Struggling against Women’s Oppression: A Conversation with Aimee Zambrano Ortiz

A feminist anthropologist and founder of Venezuela’s Femicide Monitor evaluates the progress made in combating women’s oppression under the Bolivarian Process.
Aimee Zambrano Ortiz (Venezuelanalysis)

Aimee Zambrano Ortiz, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, has made significant contributions to the struggle against gender-based violence in Venezuela. She is the founder of the Femicide Monitor, a platform that collects data on femicides from open sources. In this interview, Zambrano sheds light on the situation of Venezuelan women, emphasizing both the progress made under the Bolivarian Revolution and the challenges still to be faced.

Can you highlight some of the advances made in women’s rights during the Bolivarian Process?

The 2007 “Organic Law for the Right of Women to a Life Free from Violence” is a progressive piece of legislation defining 25 distinct forms of violence against women. Subsequently, in 2021, a reform expanded that text to include additional manifestations of gender-based violence that are groundbreaking. These newly typified forms include gynecological violence, multicausal violence, political violence, and media-related violence.

However, despite these advances in legislation, the missing link is in their execution. While initiatives like “Plan Mamá Rosa” [2013] have focused on the “eradication of patriarchy as an expression of the capitalist system of oppression,” the actual implementation of the law remains suboptimal. First, the bylaws that would put it into action haven’t been developed. In our system, a law is followed by a “reglamento” [set of bylaws] which is crucial for the full enactment of any charter. Second, the law should be accompanied by a widespread education plan for police forces and administrators in the justice system. Why? Because Venezuela is no exception: patriarchy is alive and kicking here.

One positive development has been the creation of specialized tribunals and prosecutors’ offices focused on gender-based violence. However, these institutions grapple with overwhelming caseloads and are often geographically distant from the victims.

Finally, when evaluating the overall situation, a critical issue arises: the impact of the unilateral coercive measures. The US sanctions regime has placed many institutions in precarious positions due to limited budgets. The situation is even more dire outside of Caracas, where institutional offices struggle with insufficient staffing, lack of essential supplies, and an inability to mobilize effectively due to gas shortages.

In short, these sanctions hinder the proper functioning of state institutions, including those that should be providing crucial support to victims of gender-based violence. The consequences are very tangible when it comes to the attention to the victims of male violence.

January 2024 data as it is presented in the Femicide Monitor site. (Utopix.cc)

You are the founder of the Femicide Monitor. Its stated objective is to gather data relating to femicides in Venezuela and gender-based violence more generally in our society. Can you talk about the Femicide Monitor project?

We began to track femicide cases in 2019. The situation was dire: there was a statistical blackout, but many empirical indicators pointed to how cases were on the rise.

The Femicide Monitor is a volunteer initiative. Our methodology is rather simple but time-consuming and emotionally taxing: we meticulously scour national and local media to track reported cases. While this approach provides an approximation, we know that the data we release every month under-represents the phenomenon, since cases that never make it to the media remain untracked.

The Femicide Monitor cannot fully replace institutional data, which we argue should be made public. Law enforcement agencies and the judicial system have this critical information, but they withhold it. The Attorney General [Tarek William Saab] has occasionally addressed gender-based violence and femicides; he also released some data, but it lacks detail: breakdowns by year, location, or femicide type are nowhere to be found. In other words, the information is vague, which limits the possibility of developing effective plans and programs based on the situation on the ground. 

We call on the government to establish an observatory dedicated to gathering and publishing information on gender-based violence, including femicides. Venezuelan women need it!

Returning to the Femicide Monitor findings, the numbers we’ve collected should function as a wake-up call. In 2019, we documented 167 femicides; the lockdown in 2020 led to a surge, with 256 victims; 2021 saw 239 cases; while we recorded 240 victims in 2022 and 201 in 2023. Remember, these figures represent only the femicides that gained media attention.

An important piece of data that emerges from our research is that most femicides we record are “intimate” ones, which is the term used when the femicide is carried out by partners or ex-partners. This tells us that the government should promote policies that focus on the family unit. The patriarchal capitalist system assigns social reproduction tasks to women, which significantly impacts domestic life and can lead to machista violence. To combat this trend, developing a robust governmental response is imperative.

This response should be all-encompassing, targeting children, teens, women, and men alike. People must be able to identify the origins of gender-based violence; they must be prepared to read warning signs; and they must learn where to find support when gender-based violence occurs. In short, the project must challenge the notion of “romantic love,” which often normalizes violence. We must break the cycle where love equates to passion, passion to jealousy, and jealousy to violence.

Moreover, the response should be structural, addressing political, economic, social, and institutional factors. We cannot settle for “band-aid solutions;” instead, we must build a lasting framework to effectively dismantle the roots of violence.

There is a global “crisis of care” that points to how capitalist society cannot respond adequately to people’s care needs. Women’s unpaid reproductive labor is called upon to solve problems that states and institutions once assumed. It is particularly acute in Venezuela, where the impact of the sanctions aggravates these conditions. What is your opinion about this?

The crisis of care is tied to the deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in contemporary society. These structures perpetuate rigid gender roles, disproportionately placing the burden of caregiving on women. However, in the Venezuelan case, this situation is compounded by the multifaceted crisis gripping the country. This crisis has diverse origins, with sanctions playing a central role.

To that, I would add another factor. According to feminist professor Alba Carosio, in Venezuela women’s “double shift” becomes a “triple shift.” In other words, women are in charge of social reproduction at home and they are waged workers, sometimes taking two, three, or even four jobs to keep the family afloat, but they also organize at the grassroots level, contributing to the social reproduction of the community as a whole. I estimate that women handle approximately 80% of the CLAP food distribution. This is unpaid work that is physically taxing and emotionally demanding. 

Finally, when it comes to working-class households in Venezuela, a high percentage are single-parental and multigenerational, with a single woman at the head of the household. Thus, they care for children and the elderly while working for wages and taking on the social reproduction of the community. 

Summarizing, the crisis of care in Venezuela is a result of intersecting factors: economic challenges, gender roles defined by patriarchal norms, and the voluntary yet taxing efforts of women who bear the weight of social reproduction for the community. There has been much talk and celebration about women’s protagonistic participation in the Bolivarian Process. I share the enthusiasm, but beyond acknowledging women’s contributions, we must address the structural inequalities they face. This is key to building a more just society.

Expressions of the crisis of care in Venezuela. (Archives)

In closing, let’s go back to what there is to celebrate in the context of March 8, International Women’s Day.

I would like to highlight two important things. The first is “communal defenders” [defensoras comunales]. Communal defenders are women organizers who receive institutional training focused on preventing gender-based violence and providing support to victims. After their training, they go back to their communal councils and communes, becoming integral to the social fabric. Although they hold no official institutional roles, their impact is profound and they keep an open channel of communication with the Women’s and Gender Equality Ministry.

The second thing takes us back to the 2007 Law for the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence. That law has an article that extends flagrancy [allowing detention in the act of committing a crime] for gender-violence cases to 24 hours. Furthermore, the law mandates that all security forces and related institutions promptly implement protective measures for the victim.

While this legal provision is crucial, we must emphasize the need for developing a reglamento (bylaws) to ensure the effective implementation of this very progressive law. Additionally, as I said before, comprehensive education for all members of the police and justice systems is essential to create a safer environment for women and combat gender-based violence.

In any case, the struggle continues!