Aimee Zambrano is a Venezuelan anthropologist, documentary filmmaker, and founder of Venezuela’s Femicide Monitor, a platform that gathers femicide data and assists victims. In this interview, Zambrano talks to VA about her work for the Monitor, and about the situation of women in a society that – revolutionary changes notwithstanding – still lives under capitalism’s patriarchal logic.
It’s common to say that the Bolivarian Process has “empowered women,” and women have indeed taken on many important roles, most often at the community level. Nonetheless, this has meant their taking on even more social reproduction work. The result is that “women’s empowerment” seems to involve a new level of exploitation: women are both caregivers at home and caregivers for the community.
There is a powerful discourse about women’s empowerment in the Bolivarian Process: women are represented as the basis of the revolution, as the ones who make things happen. Indeed, we are the ones that assume organizational tasks at a grassroots level: we organize the communal councils, we coordinate the CLAP, we solve the problems at the barrio level. That, however, does not mean we are participating in spaces of power, where we are frankly underrepresented.
As you say, our caring for the community opens up another sphere of exploitation. The social reproduction tasks that patriarchal society imposes on us are thus extended to the barrio. Now we don’t only care for our children, the sick, and the elderly, but we also care for the community as a whole.
All this comes on top of the severe crisis and sanctions. It is no secret that women are the first to suffer economic hardship in times of crisis. In Venezuela, women stood in lines for hours on end, when there were food shortages. Women are the ones who carry water, and who have to gather the wood and kindle the fire when there is no cooking gas…
Women have gotten poorer and now, because of the multi-crisis, women are having to take two, three, and even four jobs to make ends meet. In the meantime, we continue to be the sole caretakers at home, and we organize popular power at the local level.
So yes, we can celebrate that women are organizing popular power, that we are working for society as a whole. However, the truth is that we don’t get a break… our spaces of leisure have vanished!
We are facing a situation of overexploitation. We are, as Flora Tristan would say, “the proletariat of the proletariat.”
Venezuela’s “Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence” (2007) provides us with a very progressive legal framework. Nonetheless, the police, the justice system, and public policy don’t really guarantee that the law is actually applied. What’s going on?
Indeed, that 2007 law was very advanced in that it speaks of twenty-one types of violence against women, including obstetric violence. In addition to that, the flagrancy period lasts 48 hours, victims can have accompaniment by women’s organizations when filing a complaint, and the complaint can be introduced by almost anybody when a woman is a victim of violence.
Nonetheless, one of the problems that we face is that even if the law exists, there is no legal ordinance to really activate it fully. As a consequence, there are gaps and loopholes in its application.
Additionally, the police obey a patriarchal logic. To give you an example, when a victim of machista violence goes to a police station to file a complaint, she may be prevented from going in because she is wearing flip flops or a miniskirt. In effect, a “dress code” which is nowhere to be found in any law or ordinance keeps her from entering the station! This is actually very common.
When a woman tries to file a legal complaint, the police often try to generate spaces of “mediation.” They will put the aggressor and the survivor in the same room, facing each other, so that they “solve their problems,” as if the issue were merely a disagreement. That re-victimizes women, putting them in situations where they are very vulnerable. On top of that, the idea of this kind of mediation is not found anywhere in the law.
Can you tell us what happens when a case gets to the prosecutor’s office?
The Venezuelan justice system, like many justice systems on the global periphery, is very inefficient and proceedings are characterized by bureaucratic holdups and logjams. These delays are even worse in cases of sexist violence. The one exception to this is femicide cases: when the assailant is caught red-handed and is in police custody, the proceedings are relatively efficient. In fact, I have seen cases in which trials happen in a period of two to three months from the time of the femicide.
I should add something else, and this has much to do with the feminist struggle in Venezuela. A pivotal case that triggered a robust movement to visibilize femicides – and in general sexist violence – is Mayell Hernandez’s death [killed by her former partner in September 2018]. The mobilization that ensued forced [Attorney General] Tarek William Saab to publicly state that femicides would receive Venezuela’s maximum term: 30 years. We consider this a popular victory!
But let’s go back to some of the problems that victims face when a case enters the prosecutor’s office. In the feminist movement, we talk about a process of “re-victimization” that develops. It is common that the victim (and not the police or the prosecutor’s investigative bodies) is expected to herself deliver the restraining order to the aggressor, imagine that! She is also expected to look for the witnesses, review the file and records to make sure that all is in order, etc, etc.
In other words, the weight of the process falls on the victim’s shoulders. If she doesn’t deliver the order or if she doesn’t locate witnesses and makes them available, the case stalls. At the end of the day, in many cases, exhaustion, re-victimization, or the lack of economic resources to push the case forward makes victims give up.
Another problem that we face in Venezuela is that there are no shelters so, as it turns out, many poor women are forced to go back to “life” under the same roof as their aggressor. The system does not offer economic support or job placement options either. The situation is frankly dire.
It’s urgent that there be a process of gender education across all state institutions. There should be education dealing not only with machista violence and the correct proceedings, but with gender issues in general. A good example is Argentina, which passed the Micaela Law  establishing a mandatory regimen of training to officials working within the state’s three branches of power. We advocate for a plan along those lines.
When faced with this emergency, feminist organizations have come together, breaking with some old sectarisms. Additionally, there are NGOs such as FUNDAMUJER [a foundation for the “prevention of domestic violence”] and AVESA [Venezuelan Association for Sexual Education] that attend to women in situations of violence. The Chavista collective Tinta Violeta is also working in victim-accompaniment and education.
To navigate the system, women need counseling regarding rights and proceedings and also how to prepare, file, and direct their cases. Those organizations, although often saturated by cases, are important for the victims.
In Venezuela, there is a generalized lack of statistics regarding femicides, with the last official figures coming from 2016 (122 femicides reported in the CEPAL report). It is clear that comprehensive policies regarding gender violence cannot be developed or implemented without good information about the reality of gender violence. That is why, last year, you started a process of reviewing digital media to collect data on femicides. The numbers are alarming, with 171 femicides committed in 2019 and 130 through June 2020. Tell us about your investigation.
The data is very disturbing. I should add here that we believe it to underrepresent real femicide numbers, because the information is collected by scanning digital media (both local, regional, and national), looking for keywords such as “passional crime,” “murder of woman,” “murder of girl,” etc.
What triggered this initiative was precisely the lack of statistics, with the consequences that has for the feminist movement’s assessment of the situation and for public policymaking. With this in mind, we decided to emulate the initiative of Maria Salguero, the creator of the femicide map in Mexico, and the experience of observatories in Argentina and Central America.
Hence, in June 2019, we began the count… Well, actually this is not only about counting. We also collect information to humanize the victims, making sure that the work can become a repository and a collective memory, and can be used in campaigns against machista violence. We took on the task of combing the press from January through July while collecting data month to month, and in January 2020 we published the 2019 report with Utopix.
Can you explain to us what Utopix is? As I understand it, your work collecting data on femincides eventually coalesced into the Femicide Monitor, which is part of the Utopix umbrella project.
Utopix is a community that deals with communication issues. We are committed to building a postcapitalist discourse that moves away from the hegemonic cultural industry
When we read the media, we get a fragmented picture of reality that tends to immobilize us. On the other hand, in our experience, when we gather information, patterns become visible and it can coalesce into a call to action. Utopix creates content to mobilize people, and that is why I proposed making the Femicide Monitor with them.
The objective of the Femicide Monitor is to call attention to the society as a whole. With other groups, we aim to give visibility to the emergency and we hope to contribute to generating new conditions that will prevent this situation from reproducing itself. That is what drives the work of the Femicide Monitor.
As we were saying earlier, having markers and making data public might encourage the state to develop policies and take action.
Because the Femicide Monitor isn’t there just to collect data, we have been able to understand and make it known that any woman can be a victim of femicide, from little girls to grown women to grandmas. We remember them, we rehumanize them, and we make it known that it could happen to any of us.
Of course, the Femicide Monitor also maps and tracks the justice system’s response, offering data regarding how many of the assailants have been apprehended and which ones are still at large. Of 212 assailants that committed femicides in 2019, only 90 assailants are confirmed to be behind bars.
We are going to continue with the Femicide Monitor work, and in the future, we want to implement a Utopix campaign along the lines of Mexico’s #NoEstamosSolas [we are not alone], creatively illustrating the lives of the victims from a human perspective.
All around the world, social confinement has brought with it an alarming increase in machista violence. In fact, some call it “the silent pandemic.” What is the situation in Venezuela?
While the lockdown keeps contagion rates down, this measure traps women and girls into confined quarters with their aggressors 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week. On top of that, the lockdown and the economic pressure that comes with it intensifies gender violence at home. This phenomenon, of course, is global.
If you look at the sexist aggression data in countries that publish statistics, the increase of calls seeking help has gone up by about 60 percent. Unfortunately, there is evidence that things are not different here in Venezuela. The data gathered through the Femicide Monitor shows that the lockdown months have brought an increase in femicides, if we compare it with the same period in 2019.
There was a recent debate in Argentina about the so-called “silent pandemic”: are femicides a pandemic or is sexist violence a pandemic? My opinion is that sexist violence should not be called a pandemic. It is not an illness. Sexist violence is the outcome of a capitalist, patriarchal society which interprets the bodies of women and girls as objects that belong to men. There is no vaccine that can solve the problem. Only a structural change will make this kind of violence disappear. Of course, we advocate for reforms that can reduce the level of violence right now, but we also work for a profound societal transformation.
So I don’t interpret this as a pandemic. It is the result of a system that objectifies women and girls. We have to rethink human relationships, and we have to rethink the system.
What are the main demands of Venezuelan feminists today when it comes to combating machista violence?
First, there is a feminist emergency and the state should recognize it. The issue of violence against women and girls requires a special plan of action involving the entire Venezuelan state. It is not about the Ministry of Women developing a plan and attempting to implement it. There has to be a coordinated inter-institutional plan similar to what is being implemented with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Communication and Information also has to put forth a campaign, schools have to implement new curricula, housing institutions have to build shelters for battered women, and the state as a whole has to undergo a process of transformation.
Consider this example. If there were an imperialist attack on Venezuela, the state would mobilize and implement war measures. War measures have to be put in place to tackle this emergency, too. In addition to that, there has to be a profound change in the justice system, which tends to re-victimize women.
There should also be a plan to support the family members of the femicide victims. This goes from offering psychological attention, which doesn’t exist here, to economic support to the survivors, particularly the children of femicide victims. The truth is that those children are left without any institutional support. Their fathers are at large or locked up and their mothers are dead.
Let’s return to the victims of direct machista violence. In addition to accompaniment, they need shelters and employment plans. In fact, the Homeland System [online platform for the delivery of small subsidies to Homeland Card holders] could be a useful tool in that sense. Just as the platform is used to detect people with COVID-19 symptoms, it could also be used to locate sexist violence victims… However, the state’s institutions are patriarchal and it doesn’t recognize the emergency.
All states, not only the Venezuelan state, are patriarchal constructions. Here, in Venezuela, we struggle for a non-patriarchal and non-capitalist society.