Gender Issues in Venezuela’s Constitution

Two days following Venezuela’s constitutional reform referendum, a group of forty anti-sexism advocates held a joyous gathering in Mérida, Venezuela to inaugurate the first edition of their collective magazine which focuses on gender consciousness issues.

Two days following Venezuela’s constitutional reform referendum, a group of forty anti-sexism advocates held a joyous gathering in Mérida, Venezuela to inaugurate the first edition of their collective magazine which focuses on gender consciousness issues.

Amidst the elegant ceremonies, original dance performances, and interesting lectures, the subject of the referendum came up quite a few times. Listening and observing, I found that this crowd was home to perspectives that have been largely absent from analysis of the constitutional reform defeated in Sunday’s vote.

Josefa María José, a soft-spoken elementary school teacher and writer with a warm smile, commented frankly, "gender was unrecognized in the reform." After a brief pause, with open hands and relaxed shoulders, she shared with me that her whole experience of the referendum reminded of her of how she felt in her twelve years as a nun, before she realized that such a life path was not for her: "Invisible and hidden away".

Having studied and discussed the reform thoroughly over previous months, I could have responded by citing the gender-related reform proposals. It was obvious, though, that this well-informed activist already knew about them. The issue at hand was that placing a few representations of gender issues in the referendum did not necessarily mean that these issues received meaningful, valuable attention.

I reflected for a moment on a rousing speech I heard president Chávez hurl into the air at a pro-reform rally. "Women’s participation in the reform is deeply important," I heard him roll like a boulder into the crowd, "women should participate in everything, so they can conduct, so they can be commanders, so they can compel changes".

While it is significant that Chávez thunderously supported women’s participation in public affairs, his words gave ambiguous value to women’s roles. Sure, Chávez said women are needed to help the referendum pass, but this falls way short of a pledge to end patriarchy and male domination in society. Furthermore, women were invited to support the revolution by taking charge of the domineering and authoritative things men usually do. Women were encouraged to be "equal" to men in such a way that mimicked the domination-based political structures that currently exist. Considering this, the proposal women were called to promote might not have reflected the deep changes in human relations necessary for ending sexist oppression.

To be sure, the reform’s proposals concerning women were indeed eye-catching, and were not denounced in themselves by activists. Ana María Chaurio, an avowed anti-sexist revolutionary, pointed out in front of Tuesday’s group that "the reform proposed equal representation of the sexes in political matters." But the analysis hastily unleashed by this political science student made clear that "this aspect of the reform was the least discussed," suggesting that "all the presidents in the world could be women and that would not bring an end to the patriarchal culture which oppresses women."

Chaurio passed around a recent newspaper to demonstrate that it was packed, especially the advertisements, with images of women as sexual objects and men as dominant. Words to describe the culture which produced this material were suggested: "Diseased," "degrading". The young speaker suggested that gender-based domination, sexual repression, and violent and hetero-normative conceptions of sex are problems that require much deeper changes than the proposals for sexual equality sprinkled on top of the constitutional reform.

Perhaps constitutional reform and state activity in general are not adequate apparatuses for bringing about deeper changes regarding gender. Lisbeida Rangel, a dancer who promotes women’s rights through community cultural activities, reflected after her performance Tuesday that "this is a long-term cultural struggle, and the constitutional reform was about other issues, like the construction of a socialist state." Rangel explained that she was not particularly troubled by the relative scarcity of gender issues in the reform, which she saw as a somewhat separate battle.

On the other hand, a group of Caracas-based activists teamed up with workers from the National Women’s Institute saw the possibility that thirteen articles of the constitution could be reformed to make the constitution significantly more gender conscious. Last April, in a private meeting with the president of the constitutional reform commission, Carlos Escarrá, this group presented a detailed proposal regarding the decriminalization of abortion, non-discriminatory parental responsibility, legal recognition of people not in conformity with the gender or sex binary, same-sex marriage, and legal protection of sex workers.

According to the activists, Escarrá listened receptively, but lamented that he did not agree with some of their proposals, adding that the group’s ideas were simply too controversial to be included in the reform. Nonetheless he invited the group to join the battle for victory in the referendum.

It is noteworthy that in the reform proposal submitted by Escarrá, sexual orientation was added to Article 21’s list of qualities such as race, sex, and class which could not be the basis of discrimination. However, a participant in Tuesday’s gathering commented on how limited in function such legal verbiage really is, speculating that "if a real change like decriminalization of abortion had been part of the reform, it would have lost by a larger majority than it did."

Aurora Obando, the most prominent organizer of the magazine and its inauguration, was asked if she felt sad about the defeat of the referendum. "It is not about feeling either sad or happy, nor is it about victory or defeat," she optimistically replied, indicating that such dualistic thinking did not apply in her world. Without a hint of shyness about her tendency to theorize, the activist added "feminine consciousness is not drawing lines of division in everything… it is for men and for women, it is a process of recognizing differences and unifying in spite of them." She raised her finger to emphasize the words displayed on the cover of the magazine: "For a world without borders."

Other leaders of the gathering chimed in, basing their opinions on their personal experience. "As a leader, I sometimes have a grand vision and I want others to move with me toward that vision," one reflected, "but if others are not moving at my speed, that is just part of the process, I respect them." Another activist added, "this constitutional reform was very hurried, a lot of change pushed into very little time." I understood them to be expressing the hope that many changes stuffed into the reform proposal will come about through a process of gradual transformation.

A male activist at the gathering opined that the constitutional reform was great for women, just like the Bolivarian Revolution project has been so far, that was why so many women supported both the reform and President Chávez. Even though his comments were inconsistent with critiques raised by other friends, the highlighted significant advances brought in the past eight years in women’s social security, laws prohibiting violence against women, and women’s participation in economic and political projects. It is true that masses of Venezuelan women strongly identify their life struggles with the revolutionary process currently underway in Venezuela.

Most people at this gathering seemed to want to push the process beyond its current state, and in a different direction. Such discussions should be encouraged as the Venezuelan political process continues to transform.