Suzany González Zambrano is a feminist lawyer and activist who runs the Research Center for Sexual and Reproductive Rights [CEDESEX for its Spanish initials]. She is an eloquent advocate for the rights of people – especially women and adolescents – to a safe sexual life that is free of discrimination, coercion, and violence. With March 8 around the corner, González Zambrano talks to us about the feminist movement in a country that, like most in the region, suffers from structural sexism, plus a reproductive health crisis that has been exacerbated by US sanctions.
What is the present situation regarding sexual and reproductive rights in Venezuela?
Any analysis of sexual and reproductive rights in any country must be done in context. When we look at the Latin American and Caribbean region, we have to acknowledge that there are many challenges. The taboos associated with a free, pleasurable sexuality not bound by gender stereotypes or coercion are tremendous in the region, while institutional and legal support is limited. This hinders people’s exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights.
Of course, in this regard, women get the short end of the stick. But if we add other criteria and take an intersectional perspective, then we see that there are some women who are more vulnerable than others, specifically young girls and adolescents. We are in a region where one-fifth of all pregnancies are among girls and teenagers, which is well above the world average. Many of these cases, of course, are the result of sexual abuse.
Our region is also characterized by scarce and poor sex education and other preventive policies. But if we add to this the context of a complex crisis, we find ourselves in a much more critical situation. The crisis has left many open wounds, and the cruelest of these affect the bodies of women and girls. We can translate this into numbers based on official data from the government and the UN Population Fund [UNFPA]. In Venezuela, the adolescent fertility rate is 97.7 per thousand. To put this into context, the world rate is 46 and the Latin American rate is 66. The gap is significant, and the data shows us to be the country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in an already problematic region.
Further, teenage pregnancy is, par excellence, a key cause for the reproduction of poverty: a girl or an adolescent who is subjected to forced motherhood is often plunged into a precarious situation, lives in cycles of violence, drops out of school, etc.
But there is much more. We can talk about the fact that currently, in the public health system, there is zero availability of modern contraceptive methods, which means that the only way Venezuelan people can access contraceptives is through the private sector, whether clinics or pharmacies, which is economically inaccessible to the vast majority of women.
Thanks to international cooperation with organizations such as UNFPA and others within the humanitarian sphere, there have been some initiatives promoting the distribution of contraceptive methods, but with a limited reach and with little to no options offered to the recipients.
Then, we have to talk about maternal mortality: Venezuela is the country with the second highest figures in South America. Many cases of maternal mortality are associated with clandestine and unsafe abortions.This has to do with Venezuela having one of the most backward legal frameworks regarding abortion. In Venezuela, abortion is completely criminalized except in cases where the life of the pregnant woman is in danger, in which case it is not she who decides, but the doctor. In other words, in no circumstances can a pregnant person choose.
Clandestine abortions have been on the rise. Why? Not only is abortion criminalized, but access to family planning services is very limited, while patriarchal culture is widespread. That is why clandestine abortions are rising, and so is maternal mortality.
What is the feminist movement doing to address this situation?
There are so many of us, but at the same time, we aren’t enough! The interesting thing is that for almost two years, feminist organizations and individuals have been coming together around the Ruta Verde [Green Route], a platform that focuses on sexual and reproductive rights, focused on decriminalizing abortion.
The organizations within the Ruta Verde have different perspectives. Some accompany women who are victims of gender-based violence, and others advise women who need to terminate a pregnancy. They do it in a caring way, without judgment, and putting themselves at risk (some have even been prosecuted). Finally, there are organizations like CEDESEX, our own initiative, that work on sex education and advocacy.
In short, the Ruta Verde is an initiative that unites people around the objectives and collective desires of the feminist movement.
You mentioned CEDESEX. Can you tell us more about the organization and the work it carries out?
CEDESEX is mainly dedicated to deconstructing cultural prejudices, taboos, and legal limits that interfere with the exercise of a free, pleasurable, and responsible sexuality.
What does that boil down to? We promote integral sex education and training for children, adolescents, adults, and even institutions. Our goal is to break down stigmas, and promote education with a human-rights approach and a feminist perspective, and therefore with a focus on sexual and reproductive rights.
We also promote research on issues such as access to contraceptive methods, human trafficking, teenage pregnancy, and sexual abuse of minors. We distribute our research widely to raise awareness and to provide tools to institutions, so as to inform their policy-making.
We approach our research from the perspective of popular feminism. However, popular feminism must go hand in hand with work in the territory, otherwise, it becomes academic babble. That is why, at CEDESEX, we have a third area of work that we call “social accompaniment.” In this area, I always emphasize that we do not talk about “attention,” “help,” or anything of the sort because we understand women, girls, adolescents, and people as subjects of rights. In short, we have a whole line of social accompaniment that includes a permanent program that we have called the “Integral Community Attention Route for Sexual and Reproductive Health,” which includes education and sexual and reproductive health services, and contraceptive methods.
We work on a permanent basis in eight communities between Caracas and Miranda, but we have also done projects in others states such as Zulia, Táchira, Falcón, etc. We are now carrying out a project with this same approach with Indigenous women in Apure with our colleagues from Tinta Violeta. Additionally, in this line of work, we have a teenage pregnancy prevention project in Ocumare del Tuy, which is the region of the country with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy, even more so than the border areas.
Finally, we have just inaugurated a gynecology service at a more accessible price than the private ones for which we hope to obtain support that will allow us to give integral attention to the most vulnerable women and do so free of charge. Along the same lines, we want to address the issue of cervical cancer which, unlike breast cancer, receives little attention and is taboo, especially because of its HPV origin, the sexually transmitted infection.
You have already talked about the criminalization of abortion. Beyond this, in legal terms, what is the situation of women in Venezuela when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights?
Article 76 of the Constitution recognizes family planning as a right, but that’s about it. Venezuela is tremendously behind in terms of sexual and reproductive rights.
That is why, almost two years ago, several organizations and individuals got together in the Ruta Verde. From there, we developed the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Law proposal. The proposal is a broad one: although in Ruta Verde we organized mainly to work on decriminalization, we realized that the decriminalization of abortion should have both a legal basis and a social one. In this sense, the proposal also involves communication, awareness-raising, advocacy, and political pressure.
Patriarchy is still very powerful in our society and in the government, although we also have allies inside the institutions. Additionally, we are concerned about the growth of evangelical fundamentalism in the country. In fact, I recently saw a study that shows Venezuela as the country with the second-highest percentage of evangelical Christians. This represents a huge challenge for the feminist movement!
That is why, in the proposed law, we decided to frame the debate beyond abortion. The document also codifies sex education within school curricula and establishes universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including access to affordable modern contraceptive methods.
The law would be the first step: it would not legalize abortion, but it would point to its decriminalization. That in itself would already be a victory, since at the moment there are women who are being prosecuted and imprisoned for having abortions. Moreover, it would initiate a debate about subjects such as: are we to legalize all the grounds for an abortion? Up to what month? And so on. Thus, the idea of this bill is to promote a debate that is necessary to get out of the obscurantism in which we are currently submerged.
The Sexual and Reproductive Rights Law is a grassroots initiative. How is it going?
The political will to address sexual and reproductive rights is very limited at the moment. Although there are some allies within the government, the correlation of forces is not favorable. That is why we have opted to open a channel so that the law will get to the National Assembly floor via popular initiative.
Venezuela’s Constitution has a provision by which a law that is supported by 1% of the electoral register must enter the parliamentary debate. As we speak, we are in the process of collecting some twenty-two thousand signatures.
In truth, it is altogether possible that – when our proposal gets to the National Assembly floor – it won’t be approved. However, forcing a public debate will be an important first step toward the social and legal depenalization of abortion.
In any case, the proposal is groundbreaking because it comes from below — because it, in itself, is a pedagogical tool that helps break with stigmas, and because, if passed, it would do away with the criminalization of women who are forced to turn to clandestine, illegal, and dangerous methods to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
At the end of the day, our final objective is that abortion be accepted both socially and legally. We also struggle for a society where a free, enjoyable, and informed sexuality is a human right. All this must be promoted and guaranteed by the state.