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VENEZUELA: Budgets Take On a Woman’s Face

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Nov 7 2008 (IPS) - As Venezuela increasingly incorporates a gender perspective in its public budgets, issues like the paving of roads and the construction of schools are being joined by new priorities such as teen pregnancy and domestic violence prevention programmes when it comes to spending.

Participatory budget assembly in Caroní. Credit: Prensa Municipio Caroní.

Participatory budget assembly in Caroní. Credit: Prensa Municipio Caroní.

"Good intentions or desires are not sufficient to achieve social equality and gender equity. Spaces must be built to further these goals, and for that, the specific allocation of budget funds is essential," legislator Flor Ríos, chair of the Women’s Commission in Venezuela’s single-chamber parliament, told IPS.

Economist Masaya Llavaneras, who coordinated a government project to design and implement gender-sensitive budgets, commented to IPS that a first major accomplishment is that "the need for greater spending on gender equality and to break down the groups of beneficiaries of public policies by gender have been made visible."

Since the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and partner organisations launched the Gender-Responsive Budgeting Initiative in the mid-1990s, the project has expanded to nearly 40 countries in Southern Africa, Eastern Africa, South East Asia, South Asia, Central America and South America’s Andean region.

As UNIFEM explains, "Gender-responsive budget analysis simply refers to the analysis of (the impact of) actual government expenditure and revenue on women and girls as compared to men and boys. Gender budgets are not separate budgets for women and they don't aim to solely increase spending on women-specific programmes."

The idea is to see how these allocations affect the economic and social opportunities of women and men.


In the case of Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez issued instructions in May 2005 for the principle of gender equality to be incorporated into budgets, "with the aim of ensuring that government policies and programmes equally benefit women, men, boys and girls," according to the proposal adopted by the Finance Ministry.

That marked the start of an assessment of how the different state institutions manage budgets in Venezuela, said Llavaneras. "In the public administration, there are more than 500 institutions designing and handling budgets at the national level alone," she pointed out.

"Our challenge has been a cultural one: to generate the conditions so that gender problems are seen as just that – a problem. In other words, that they are seen as a hurdle which, if unaddressed, makes budgets inefficient and ineffective," said the economist.

Are gender-responsive budgets more expensive? asked IPS.

"No," said Ríos. "This is not about changing budgets but about breaking them down, in order to see the gender gap more clearly. For example, when a breast cancer prevention campaign is made more visible in the context of a health programme, or information on teen pregnancy is highlighted in the education budget."

Llavaneras agreed that gender-sensitive budgets are not more costly.

But in some cases, certain portions of a budget should be increased, said Ríos. "For instance, when we suggest that all of the country’s region’s should have special courts for dealing with gender violence cases, or that female prisoners should be held in different prisons, not in a wing or annex of men’s prisons."

Another illustration of mainstreaming a gender perspective in budgets is the inclusion of an estimate of how many jobs would be created for people of each gender, in any project aimed at boosting employment, said Llavaneras.

"It is no coincidence that the year before the president gave instructions on gender equality in budgets, a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed that the average income of men in Venezuela stood at 7,550 dollars a year – 2.4 times the 3,125 dollars a year average income reported for women," she said.

Ríos said her fellow lawmakers – the majority of whom belong, like her, to the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela – have become increasingly aware of the need to incorporate a gender perspective, although she said it is "the awareness and the words of President Chávez that drop by drop and day by day have promoted these changes."

Experiments at the municipal level

A gender perspective is gradually being incorporated into the national budget, although slowly, "because the annual budget has a very strict cycle," said Llavaneras. But the idea of gender-sensitive budgeting has barely started to "trickle down" to the country’s 23 states and 335 municipalities, she said.

The exception is the municipality of Caroní, which encompasses Ciudad Guayana, an industrial city located at the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní Rivers in northeastern Venezuela, where major hydroelectricity plants and iron, aluminum and steel factories are located.

Since the mid-1990s, the leftist mayors that govern the city and its suburbs have held public assemblies to discuss the use of the municipal budget. That culture of broad public participation facilitated the adoption of the gender-sensitive budget initiative in the last few years.

"The first thing we take into consideration is that not everyone has the same access to and control over resources, the same use of time; some people have double and triple workdays, and that has been taken into account to make participation possible for those who were unable to take part in discussions on the budget," Solana Simao, with the local women’s group Fundamujer, commented to IPS.

"Women attend the participatory budget assemblies much more than men," explained Simao, who is an adviser to the city government on the issue of gender-responsive budgets.

But Llavaneras said "there is some confusion between attendance and participation, because when it comes time to make decisions, the women were often called away to other tasks, and the men, who formed a majority present at the time, decided."

One solution that was implemented in participatory budget assemblies in Caroní was to change the schedule and to make sure that child care was available during the meetings, to make it possible for mothers with small children to dedicate more attention to the discussions, and to stay longer.

Year after year, "the priorities named by the participatory budget assemblies were subjects like the paving of roads, better mass transportation, and improved public safety and garbage collection. But last year, the communities added other ones, like the prevention of violence against women, teen pregnancy and drug addiction, and the strengthening of women’s rights," said Simao.

"In addition, funding for the Casa de la Mujer (Women’s House), which provides information and care on sexual and reproductive health and gender violence, grew from 1,400 dollars to 11,500 dollars, and a 23,000 dollar contribution to Fundamujer was guaranteed as a regular income. But these are not the central aims of the gender focus," said the activist.

The most important thing, she said, is that everyone now has a voice in how municipal budget funds are used, and that the municipal authorities have understood that only by making inequalities visible can they be fought by means of specific actions and policies.

New steps forward

Llavaneras said it is positive that the incorporation of a gender perspective in budgets has escaped the extreme political polarisation that has divided Venezuela between supporters and opponents of the charismatic and controversial left-wing Chávez over the last decade.

She also recommended that the new focus be adopted more widely by local and regional governments, as well as by the grassroots community councils promoted by the Chávez administration.

In that process, she added, it is very important that national oversight and regulatory bodies enforce the adoption of gender-responsive budgets by local and regional governments.

The economist also called for improved gender-specific statistics.

Ríos, meanwhile, stressed the necessity of "awareness-raising and political training campaigns, to enable women to not only seek positions of public representation but also posts in which budgets are managed, in order to promote and guarantee the participation and focus that make budgets gender-sensitive."

Finally, the president’s insistence on the issue and parliament’s openness to incorporating a gender perspective have prompted Ríos and others to draw up a draft law that would gradually create an income for homemakers, which would come from the state.

 
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