Ketsy Medina is an inventive writer, committed photographer, and brilliant conversationalist. On November 30, 2017, her mother, Maigualida Sifontes, was a victim of femicide. The assassin is still at large and crime-scene evidence was “lost” in police custody. This experience triggered Medina’s struggle for justice for her mother and other victims of femicide. In this interview, Medina talks about her personal journey and the recent efforts to build a united feminist movement in Venezuela.
In the 1970 essay “The personal is political” Carol Hanisch examined the mediation between personal experiences and political structures. Your mother was a femicide victim. That was more than two years ago, and justice still hasn’t been done. Let's talk about this tragic event, from its affective and personal dimensions, to the broader context of impunity in the face of sexist violence.
It was only recently that I became interested in feminist theory. I don’t come from a feminist or academic tradition that would allow me to have such a framework. However, many of the slogans that we chant in recent marches come from a collective reflection process, and they also spring out of the most personal experiences.
So in my case, more than theorizing about “romantic love” or machista violence, I can talk about an intimate experience with very painful roots. My mom’s femicide triggered deep pain which, in turn, transformed itself into a commitment to struggle, to build an alternative. And we must build this alternative collectively, not individually.
Pain became a motor. It took me to women who supported me, who gave me the strength to overcome sorrow and look for justice for my mom.
Now, why is it important to do this in community and not alone?
The families of femicide victims, we all share an experience that is very painful and disturbing. Here in Venezuela, there is a high degree of corruption in the justice system, which ends up manifesting itself as impunity. In the case of femicide victims’ families, the pain is so big, the system’s indolence so blatant, the obstacles so huge, that one can easily end up relying on “divine justice.” But justice belongs to the world of men and women: the laws are there, and we have to struggle here and now so that justice is done.
When faced with this monstrous system, with this reality, it becomes obvious that it is not possible to go through it alone. For me, looking for support from other women became the way to resist and continue fighting an inhuman system. This system can only be confronted by many voices – in fact, it is possible to obtain some small sparks of light when we organize communally.
All this has helped me in my path towards recovery. Reflecting on our collective situation and reading the work of women who have been theorizing since the ‘60s and before, this has been important for me as well. Their work nourishes our path as we build and struggle with (and for) other women. We are the voices of those who are not here among us.
Also, believe it or not, our feminist slogans have also helped me. There are two chants that have been particularly powerful for me, the first one goes as follows:
Machismo enjoys free range in the tribunals; judges and prosecutors carry it out. No more femicides, trafficking of women, and exploitation! We want the institutions to act. In this revolution, we want the institutions to act! / Anda el machismo suelto en los tribunales, lo ejercen los magistrados y los fiscales. No queremos más femicidios, ni trata ni explotación, queremos que de respuesta la institución. ¡En Revolución, queremos que de respuesta la institución!
And there is another slogan that is close to my heart:
We are the daughters of the witches that couldn't be burnt! We are the daughters of the black women that they couldn't kill! We are the daughters of the witches that they couldn’t burn! We are the daughters of all the indigenous women that they couldn't kill! / ¡Somos las hijas de todas las brujas que nunca pudieron quemar! ¡Somos las hijas de todas las negras que nunca pudieron matar! ¡Somos las hijas de todas las brujas que nunca pudieron quemar! ¡Somos las hijas de todas las indias que nunca pudieron matar!
These words, their content, make me stronger... these words and the loving community that has surrounded me.
On May 22, 2019, after my mother’s case had been collecting dust for some eighteen months, we [women from the feminist movement] mobilized to the CICPC [forensic police] in Caracas to demand answers and, of course, justice. Around the same time, the Public Prosecutor’s office informed me that the evidence regarding my mom’s femicide, under CICPC custody, was “lost.”
After the mobilization, the case was reactivated. However, more than two years have gone by and, with the evidence gone, we don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel. But I will continue to struggle along with others.
March 8 is coming up, and on that day we will raise our voices once again to demand justice for my mom and for all those who are no longer with us.
In recent months, women’s organizations have declared a “feminist emergency” in Venezuela. This happened as the result of the disturbing femicide data they have gathered: 168 women were victims of femicide in 2019, and in January 2020 alone 34 women were killed. This information should be provided by the state, but there is a “statistical blackout.” So the women’s movement has begun to gather information from digital media on its own. Let’s talk about this emergency and the response.
Women have joined forces, as individuals and as members of organizations, to collect this data. This project is nourished by diverse perspectives and many committed minds. We gather data through workgroups (on facebook, telegram, etc), and with these tools we have been able to share information regarding machista violence. The numbers are terrifying and this has created a widespread concern in our community. There are, however, some precedents that contributed to this self-organized initiative.
My mom’s femicide happened on November 30, 2017. On September 3, 2018, Mayell [Hernandez] was killed by her ex-partner. That event brought many of us together. We called for justice for Mayell, insisting that her assassin [who wasn’t arrested by the police forces even though he was the only suspect and at risk of flight] be immediately detained. The mobilization bore its good fruit: Mayell’s assassin was given the maximum sentence. This was our first important victory, and it became clear that we were becoming a force to be reckoned with.
The truth is that the feminist sphere is small, even minoritarian, but now they have to listen to us!
However, around the same time, we came to the realization that a feminist sphere confined to Chavismo wasn’t enough. We had claimed some small victories, but the discursive promises coming from the government weren’t enough. Around then we began to approach non-Chavista feminist organizations that had shared objectives. That was also the time when Aimee Zambrano took on the task of collecting, centralizing, systematizing and analyzing femicide data. By 2019, there was a self-organized network to gather this information.
This really came about because of many people being commited to the project: Aimee, me, and many others. For my part, what drove me was the desire to be closer to the family members of other femicide victims.
Now, and hand on hand with the “feminist emergency” slogan, which we adopted from our feminist sisters in Spain, we are working on the “justice for all women” [justicia para todas las mujeres] campaign. We are raising our voices in a constant shout so that state institutions will respond to our call for justice for all victims of machista violence.
One of the tools is the statistical information that Aimee has gathered, which were recently published in the Femicide Monitor. The data has helped us to better understand the current crisis: what is the profile of the assassins – if they are behind bars or free, if they are family members of the victim or not –, the age of the victims, when and where they were killed, etc.
The report, which gives us data that the state should collect and make available, was used as the basis of the document for the November 25, 2019 [International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women] march to the Supreme Court. On that day we called for justice for all femicide victims.
The date is crucial. Without data, the state cannot develop policies to respond to the feminist emergency, nor can we, as organized women, define precise action plans.
Venezuela and Paraguay are the Latin American countries with the most retrograde penal code regarding abortion. This is in itself problematic, but the situation becomes all the more tragic in the context of the general crisis. Obviously, the most affected are poor women who do not have access to contraceptive methods or alternate ways to have an abortion. How is the feminist movement organizing to make this struggle visible?
In preparation for the November 25 mobilization, we began to work together among sectors and organizations that, due to Venezuela’s political divide, had kept each other at a distance. We didn’t share the same opinions about the political project, and that was keeping us from struggling side by side on common issues.
Regarding abortion, “Faldas en revolución,” a feminist organization within Chavismo, and the “Comadres púrpuras,” a feminist collective outside of Chavismo, began joining forces around the same time with the campaign “Mother if I choose to be one” [Madre si yo decido]. That was a groundbreaking step. Together, they organized panels and created spaces of debate in the universities.
This year there is also a campaign to seek adhesions to a petition calling for the elimination of the legal framework penalising abortion. Begun in 2018, this project was presented to the Supreme Court by “Faldas en Revolución.” The issue is still pending.
We know that there are many sectors that guide themselves by conservative morals and religion. This is the case within Chavismo and even more so in the right. We hope to grow stronger by joining forces, and we really hope that 2020 will place the struggle for decriminalization in center stage.
This is urgent because, as you mention, in times of crisis access to contraceptives is very limited. As a result, the number of undesired pregnancies, particularly among poor and racialized women, is rapidly growing. We hope to advance towards our common objectives together, but for this to happen we also have to reach out to the most affected women, the ones who require an urgent policy change… We have to make sure that we can build the movement with them.
With this in mind, we have to build better, broader campaigns, and we have to make sure that our struggle is not seen as that of a small group of feminists with a particular profile. We must demonstrate that we are a diverse group of women who are asking for a right that society must grant to all. This is the time: the debate is quite alive in Latin American countries and Venezuela shouldn’t lag behind… All the more so since we claim to be a left country and we imagine ourselves as a vanguard.
The Chavista feminist movement was, at one point, a kind of institutional appendix celebrating advances after the fact, but afraid of raising its voice regarding the great pending tasks of the revolution. Among these are the decriminalization of abortion or the lack of support for victims of sexist violence. However, as you mentioned before, in recent months the movement has been maturing. Now it is more independent and has its own voice.
Many of us no longer feel comfortable working exclusively within the confines of the feminist Chavista movement as it is now. Its framework has favored an unnecessary division amongst the women who struggle, and it has created a situation that kept us from building a common project.
Before March 8, 2019, we had begun to join forces with feminists who didn’t identify as Chavistas. For a week we had meetings in La Estancia [a PDVSA-run park in Caracas], and we dealt with topics such as the body and the territory, machista violence, and support for indigenous women and campesinas. Within Chavismo, these issues had been dealt with in a very “light” manner, and there wasn’t a direct interpellation of state’s institutions. Frankly, our critical stance had been too shy.
On my own end, the pain brought by my mom’s femicide also led to a process of critical reflection. Eventually, a much-needed debate to solve our diverse perspectives opened up. In doing so, we came to understand that the fight (and the solution) must happen in the public eye, struggling together. Our problems won’t get solved between four walls.
All this brings us back to “the personal is political”... making our stories heard in the streets, without fears, learning as we walk together. And all this, which begins with the one-on-one discussions and feeds back to the collective, has given us a chance to mature into a space with real autonomy. We used to be part of a complicitous narrative, and now we are building a narrative that feels right. We have freed ourselves from limited discourses that, on top of it all, kept us away from other women. This process has made us constantly question the concepts and the categories that we use because we don’t want to alienate others. We want to walk side by side, we want to go forward together towards our urgent common goals.
I can tell you that this has been the most beautiful thing happening in recent months and years.
On March 8 we will all be together: we will stage a vigil in Plaza Venezuela, we will be there, all of us, for all those who are not with us. Nurses, trade unionists, women who come from the PSUV but who are now without party, without husband, without church, we will all be together. It will be us, the women of the pueblo, speaking up because we know that our voices must be heard.