The Grassroots Abortion Hotline in Venezuela: A Conversation with Mariana Garcia-Sojo (II)

Venezuela’s legal system which punishes abortion with up to three years in prison. As a response, feminists created a support hotline.

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Marina Garcia-Sojo (Venezuelanalysis)
Marina Garcia-Sojo (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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Mariana Garcia-Sojo is a political analyst and writer. She researches popular economies and the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Venezuela. Since 2014, Garcia-Sojo has been part of Faldas-R, a combative feminist organization that is part of Chavismo. In part II of this interview, she walks us through some problematic areas of Venezuela’s legal code – which penalizes abortion with prison time – and outlines the most urgent demands of the feminist movement.

[You can read part I of the interview here.]

The Venezuelan feminist movement is fighting for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, but it has been met with silence from the upper echelons of the government. Furthermore, conservative tendencies, particularly evangelical ones, are growing within Chavismo and taking over important power structures. What is your take on this?

Evangelical forces and anti-abortion rights tendencies are growing throughout the Global South. In Latin America, they are growing particularly fast, and they are visibly hampering the advance of the feminist and pro-choice agendas.

Venezuela is not free from that tendency, which gains ground in the most vulnerable sectors of society. That is precisely the historical base of Chavismo and of Left projects everywhere.

The growth of evangelicalism within the Chavista base concerns us a great deal. While these tendencies are not growing as quickly here as in Colombia, Ecuador, or Argentina, their impact within the Chavista base is visible. They are also growing within the government. I should add here that there were evangelical tendencies within the government since day one, but they are now becoming a force to be reckoned with.

The growth of these ultraconservative evangelical forces concerns us a great deal because their agenda is misogynous, anti women’s rights, and retrograde when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights. In fact, they represent a threat to the life and dignity of preadolescent, teenage, and adult women.

The challenge that Venezuelan feminisms face is to work toward building a significant critical mass that will openly confront those forces opposing reproductive rights. At the moment, the feminist movement is not strong enough to confront them in full force, as it does in Argentina. However, there is a new effervescence around feminist discourses and agendas here, particularly among young women. I think that one of the challenges we are facing now is to accompany and help prepare this burgeoning feminist movement.

Over the past twenty years, we have made some important advances in the feminist agenda, but there is still much to do. Now, it’s time to consolidate these achievements – which are under threat from the anti-rights tendencies both within and outside of the state – while we advance in the sphere of sexual and reproductive rights.

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Faldas-R graphic material for the Safe Abortion Hotline. (Faldas-R)
Faldas-R graphic material for the Safe Abortion Hotline. (Faldas-R)

Earlier you mentioned the Secure Abortion Hotline, a self-managed Faldas-R project that provides information to women who are considering abortion. Tell us about this initiative.

Since 2011, Faldas-R has maintained a hotline that is accessible around the country. Through the hotline we offer reliable, up-to-date information about safe, at-home WHO-approved abortion protocols. Also, we are in a permanent process of learning from sister organizations around the region and around the world regarding the correct use of medication to induce a safe abortion at home.

We consider this service key because the right to reliable information is so important in the life of women and especially in the exercise of their sexual autonomy. The work we do is not about convincing women to terminate a pregnancy: we don’t promote abortion as a contraceptive method or as a solution to the many problems that women face. However, we are convinced that women have a right to reliable information so that they take a safe path should they decide to abort.

We are committed to women’s sexual autonomy and, at the end of the day, the pregnant woman is the one who should decide. It’s a decision that cannot be taken by an organization, a church, the state, or her partner.

Our organization is committed to women’s sexual and reproductive rights, including women’s right to decide about their lives and their bodies. So, again, all we do from the hotline is to provide information to any woman who requests it.

Sharing notes about alternatives is something that women have been doing for generations in our continent. In fact, it was precisely Latin American women who discovered that misoprostol could be used to abort and began to share the information.

We simply continue on that tradition by collectivizing knowledge with women that – faced with the illegal status of abortion and the lack of integral sex education in our country – could be trapped by predatory “alternatives,” economic scams, and dangerous practices that can lead to death.

I understand that Faldas-R also promotes sex education workshops.

Indeed, abortion rights are only part of the picture when it comes to women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy. That is why we also work to provide holistic sex education workshops that go beyond abortion issues. Our “Ruta de la sexualidad segura y placentera” [Roadmap for safe and pleasurable sexuality] initiative provides holistic sex education directed towards vulnerable girls, adolescents, and young women. The workshops are educational, but we also coordinate with CEDESEX and PLAFAM, organizations offering access to contraceptive methods. It is obvious that, in a society undergoing a profound economic crisis, the high rate of adolescent pregnancies must be considered also from an economic perspective.

Venezuela is under blockade and, like almost all other countries, in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Some say that the extreme situation puts sexual and reproductive rights on the back burner. How do you respond to that?

Sexual and reproductive rights are not part of the agenda of either the government or the opposition, not even in the COVID pandemic context! For Chavismo, this is a serious mistake since women and girls are at the core of the social popular base in the country, and they are the ones who suffer most and are most vulnerable for structural reasons. High maternal mortality is proof of that.

Maternal mortality is not just an isolated piece of data. It is a social indicator of the general conditions in which women live in a country. It shows us whether women have access to information; whether they have access to family planning mechanisms, which is often determined by economic conditions; whether they have access to transportation, which is particularly complicated during the lockdown; and, of course, the situation of the healthcare system. In other words, maternal mortality speaks for the conditions that women face when it comes to getting pregnant or not, and having a baby or not.

The data in Venezuela point to longstanding negligence with regard to sexual and reproductive rights. In the 20 years of the revolution, maternal mortality didn’t go down in any significant way. In fact, that is the only Millennium Development Goal that Venezuela didn’t achieve. As a country, we are creating a very negative situation for prepubescent girls, adolescents, and women.

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Left: Graph comparing femicides in the first six months of 2019 and 2020. Right: Map of femicide distribution in Venezuela in the first six months of 2020. (Femicide Monitor/Utopix)
Left: Graph comparing femicides in the first six months of 2019 and 2020. Right: Map of femicide distribution in Venezuela in the first six months of 2020. (Femicide Monitor/Utopix)

Thinking about goals of the grassroots movement: What are the feminist movement’s main demands today?

The main demand now is to put women’s sexual and reproductive rights in center stage during the COVID epidemic. Guaranteeing the free exercise of our sexual and reproductive rights is very important even if there were not a pandemic. However, it is all the more important now that women are submitted to confinement!

Confinement is necessary to prevent the virus’s spread, but it generates a dangerous situation for women who are confined with their aggressors, submitted to sexual violence, and without the possibility of exercising their autonomy. We need a COVID-prevention policy with a feminist perspective.

To this, I would add that it is urgent that an integral sex-education law be developed. There is no such a law at the moment in Venezuela.

Additionally, reforming the Venezuelan Penal Code is absolutely urgent. As I said before, our Penal Code dates back to 1915, and the last reform was in 2005. It is outdated in the area of rights in general. We need a reform that annuls the penalization of abortion that figures in articles 430, 431, 433, and 434. This recommendation has been made many times to the Venezuelan state.

It is also important that this reform be followed by legislation securing access to abortion methods for all pregnant women up to week 12, and after week 12 exceptions should also be introduced. Today, a girl who was raped cannot legally abort; it is illegal to abort if the fetus has grave birth defects; it is illegal to abort if the woman’s life is at risk, unless the risk is imminent (and even then only the doctor can decide).

It is also urgent that the state generate the sanitary registry so that mifepristone [a drug used to induce safe abortions in combination with misoprostol] is included in the gynecological clinical protocols. Additionally, it is urgent that the barriers to acquiring misoprostol be lifted. As it is right now, if it were to be available in pharmacies (which it isn’t), it could only be obtained with a special prescription. All these restrictions must be eliminated. Women should have access to misoprostol so that they can have secure abortions at home and are not exposed to risky procedures.

There is a whole other set of demands that are not directly linked to sexual and reproductive rights, but they are just as important.

In Venezuela, the percentage of households headed by women is very high and growing. This is not a symptom of emancipation or empowerment. On the contrary, we are talking about single-parent households where women have to assume all social reproduction work while being the only breadwinner. According to official data, in 2011, 39 percent of the households were headed by a single female parent, and according to a nonofficial survey, that number could have reached 72 percent in 2019.

Additionally, according to 2015 National Statistics Institute data, the number of economically active women is dropping. This means that women are exiting the labor market to dedicate themselves exclusively to caring for their families. This makes women very vulnerable while curtailing their independence. In fact, according to unofficial data, four out of ten women participate in the labor market, as opposed to seven out of every ten men.

Statistics speak to a growth of inequality in Venezuela. Women’s roles as caretakers in our society is expanding and, with it, inequality. If you add to that the effects of massive emigration, which leaves grandmothers, aunts, and even older daughters as caretakers, then we can begin to paint a picture in which reproductive and domestic work falls even more heavily on the backs of women.

Last but not least, there are the femicides. We don’t have official data, but independent initiatives such as the Femicide Monitor follow the situation, and it is bad. Between March and June 2020, during the confinement period, 75 percent of femicides happened in the woman’s home. In other words, in the space where they are quarantined. Furthermore, according to the Femicide Monitor, the most common perpetrators in 2019 were the victim’s partners and ex-partners. In other words, the people who are likely to be closest to them during the lockdown.

I consider that these are some of the most urgent demands. We have to generate pressure so that they become central on the government’s agenda during the pandemic and afterwards.

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