Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Women and the Transformation of Venezuela



From political representation and employment rights to tackling poverty and domestic violence, women’s advancement in Venezuela has been remarkable since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998. But these changes haven’t happened by accident. Women themselves have been a driving force behind the revolutionary process and gender equality was enshrined in Venezuela’s progressive constitution adopted in 1999.

For decades feminists across the world have demanded recognition that domestic labour, largely carried out by women, is economically productive. Section 88 of Venezuela’s constitution is the only one in the world that acknowledges this and over 100,000 women in poverty have benefitted, receiving financial support, education, training and access to social security. The government has also helped some of Venezuela’s poorest and most excluded women buy essential household goods such as fridges, cookers and washing machines, thanks to the creation of the world’s first development bank that lends almost exclusively to women.

Venezuela’s Banmujer, or Women’s Development Bank, was set up to tackle poverty and empower women in their communities. Through providing low-interest loans, advice and workshops about a range of issues, women have the financial means and confidence to set up small businesses and co-operatives. Over 500,000 jobs have been created as a result of Banmujer’s work, giving financial independence to women and economic benefits to the wider community.

Women are also changing the face of their communities through leading social programmes and participating in community councils, which set local budgets and projects funded by the government. These councils are made up of around 200-400 households in each neighbourhood and 70 per cent of participants are women. With this high activity at grassroots level, it’s not surprising that women account for over half of elected mayors and regional government officials. 

At the national level women have more seats in Parliament than ever before, lead important ministries and shape national policy. The Inamujer, or National Women’s Institute, was instrumental in forming and enforcing the law on the right of women to a life free of violence. Recognised by Amnesty as a positive step towards women’s liberation, this law has prompted training of police and legal staff to deal specifically with and prevent gendered violence. 

Venezuela has adopted progressive rights for women and mothers at work too. Under the recently adopted Labour Law, which has improved rights for all workers, specific measures for women include an increase in maternity leave, job security for expectant mothers, and better childcare provision. Employers with over 20 employees must provide a crèche for children between 3 months and 6 years old.

These rights have made it easier for new mothers to remain in work, attain senior positions and overturn a deep-seated prejudice against women workers. It’s hard to believe that before the revolution an employer had the right to ask a woman to submit a pregnancy test if she was offered a job! Thankfully that is now outlawed and women account for 42 per cent of the workforce, up from 20 per cent before Chavez was elected. It’s worth noting that Venezuela also has South America’s smallest gender pay gap.

These are just some of the developments made by women and for women in Venezuela. It is astonishing that these huge strides in gender equality have been made in only 14 years and shows just how much can be achieved with the political will and dedication of a socialist government.

While women in Venezuela continue to benefit from policies, institutions and groups set up to specifically tackle gender inequality, it is important to remember that equally, Venezuelan society has benefitted from women’s more active participation in democratic structures that continue to build a better society for all Venezuelans.

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