Source: Gustavo Granado/AFP/Getty Images.
Once again, the Venezuelan conflict seems to be at a standstill. An immediate political change certainly does not seem to be on the horizon. Since 2019, the opposition—with broad support from international actors—attempted a new political strategy to bring a transition, so far without success. Meanwhile, despite significant pressures, the government has managed to consolidate an authoritarian regime that, although volatile, still holds power. Under mediation with the Kingdom of Norway, a new negotiation between government elites and sectors of the traditional opposition has been reestablished. In theory, this space would represent a window of opportunity to set forth new rules of the political game. Yet, for whom and to what end? Taking a feminist perspective, we propose a different approach to the negotiations and to a possible democratization process.
As highlighted by the latest report of the United Nations International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela systematic human rights violations have not ceased. These human rights violations combined with the humanitarian crisis—which was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic—have had differentiated impacts on women and girls. Authoritarianism has also exacerbated dependency, exclusion, sexism, and misogyny. Women are the ones who stand in long lines to get food and are even the last ones to eat. They are also the ones who are in charge of caring for their family members. Grandmothers and mothers are the ones who save on food, education, and avoid spending on their own health, including personal hygiene items, to distribute them among their sons and daughters. In addition, cis women and girls experience a lack of access to sexual and reproductive rights, including menstrual poverty.
In Venezuela, we observe a phenomenon called the “feminization of poverty,” a phenomenon in which women are the poorest in society. Moreover, violence against women is increasing. According to data from the Center Justice and Peace (CEPAZ, per its Spanish acronym), there were at least 290 femicides in 2021 and 199 femicides between January and September 2022. Trafficking and smuggling for the purpose of sexual exploitation of girls, adolescents, and women have also increased in recent years. Women activists, politicians, and communication workers are victims of violence, persecution, and criminalization. This situation requires urgent action that must be on the agenda before and after a transition. This must be part of a programmatic-ideological response from Venezuela’s democratic actors.
Venezuela’s Democratic Future must be Feminist
What do we understand as feminism(s)? It is important to emphasize that “feminism” is not a homogenous concept. In contrast, its theoretical approaches vary. Terms such as “feminism” and “patriarchy” have evolved over time. However, we think that feminism’s ultimate goal is always the same—the search for equality, non-discrimination, and, above all, the eradication of the roots of patriarchy. Following Patricia Hill Collins’s definition, for us, feminism is intersectional—implying that societies function within a system of oppression and privilege that do not depend solely on gender, but also on class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, among other factors. This practical, theoretical movement—which has been nominally co-opted by the ruling party—should be embraced by the democratic opposition. Both from a substantive and a formal viewpoint, feminist theories provide answers to Venezuela’s heteronormative opposition that—until now—has been led by privileged men from the capital of the country and whose goals have not been achieved.
For a new democracy to be sustainable over time, it should be feminist. Comparative studies show that the inclusion of women in conflict resolution and peace processes positively affects the likelihood of their sustainability. Furthermore, societies that have addressed their structural inequalities tend to be the most democratic, peaceful, and have the greatest potential for economic growth. Consequently, a feminist democracy should be the immediate demand of the Venezuelan population to its political elites.
Feminism is essential for any state whose ultimate goal is to achieve transformative changes in society. Therefore, political pacts should place gender equality at their core. Moreover, all public policy, humanitarian support, investment efforts, state reforms should have a cross-cutting feminist perspective aimed at strengthening society. Any approach should be aimed at addressing old and new power structures that have excluded women and other groups. In this regard, for a democratic and feminist transition, there are a number of measures that should be taken into account.
A Feminist Democratic Transition
On economic policy, inclusion and equality mechanisms should be at the core of pre- and post-transition discussions. According to the United Nations, “in Latin America and the Caribbean, women devote more than three times as much time to unpaid work as men, and of the more than 14.8 million domestic workers, 91.1 percent are women.” Reforms that provide for equal hiring and pay practices should thus be considered. This, in turn, would require the implementation of concrete measures to achieve non-discrimination for individuals who have domestic responsibilities. The Venezuelan State has signed equal opportunity agreements with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that have not been enforced in recent decades. A strengthened and more equitable economy will only contribute to the construction of a new democracy if it addresses the diverse demands of society.
On the institutional level, it is crucial to consider the foundations of a more representative and sustainable democracy. For example, beyond building consensus around counter-majoritarian institutions, through decentralization and strengthening vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms, parties should commit themselves to introducing elements that favor the pluralistic representation and participation of society. As civil society groups have demanded in the past, women should be incorporated in the negotiation process—a positive step toward the construction of a more egalitarian and feminist democracy. We also suggest that affirmative action policies should be developed. This could lead to positive steps toward achieving further female representation in historically male-dominated sectors. It also aligns with international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and specifically its General Recommendation 25.
Regarding political representation, with its most recent special regulation issued in 2021 for municipal and regional elections, the pro-Chavez government has taken measures to facilitate greater participation of women. Such a measure is not sufficient and should be extended to all public offices, ministries, and diplomatic delegations. This should not be treated as a “cosmetic measure,” but a real transformation of the public sphere toward a feminist one where equality is the standard.
A new approach to the state-society relationship should be rethought with a gender and comparative perspective. Evidence from Latin America and Europe shows the impact of innovative gender policies on the quality of democracy. This requires extensive training in human rights and gender for those who hold public office. We welcome the training and capacity building that are being carried out to position women in leadership positions. However, we must be cautious not to replicate stereotypes about the inadequacy of women as leaders and the constant training requirement which leads to unpaid labor. These should be offered through mandatory short courses for the exercise of public office. The resources for a training program of this kind, as well as future public policy references, should stem from close institutional cooperation between universities and the state. In other words, the professionalization of any public policy on gender equality is key to achieving sustainable democracy.
In addition, it is essential to design and promote public policies against gender violence. These campaigns should not only focus on women, but also on those who are, in most cases, the perpetrators of violence—through messages that discuss non-violent and positive masculinities. Such campaigns and measures would require a sufficient budget over time in order to ensure that this does not, once again, create unpaid labor. Likewise, universities, social movements, professional associations, and local NGOs could have a fundamental role in developing these policies. With more than 7 million Venezuelans abroad, the Venezuelan diaspora can similarly play a fundamental role in this process given that their comparative experiences may contribute to the knowledge transfer from the host countries to Venezuela.
These ideas could help build a feminist and democratic Venezuela that is inclusive of historically discriminated against parts of society. Feminism can represent an opportunity for collaborative work among political elites with a shared interest in producing sustainable change in Venezuela. After decades of confrontation and violence, human rights violations, and undermining democratic spaces, leveraging intersectional feminist approaches to equality and inclusion should be embraced by democratic opposition parties. Doing so would offer a historic opportunity to show their commitment to modern debates and ideas that have proven successful in building robust democracies.
Maryhen Jiménez is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and an MPhil in Latin American Studies from the University of Oxford and is a political scientist from the Goethe University Frankfurt. Her field of research focuses on comparative authoritarianism, democratization, opposition movements, and political parties.
María Corina Muskus Toro is a feminist lawyer and currently a Ph.D. student at Osgoode Hall Law School York University, where she studies non-carceral alternatives for women who have experienced violence in Venezuela. She holds an LL.M. from Osgoode Hall Law School and an LL.M. in gender and human rights from American University Washington College of Law.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.