarchal society with a huge problem of violence against women. The year 2019 saw a growth in rape cases and femicides in Venezuela. In fact, a non-official estimate is that 135 women have been killed in sexist violence so far this year. What is going on?
When talking about the violence against women we have to talk about patriarchy as a sociocultural system. This system projects itself in the individual sphere: it comes packaged in a belief system and family model. That means that we have to look at, for instance, education, which is implemented through quotidian processes of violence. We could also look at music, which expresses (and generates) violent sexist patterns [of behavior].
There are features of society that reinforce and legitimate female submissiveness and male domination. All this gives license to sexist violence. In our society, men feel entitled to having power, control, and domination over the life of women – both physically and psychologically. All this must be addressed when we tackle issues of domestic violence.
Regarding numbers, they are high and atrocious, but I should explain something. The 135 femicides data comes from Aimee Zambrano’s research, which is very important because it gives us not only numbers but also the name of the victim, the date of the femicide, her age and the place where she was killed. The CICPC [Criminal Investigation Police] and the TSJ [Venezuela’s Supreme Court] statistics put femicides thus far this year at 120. Regardless, the numbers point to an important peak.
The year 2019 has seen a growth not only in femicides but also in sexual violence cases. However, in the past year, there have been some institutional advances regarding justice in cases of sexist violence and the sentencing of male predators. A couple of important convictions were that of the murderer of a much-loved dancer Mayel Consuelo Hernandez Naranjo (who was sentenced to 30 years in prison) and the conviction of Sheila Fajardo’s killer, who will spend 28 years locked up. Sheila was a Chavista community leader.
These two iconic cases brought awareness in Venezuelan society and especially within the [ranks of the] Bolivarian Revolution. In this context, Tarek William Saab, Venezuela’s attorney general, said in a press conference that all femicides should be punished with the maximum sentence, which in our code is 30 years. To us, it is important that public institutions manifest their political will and their juridical intention so that there will be justice in these cases.
Now, going back to your question: why do we see more femicides in recent years? First, we live in a patriarchal society. That isn’t news to anybody. Additionally, it is a well-known fact that during economic crises, violence in general, and particularly intrafamilial violence, goes up.
Venezuela is facing a blockade with unilateral measures from the United States and its international allies, and this has caused poverty to rise. It has had huge consequences, which, in turn, has taken its toll in family relations.
In our society, women in the most vulnerable sectors are often economically dependent. When the man is not able to provide as expected, the model of masculinity enters in “a crisis within the crisis.” The archetype imposed by capitalism is the providing male, and when he doesn't have the means to provide, this creates a crisis in his primary life sphere, his family.
We believe that the state has an important responsibility in the elimination of sexist violence. However, it should also be understood that the transformation of our model of masculinity is a collective task. Violence as a form of relating to women must be eradicated. It can only be achieved with the committed participation of the state, the feminist movement, and the educational system (which goes back to the state).
The giant crisis that we are facing, I should add, interrupts access to justice in many ways. Institutions now have very finite resources, so when a woman reports a sexist aggression, she will often find herself in an institution without paper or an office where computers are not working.
I agree about the role of society in general. However it’s also true that institutions in this country are patriarchal, are structurally unresponsive to machista violence, and often criminalize the victims. Although we have a progressive legal framework (“The Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence,” 2007) institutions are lagging behind.
Expecting that a law will solve a problem is rather naive. In the best of cases, the law can be a catalyst for transformation, but the application of the law depends on the people. Without a commitment to deconstructing patriarchal culture, nothing will happen. That is why a transversal perspective regarding machismo and sexist violence against women must be developed. We believe that this must begin when kids start school so that men don’t learn to reproduce the patriarchal, individualist perspectives imposed by the system.
However, while institutions reproduce the global model in society, there are also particular institutional cultures that must be confronted urgently.
When victims denounce aggression in a crisis situation and when state functionaries receive the criminal complaint, that is a key moment. Unfortunately, a first barrier is often put up by officials who don’t understand their role. In fact, there is a despotic treatment of victims going on regularly. Then a psychological and emotional “re-victimization” occurs. So we find that the victim is crushed by the state through its functionaries. She is not granted security and, on top of that, her sphere of vulnerability grows.
But it can also happen, as it often does, that the process of introducing an accusation works and protection measures are set in place. However, then the patriarchal state sometimes induces victimization a second time: following up on the situation falls on the victim’s shoulders. She has to personally monitor the process!
The “communal defenders” [defensoras comunales] program was developed precisely so that victims can be accompanied in a caring way by other women from their community. The role of such women is to identify the victims and develop a map of the mechanisms that exist to process criminal complaints and bring them to the attention of the institutions.
There are two areas. One is access to justice, which begins with introducing the criminal complaint. The other is the work to safeguard women who are vulnerable, providing them with protection and psychological attention. Once the social cartography is in place, communal defenders begin to weave the network. All this is key to giving protection to women on a local level. We call this “a practice of sorority.”
In this patriarchal society, we must encourage these forms of accompaniment through popular power. Victims cannot be alone. I believe it is through these collective practices that the transformation within public institutions will happen.
We are in the midst of a collective revolutionary construction. We have to transform things beginning with the particular conditions at a local level. Additionally, we have to develop strategies connecting popular power with institutions so that victims will receive the attention they need.
When was the “communal defenders” program established?
It was put in place in 2013, and we have had important successes. However, it should be said that there are people in institutions that don’t welcome the initiative because they are afraid of popular power. Yet even if institutions don’t always support the program, it has been adopted by women in communities, and it is still alive thanks to them.
In Venezuela, we are facing a statistics blackout on social issues. To address this problem, you are working to develop Yenchi, which I understand to be a grassroots initiative for gathering data on sexist violence.
Yes, we do have a statistics blackout, although it should be said that that is a problem not only in Venezuela: it’s a problem throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a critical perspective regarding the blackout. For that reason, we are looking for alternatives to allow us to gather the information that is needed so that the state will develop policies that address the crisis.
Together with free software activists, we began to collaborate to establish a mechanism to share information from different regions. That is how Yenchi was born. Yenchi is a website where any person can socialize information regarding machista violence anywhere in the country.
Yenchi maps in the territory and delivers statistics which then become public, and it is an easily accessible tool. The victim herself can do it, the survivors of a femicide victim can do it, communal defenders can do it, and so on.
Yenchi is in a preparatory phase. Up to now, we have sixty cases that have been reported by victims or their survivors. Now, we are in a phase of cross-referencing this information with the statistics that have been gathered by feminist researchers.
There is a consensus within the feminist popular movement that Yenchi will become a very important tool. It will show the areas where investigation is needed; it will help us better understand the phenomena [of sexist violence] on a local level; it will allow us to further activate communal defenders; and it will give us keys to develop the appropriate training for functionaries in the institutions – which should be granting justice and protection to victims.
This brings us full circle, back to the “The Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence.” The law was groundbreaking at its timet, but now, twelve years later, it has to be reformed. To understand where the critical roadblocks are, this has to happen with the participation of women and particularly victims.
Representatives can meet in their air-conditioned offices and make beautiful plans, but when that happens in a bubble, the resulting policies are useless. They can develop beautiful plans, but if women who do grassroots work, feminists activists, and victims of sexist violence are not involved, then the programs will be destined to failure.
With Paraguay, Venezuela has the most backward legal framework regarding abortion in our continent. What can we do about that?
In Venezuela, there is only one legal justification for interrupting a pregnancy: when there is an imminent threat to the pregnant woman’s health, and the decision is in the doctor’s hands exclusively. We have cases such as that of an eleven-year-old girl who was a victim of sexual violence, and she was forced to give birth because the doctor did not proceed with the abortion. Obviously, the body of an eleven-year-old is not ready for gestation, and the pregnancy and process of giving birth put at risk the life of the girl.
So I believe that one of the pending tasks is to sensibilize the medical personnel: private belief systems cannot be the determining factor. There should be processes and mechanisms in place that will really ensure access to an abortion in such cases. A transversal state policy should be developed: the protocol should dictate that in the case of girls and adolescents, pregnancy termination must be applied.
We are struggling so that the abortion justification [when a woman’s life is at risk] is really set in place, and I believe we can advance in this regard with the Constitutive Assembly, where several proposals have been introduced. Thus far the Constitutive Assembly hasn’t acted, but we are hopeful.
The problems that women are facing, I should add, are being compounded by the blockade and crisis. The Venezuelan state hasn’t been able to acquire contraceptives, and this has increased the number of unwanted pregnancies. In these dire circumstances, women are interrupting pregnancies in unsafe ways. Add to that that women, when they go to a hospital with an abortion in process – even though Venezuela subscribes to the WHO guidelines regarding attention to women with an abortion underway – they often face obstetric violence.
Obviously, the most vulnerable women are the poorest ones, who are often unable to acquire the pills, since they are sold in the black market and in dollars. At the end of the day, this situation can lead to women losing their lives.
When we talk about maternal mortality and undesired maternity, it is clear that both institutional and structural factors are undermining the sexual and reproductive rights of women. That cannot be allowed in a country where we are struggling for the free development of the personality, which includes an active and healthy sexuality. We are under siege, but even so, we cannot allow for these things to happen.