Santa Elena de Uairen, October 2nd, 2014. (Venezuelanalysis.com) - On Sunday, around 200 Venezuelans from various socialist collectives gathered in the student residences of Plaza Venezuela, in Caracas, to protest the country’s strict anti-abortion laws.
Abortion is explicitly illegal in Venezuela except in life-threatening cases. The punishment for a woman who has an abortion is six months to two years in prison, while a doctor or other person who performs the procedure can be sentenced one to three years.
On the sidewalks surrounding the urban student housing, women and several male supporters hung colorful underwear-shaped banners from makeshift clotheslines, calling the event “Airing Out the Dirty Laundry,” in a symbolic effort to bring forth the intimate conflict that many women never have the freedom to express.
“25 percent of adolescent deaths are caused by obstetric complications [in Venezuela],” Dubraska Hernandez, an anthropology student and lead organizer with the Conjura Feminista collective told Venezuelanalysis.com. “That’s 70,000 deaths a year which are never discussed.”
One woman carried a flag that read “Rich women abort, poor women die,” indicating that anti-abortion laws have an uneven impact on Venezuelan women. A wealthy woman can arrange for a safe, albeit illegal, abortion in a private clinic for upwards of 100,000 bolivars (over a thousand dollars on the parallel exchange rate), Hernandez said, while women of little means must brave back-room operations that can pose a serious risk to their health.
Last week, at the 69th United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City, a representative of the UN committee for children’s rights expressed concern with the high mortality rate among pregnant adolescents in Venezuela, as a result of clandestine abortions. The committee called upon the Venezuelan government to extend its policy to legalize abortion in instances of incest and rape.
Hernandez and her fellow activists were pleased with the stance. “We had already been planning Sunday’s event since early September, hanging up signs around the city and such,” she said, explaining that the UN statement gave them more leverage with critics of their campaign.
“To those who are offended by our display, who stop to condemn us and call us crazy or worse, we tell them how the UN classifies it [access to abortion] as an issue of public safety, of human rights- that it’s recognized internationally,” she continued.
“There is so much prejudice, so much ignorance, even among doctors. It is a traumatizing experience to seek help at a public hospital, when there is no structure to support your need,” Hernandez said. Even when a health worker agrees to provide illegal assistance, Hernandez recalled cases where young women are shamed and pressured into permanent sterilization, or suffer harsh psychological abuse.
Hernandez is also part of a five year effort that has provided information and support for women considering abortion in the decision-making process, by way of a telephone hotline. The hotline is maintained by a network feminist collectives, who have reportedly served 3,000 women since 2011. Their approved method is the noninvasive medical abortion, by way of a pill, known as Cytotec.
“We are not doctors,” Hernandez said. “We just democratize information that should be free and universal. We try to create a source of safety, company, understanding, and love in which women can make an informed choice.”
“This is an important task of the revolution,” Hernandez continued. “According to a 2013 census of communes and communal councils, 87 percent of grassroots organizers [in the Bolivarian process] are women! We need to be addressing women’s rights.”
When asked if those gathered at the September 28th event were chavistas, Hernandez said the event had no political banner but “we recognized each other as socialists, as revolutionaries, we know that Chavez brought feminism to the forefront of the discussion of the Bolivarian Revolution.”
Still, the government has shown no sign of reforming the law. Despite concerns from the Vatican in 2006, former president Hugo Chavez never made any true step in that direction.
Hernandez blames the widespread influence of religious and patriarchal values within Venezuelan society for this, and mentioned that the issue was consistently rejected even among left-wing circles. The city’s leading universities also refused to give the movement any amount of support, “which is why we took our call to the street,” she said.
Though Hernandez indicated public functionaries of the health ministry have shown some interest in their work, so far no official relationship has been established. One thing that did surprise her, however, was the great respect shown by policemen on duty in the area of the demonstration.
The collectives’ immediate goals reflect the UN’s urgent call; for the strict penal code regarding abortion to be loosened, and for sexual education and access to contraceptives to be made widely available. However all parties involved seem aware that integral public infrastructure supporting a woman’s right to choose in Venezuela seems a long way off.