Economy & Trade, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Women & Economy

VENEZUELA: Mixed Results for Gender Policies

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 23 2010 (IPS) - After years of paltry wages as a piecework seamstress, Elisa Manrique finally has the chance to leave the informal sector and poverty behind. Thanks to a small business loan from the Venezuelan government, she and a group of other women – including some of her daughters and a daughter-in-law – have been able to set up their own sewing cooperative.

Women at a cooperative making shirts that are red, the president's trademark colour.  Credit: Humberto Márquez/IPS

Women at a cooperative making shirts that are red, the president's trademark colour. Credit: Humberto Márquez/IPS

In the meantime, Andreína García (a pseudonym used at her request), who worked for over 20 years in the communications department of a Venezuelan government agency, was forced into retirement and now collects a meagre pension that she supplements by working as a cook several days a week in other people’s homes.

“Thanks to this government’s policies, many women are earning better incomes,” Manrique told IPS during a visit to her sewing cooperative in La Yaguara, an industrial district in southwest Caracas. “We provide work for other women, we have learned how to run a business, and we now form part of a production network with textile suppliers,” she added.

For her part, García told IPS that “after they fired me because I didn’t seem sufficiently aligned with the government, I worked for a few months as a receptionist at a company that closed down during the economic crisis. I was unemployed twice, and now I suffer from retirement syndrome, because I feel like I can still work and be useful, but nobody wants to give me the opportunity anymore.”

Widely contrasting experiences like these could help explain two highly contradictory reports recently released in Venezuela: one from the Bolivarian Gender Observatory, a branch of the People’s Power Ministry for Women and Gender Equality, and the other from the Venezuelan Observatory for the Human Rights of Women, a coalition of 37 non-governmental organisations.

“The female population employed in the formal sector is declining,” said Virginia Olivo, coordinator of the NGO coalition, which is critical of the government’s handling of gender policies. In July 2008, she told IPS, 60.3 percent of working women were employed in the formal sector, while that proportion dropped to 58.4 percent a year later.

Olivo, who headed the Venezuelan Ministry of the Family between 1986 and 1989, noted that “according to the National Statistics Institute (INE, a government agency), informal employment grew between 2007 and 2009 by a total of 249,150 workers, of whom more than one half, or 132,162, were women.”

“How can you create employment for people who don’t know how to read or write? This government started by teaching literacy and educating people so they would be able to work, and although a great deal still needs to be done, the gaps are closing,” stressed Virginia Aguirre, director of the government-run gender observatory and coordinator of its detailed report on women’s policies between 1999 and 2009.

President Hugo Chávez first took office in Venezuela in 1999. Following the referendum-backed adoption of a new constitution, he was re-elected in 2000 and once again in 2006, and has already stated his intent to run for another six-year term in 2012.

In an interview with IPS, Aguirre pointed to INE statistics which show that while 58 percent of working women were employed in the formal sector in 1994, that figure had dropped to 48 percent in 1999. By 2008, it had been brought back up to 57 percent.

Between 1989 and 1998, female employment in the public sector grew by 30 percent and male employment by eight percent; over the next ten years, public sector employment grew by 35 percent for men and 60 percent for women. There are currently 1.2 million women employed in some capacity by the government.

In the private sector, women made up 25 percent of the workforce in 1989, 32 percent in 1999, and 35 percent today.

With regard to the so-called popular economy – which encompasses enterprises like workers’ cooperatives – the report highlights the establishment of the Banco de la Mujer (Women’s Bank) in 2001. As of 2008, the bank had extended 98,500 loans, totalling around 160 million dollars, which served to create more than 400,000 jobs, either directly or indirectly.

This South American country of 28.7 million people has an economically active population of 13 million, of whom 10 percent are unemployed, according to official statistics.

Another initiative highlighted by the report is the Madres del Barrio programme, which targets women in slum neighbourhoods. Since 2006, it has provided female heads of households living in extreme poverty with a monthly stipend of between 60 and 80 percent of the minimum wage – in other words, between 150 and 190 dollars – for a one-year period.

“It is a means of helping women who live in extreme poverty and have very high birth rates, through a nationwide programme that has no political bias, although the women recognise that they have a president who cares about them,” said Aguirre.

In Olivo’s view, however, Madres del Barrio “should be a programme with a broader scope and reach a larger number of households, at least a million. It should be better regulated to provide for more accurate evaluation, and should not be geared towards proselytising and clientelism.”

According to the INE, 24.2 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty – down from 43.9 percent in 1998 – while six percent live in extreme poverty.

In this highly polarised country, the viewpoints of the two observatories also diverge significantly, based on their respective interpretations of the broader political and social context.

For the government observatory, “the most striking characteristic of these 10 years of Bolivarian government is the way it has worked to combat all forms of social exclusion of women and men. The vindication of women’s rights within the Bolivarian project is a fact.”

On the other hand, as far as the NGO coalition is concerned, “Venezuela is experiencing a profound crisis. The state has not taken advantage of the huge revenues from oil profits for the economic and social development of the population.” It also perceives “the maturing of undesirable and growing internal conflict and confrontation among the country’s citizens.”

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