Voices from Venezuela’s International Women’s Day March

By Rachael Boothroyd Rojas

Thousands of Chavistas marched through the streets of Caracas to the National Pantheon of Heroes this International Women’s Day (IWD), to celebrate the inclusion of three indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan women historical figures into the distinguished mausoleum.

Meanwhile at a later demonstration outside the main maternity hospital in Caracas, Venezuelan feminists rallied to calls for an international women’s strike this March 8th, demanding an end to obstetric violence and femicide.

Starting out from Plaza el Venezolano in central Caracas at 11am, Wednesday’s marchers accompanied the symbolic remains of indigenous warrior Jefa Pacuana, and Afro-Venezuelan historical figures La Negra Hipolita and La Negra Matea to the National Pantheon, where they were laid to rest as part of an official ceremony by the national government.

The three women are recognised as having played a vital role in shaping Venezuelan history, and their inclusion in the mausoleum has been pending since it was announced by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias on IWD in 2008.

As an indigenous leader of the Quiriquire, Jefa Pacuana led a rebellion against Spanish occupying forces in the mid 1500s, while La Negra Hipolita, otherwise known as Hipolita Bolivar, and La Negra Matea or Matea Bolivar were born into slavery and assigned to care for legendary Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar as his wet nurse and nanny. Both Matea and Hipolita had a profound impact on Bolivar’s personal development as a child and were later liberated by the independence leader.

“I am here, first of all because this is a historic act, that two Black women and an indigenous woman are receiving state recognition… It’s a symbolic tribute, because racism still exists, because discrimination against women still exists, and we continue to be undervalued,” commented Maria Eugenia Acero Colomines, Coordinator of Culture and Gender at the Ministry for Women and Gender Equality.

The move brings the total number of women included in the Pantheon to nine, a figure which has tripled since the Bolivarian Revolution came to power in 1999. This recognition of important female historical figures, alongside gender-specific social programs, has won significant support for Chavismo among working class women.

Nonetheless, many of the women present at the IWD march commented that there was still a long way to go for achieving full gender equality in Venezuela.

For Nicomedia Pestana, a health manager in the UNEARTE Art University and a member of the UNAMUJER women’s syndicate and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), women have proved themselves to be the backbone of the revolutionary process in Venezuela, but have often not received the acknowledgement they deserve.

“The attack against the revolution that we have experienced, and which we have resisted is because women have come through,” she told Venezuelanalysis.

“The greatest challenge for Venezuelan women today is that men listen to us, that they value us. Commander Chavez was always a feminist and I don’t think it should be about paying lip service. Often you see men saying that they are revolutionaries, but they continue to be sexist,” she continued.

(Nicomedia Pestana) 

Although the march in the capital was just one of many activities held throughout the country to commemorate IWD, some women had travelled from across Venezuela to be present.

Livia Herrera, an indigenous Warao woman, had travelled from her community in Monagas state to participate in the march. While grateful for the solidarity extended to indigenous communities by the PSUV government, Herrera also explained that one of the greatest problems continuing to face indigenous women is a lack of basic social services.

“We came today to march for women in the struggle, Black women, and we will fight for them, for everyone, mixed heritage women, indigenous women, we will always give our support because we are women in struggle,” she said.

“But we don’t have houses, or schools or roads, our children don’t know how to read because we have no help,” she stressed.

(Livia Herrera)

Similar views highlighting the struggles still faced by many Venezuelan women in spite of eighteen years of revolution were expressed later on at an unofficial rally outside Caracas’ main maternity hospital La Maternidad, where a separate and much smaller group of feminist organisations had decided to respond to international calls for a global women’s strike this March 8th.

“We were present at the (government) march, and we understand that it’s important to recognise the role of women in our history… but today is a day of struggle in which we women have historically fought for our rights. And so here we are striking, joining the international strike. Because there is much to be done,” said Daniela Inojosa, a coordinator for the Feminist Spider network.

“The revolution has given us a lot, it has made us visible, we have the law for workers, the law for women’s right to a life free of violence, but we still have not managed to set in motion a cultural change. We are still abused, and still victimised,” she added.

The location of the rally outside Caracas’ principal maternity hospital was by no means coincidental, and its aim was to draw attention to the historic obstetric violence that women have suffered and continue to suffer in Venezuela, including unnecessary caesareans and violent practices carried out without women’s consent on the birthing table, sometimes even resulting in death.

According to march organisers, giving birth in Venezuela has increasingly become a dangerous act in recent years, and particularly for working class women.

“There have been no official figures on maternal death rates since 2014, this is a very serious situation for us as women… However those of us who are dedicated to studying femicide and maternal death rates know that they are increasing. In fact, there was a considerable increase in both of these between 2015-2016. For this reason we believe that it’s necessary to visible violence against women,” explained Ariadna Sur Mogollon, from the feminist collective La Urdimbre.

Despite the lack of official figures, a statement released by an alliance of feminist and women’s collectives across Venezuela explaining their reasons for joining the international strike on 8M stated that deaths in childbirth had now reached 139 per 100,000 live births. It’s a number which is still well below the World Bank’s 2015 maternal mortality ratio for developing countries (239 per 100,000), but a far cry from the 12 per 100,000 average for countries in the global North.

For this reason, feminist organisations are calling for more ethical treatment and better attention in birthing, sexual health and gynaecological services, access to doulas for pregnant women, and harsher consequences for healthcare professionals found guilty of obstetric violence as a response.

“We are mistreated when we are at our most vulnerable, during childbirth” explains Inojosa.

“This is to do with medical apathy and turning health into a business. They don’t treat you the same in a public hospital as they do in a private clinic, and so it’s also a class struggle … Obstetric violence is a way of killing us,” she said.

Although the issue of obstetric violence might have been the driving force behind the Maternidad rally, many other issues were also brought to the fore. In particular the right to abortion, which remains illegal, more institutional support and recognition in cases of domestic violence, free contraceptives, and an end to the propagation of sexism in the media – all of which have become the rallying cries of Venezuela’s feminist movement in recent years

“Here they will attend to you when you turn up dead, or in a terrible state of health. When you try and officially make a denouncement, like hey look my partner is beating me, or I’m being harassed by an ex partner, it’s not attended to by the public prosecution,” stated Mogollon.

Nonetheless, she also believes that consciousness surrounding gender violence and femicide is progressively gaining much more ground among Venezuelan women.

“It’s important to state that there is greater awareness by women and the denouncement rates are rising as well. The ability to speak out and say that I am a victim of gender violence, to be able to distinguish that and dare to say it… We are increasingly making ourselves visible… and femicide is being called by its name,” she added.

Given the strong emphasis on the issue of femicide at the march, trans activists also came forward to draw attention to their particular vulnerability when it comes to gender based violence.

“Femicides against trans people are not visibilised,” says Rummie Quintero, the principal spokesperson for the civil association Divas of Venezuela, which focuses on furthering the rights of the country’s LGBTQ and particularly trans community.

“When they appear in the press, it’s usually in an insulting way. They say it was a man in costume and the chance to poke fun at someone is more valued than the recognition of that person who has been killed as a feminine trans person. That’s why we are saying that femicide must be understood as a concept which goes beyond the anatomic, the morphological… Because we are victims of femicide too,” she explained.

(Rummie Quintero – far left)

According to Quintero, it’s not just structural violence that trans women continue to face as Venezuelan women, but also occasional exclusion from the wider feminist movement, which she says makes it increasingly hard to reach common goals.

“We are trans feminists, and for us it’s very important that these kind of actions continue, in a unified way between all women and without discrimination, because the patriarchy doesn’t discriminate when it comes to doing damage to any woman. And so I want to make a call to our feminist friends, who sometimes have a very radical and patriarchal position, to tell them that women in the transsexual community are their sisters in struggle,” she added.

Like many of the other women present, Quintero praised the Bolivarian revolution for having provided a vital “window” of opportunity for women’s organisation, but recognised that many more marches and grassroots mobilisations will be needed if a life of gender equality and free from violence is to be made a reality for ordinary Venezuelan women.

For Inojosa, Wednesday march was a vital stepping stone in this long struggle and an opportunity to come together and evaluate, even if the next steps for the movement remain unclear.

“We know it’s not easy to mobilise at this moment, because we feel that we are being given such respect by the revolutionary government, which has made such an effort to advance women’s material conditions, but it’s not enough, and we want more. That is what today is about,” she told Venezuelanalysis.

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