Under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan government has redistributed the nation’s oil riches to finance free education, health care, land reform, vocational classes and media projects, all of which have largely benefited Venezuela’s poorest communities. In addition to these government initiatives, many Venezuelan citizens have taken it upon themselves to start their own unions, cooperatives and community groups. One innovative group in this movement is the National Housewives’ Union.
The union began in 2003 and has grown to include thousands of women from across the country. Members come predominantly from homes with very low economic resources and 30% of them are widows or single. Membership to the union is free and upon entering, members are given an ID card and a free copy of the nation’s Bolivarian Constitution.
“We are daughters of the constitution,” explained Lizarde Prada, the General Coordinator of the Housewives’ Union for the state of Merida, pulling out her own small copy of the document. “The constitution guarantees the health and welfare of housewives, the right to a dignified house and to education. On a global level there is no other constitution that recognizes housewives.”
The constitution is a fundamental part of the Bolivarian Revolution, a political process named after Venezuela’s 19th century liberator, Simon Bolivar. In 1999, in a move spearheaded by President Chavez, the constitution was completely overhauled through a series of referendums and editing sessions that took place in the government and in neighborhood groups across the country. The recognition of housewives is one of the many progressive aspects of the document.
Prada spoke with me in a cluttered office which is the center of the union’s activities in Merida, a mountainous state in the western part of Venezuela. The walls of the office were covered with portraits of President Chavez and anti-Iraq War posters. Prada was animated throughout the interview, clearly deeply involved in the union’s work. Throughout the meeting her two cell phones rang constantly and union workers rushed in and out of the office.
“We are a big institution and we are making miracles happen It is not about giving the people fish, it is about teaching them how to fish, how to find work, how to participate in the different government programs out there,” Prada said. “We, the union, are a channel that is showing people a different direction. Often these humble women don’t know that there is money, there are resources available. It’s just a matter of knowing where they are.”
The union provides legal support to their members and informs them of the free educational, medical and subsidized food programs the government provides. They are also lobbying for a pension from the government which, if the union is successful, would be awarded to all housewives over age fifty. The Merida chapter of the union has a weekly program on Radio Horizante, a community radio. Through this, members inform the public of their work and what projects could be of interest to the community. And twice a month they have a union meeting at 1:30 pm so that the women can attend after preparing lunch for their families. A recent meeting included thousands of women who had traveled from all over the state of Merida.
“We also have people who teach the women how to develop cooperatives in small businesses and community work,” Prada explained. “For example, if you live in a certain neighborhood and you have the raw materials, such as bananas, use it for a sweets shop and use local transportation for your business. All of this will generate more local work.” There are different cooperatives affiliated with the Housewives’ Union, some involve cooking and food distribution, others have to do with textiles and sewing.
In June of 2005 there will be a national sports event in Merida and the Housewives’ Union is hoping to play a large role in the event. “We want a lot of the benefits and work for this to go to the people in our communities that need the work, such as the housewives,” Prada explained. The union is also working to acquire a building of their own in Merida where they can have classes, meetings and sell artwork and products produced by the union members. In addition, the union awards diplomas to women who are experts in certain types of domestic work. After evaluations, the women receive diplomas in bread baking, sewing, cooking, haircutting, candy making and so on.
“Many of our women are inside their homes all the time,” Prada said. “In the house they work as cooks, decorators, teachers, babysitters and doctors – all of this in one person. Our union helps to empower the housewives. Many of them were stuck in their homes, they didn’t have time to read or write, they were always cooking and cleaning, they weren’t informed. Many of our women are opening their eyes now.”