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VENEZUELA: Grassroots Empowerment for Women

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jun 15 2009 (IPS) - In Venezuela “women have passionately embraced community activism, taking on a more committed and active role, and this is reflected in the increasing female participation in neighbourhood assemblies,” Alba Rojas, spokeswoman for a community council in Tacagua, a township that spreads along the Caracas-La Guaira highway, told IPS.

Community leader Alba Rojas Credit: Courtesy of the Tacagua community council

Community leader Alba Rojas Credit: Courtesy of the Tacagua community council

“Sixty percent of all community councils are chaired by women,” María León, head of the recently created Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality, explained to IPS. “Gone are the days in which we were confined to household chores. We’ve earned the right to participate and speak in a forum, like in the French Revolution,” she said.

Over 10,000 community councils, formed by up to 200 families each, have been established in Venezuela, according to figures from various government agencies. Many communities also set up “technical committees” to deal with specific issues, such as water, health, energy or communications, depending on the needs of each neighbourhood.

Women’s authority is enhanced because “nothing is done here without the vote of the people gathered in an assembly. It’s part of the change we’re promoting, encouraging people to assume control of their own projects, to take ownership of the processes that affect them,” Rojas said.

The council operates from a small headquarters that serves both as office, library, meeting hall, and computer room, and is located in one of the many makeshift houses built in Tacagua, an area formed by a series of shantytowns crisscrossed by steep, narrow paths and lanes, which have sprouted over 20 kilometres of rough hills extending from Caracas down to the Caribbean.

Some 6,000 people live in the area, which is delimited by the Tacagua river, formed primarily by sewage that flows down through a ravine from other shantytowns on the west side of Caracas.

It is dominated by a hill on which spaces have been carved out to accommodate terraces and storage rooms for the metropolitan area’s first production cooperative, the Comuna Gual y España – named after two historical figures who led an early attempt at independence from Spain.

Rojas heads a “technical committee on telecommunications” that is working with the government telephone company to obtain basic telephone services for all of Tacagua. The councils also run small food stores and schools. In all, the government of Hugo Chávez reports that it has provided some three billion dollars in funding for community projects in the last three years.

The five councils that make up the pioneer Gual y España cooperative are planning several production activities including “a chicken and rabbit farm, complete with slaughtering facilities, a tomato and pepper garden, and a pottery production unit,” Rojas said, “because our aim is for the communities to be self-sufficient and not have to depend on any institution.”

“We’re moving forward, but there’s a lot of trial and error, and we have our occasional run-ins with bureaucracy, because the community acts more quickly than the public administration, which is bogged down by red tape,” she said.

In this South American country of 28 million, it is women who have traditionally taken on the task of improving living conditions in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Caracas and other cities, implementing different forms of organisation. Now their efforts are being channelled through the new community councils.

More positions, more women

With the 1999 constitution – which replaced the country’s longest-standing constitution, in force since 1961 – Venezuela increased the number of institutions in public administration, and extended the three traditional branches of government to include two more – the electoral branch, and the moral or citizen branch, in turn subdivided into three offices: attorney general, comptroller general, and ombudsman.

Five of these seven institutions are headed by women: the single-chamber parliament (where Chávez supporters hold nearly all of the seats since the opposition boycotted the 2005 legislative elections), the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Board, the Ombudsman’s office, and the Attorney General’s Office.

Seventeen percent of legislators are women (29 out of a total of 157), although some assemblywomen are serving as alternates in seats to which men were originally elected but declined in order to occupy other posts.

As of 2005, the electoral branch established mandatory gender parity in all candidacies for deliberative bodies, but men are usually placed at the top of candidate lists and thus have a greater chance of being elected.

According to data from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, one-third of all seats in the 24 provincial parliaments are held by women, 60 of the country’s 335 mayors are women, as are five of the 22 cabinet ministers, and three of the 24 state governors. With the exception of the mayors, these figures are not much different than those prior to 1999.

“Over the last 10 years huge strides have been made towards closing the gap that has historically separated the constructive action of women from their participation in political, social and economic decision-making processes, not only in high public office, but in power structures at the community level as well,” Minister León said.

Interviewed by IPS, Flor Ríos, of the congressional Family, Women and Youth Committee, said that “while we find women occupying many positions and heading government bodies, we’re still far from achieving true gender balance and having women in key national spending and executive posts.”

“Significant headway may have been made in organisations at the local level, like community councils, which benefit from the involvement and capacity of women in problem-solving efforts,” María Guzmán, of the non-governmental Foundation for the Rights of Women in Latin America, told IPS.

Contradictory words

“I declare myself a feminist. Long live women! As Simón Bolívar said: women are not equal to men, they are superior to them,” President Chávez is fond of repeating.

This month he called on “all our nation’s men to declare themselves feminists,” because “our people will never be free as long as women are not free.”

Just hours later, Chávez criticised Cecilia García Arocha, the first woman to be elected president of Universidad Central, the country’s leading university, for speaking out against the Higher Education Ministry at a university demonstration organised to protest budget cuts. “I don’t know how such an irresponsible and dishonest lady could have been put in charge of running a university,” said the president.

The opposition and the private media – which the opposition largely controls – say that when the president stands before a microphone – and he’s spent more than 3,000 hours in front of a mike over his decade in power – his tone with regard to women sometimes stands in stark contrast to his other expressions in favour of women’s causes and gender equality.

For example, when he was married to his second wife, Marisabel Rodríguez, he announced to her publicly: “tonight you’re going to get what you’re asking for.” On another occasion, as he argued his differences with Washington, he said that what former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice needed was for “someone to do her a favour,” and he offered one of his mayors for the job.

Another time, he said he would beat his opponents in an election and would then “play red” with them, making a crude pun that evokes sodomy practices and is typical male bar room talk.

“The speech of any political leader, whether of the opposition or the ruling party, must set an example. Form is very important, more so in a society with such high levels of domestic abuse and violence, and significant gender discrimination,” Liliana Ortega of Foro por la Vida, a coalition of human rights groups, told IPS.

While five years ago women accounted for one percent of homicide victims, that number had climbed to six percent by 2008, according to Ortega. “The public TV stations often make fun of people’s sexual orientation, and their political talk shows sometimes discredit female opposition leaders by claiming they are so-and-so’s mistresses,” Ortega said.

“This strengthens stereotypes that have no place in a modern society,” she said.

Ortega also noted that the women who are currently occupying senior government positions are women “who have not voiced conflicting opinions and who are not independent, but are rather strict followers of the executive branch’s decisions.”

Guzmán went on to say that “women are affected by the political differences that have split the country in two, and by the government’s discourse, which has aggravated the machismo and paternalistic attitudes that we were slowly moving away from, by adding a component of militarism and using a confrontational imagery of war, battles, enemies, squadrons and cannons.”

But according to León “above and beyond any of these aspects, the revolution led by President Chávez has been the most hopeful yet in the history of Venezuela. We’ve achieved institutional changes, like the Women’s Bank, and, for the first time ever, public policies for women are generating great involvement from below.”

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