By Jane West
The funeral of Hugo Chávez takes place today, 8th March 2013, which is also International Women’s Day.
That is apt as some of the most remarkable achievements of Chávez’s Venezuela are the advances that have been achieved for women.
Anyone who has visited Venezuela cannot help being struck by the prominence of combative, confident women in the ranks of the Chávista movement, leading many of the social and political programmes at a community level or as elected representatives.
The soaring democratic participation of women in all aspects of society and the social movement is a reflection of Chávez’s unfailing commitment to raising the status of women in Venezuelan society and struggling for true equality between the sexes.
As a result Venezuelan women are among those who have gained most from the social process led by Chávez over the last 14 years, which is why women will be in the forefront of those grieving for the loss of Chávez today.
The advances for women in Venezuela are remarkable, and demonstrate how even in a relatively poor and underdeveloped country, massive progress can be made if there is a state with the political will to achieve it.
This political will was demonstrated immediately after Chávez came to power with the drafting of a new ‘Bolivarian’ constitution.
In the process leading to the final draft and its adoption by the Constituent Assembly, Venezuelans themselves were encouraged to propose draft demands that might be incorporated.
Thousands of Venezuelan women from existing women’s organisations, but drawing in everyone from housewives to activists, came together to form the Constitutional Front of Women of the Fifth Republic Movement (FCMMVR), which set about engaging women in the constitutional process and promoting women candidates to the Constituent Assembly.
The ‘Bolivarian constitution’ eventually adopted in December 1999 enshrined equalities and human rights for all as a principle of the state. It addresses sexual and domestic violence, issues of discrimination and equality at work, while also throughout using ‘non-sexist’ language (rather than the practice in Spanish of using the ‘male’ linguistic form to ‘include’ women).
The constitution set a framework of priorities for the state that would determine action to deliver real support for women.
For example, it went further than any other constitution in the world in recognising the economic value of childcare and housework. This opened the way to a social security system that covered the poorest women in the barrios who were caring for children with no work and no income. This ‘Mothers of the Neighbourhood’ programme – which alongside a payment of 80 per cent of the minimum wage also provides training for future work – is typical of the kind of programmes that have been established to benefit the poorest and most excluded women.
However, the biggest impact of such measures can be seen in the political engagement and activism of women at every level.
In the neighbourhoods, many of the social programmes – around health, food distribution, micro-enterprises, domestic violence, housing and sanitation for example – are led by women.
In the political sphere this engagement of women is even more striking. Women really are the spearhead of the Bolivarian revolution.
In the community councils it is estimated 70 per cent of those actively involved are women. At the level of Mayors a striking 63 per cent are female. Legislation requiring gender parity in candidate lists meant that from 2008 women elected at regional government level went from 18 per cent to 50 per cent overnight.
In the 40 years before Chávez came to power in 1998 there were a total of 27 women who headed ministries. In the 14 years of Chávez there have been 40.
The progress in the representation of women in the National Parliament has been slower – rising from 12 per cent to 17 per cent under Chávez. But, as anyone who goes to Venezuela to meet the activists of the Bolivarian revolution knows, the combative Chavista women who are leading on the ground will ensure this changes as the revolution advances.
This high level of activity by women is based on the real social advances they have seen in the last 14 years.
The real steps towards the liberation of women embodied in the Chávez revolution take forward the struggle of women everywhere. Particularly in other Latin American countries, the Venezuelan discussions and progress on women’s rights and gender equality have empowered other women to demand the same.
That is why, alongside the women of Venezuela, on this International Women’s Day our priority is to mourn the loss of a great champion of women’s rights and liberation, who inspired the women of his country and far beyond. These women will today pledge themselves to continuing his struggle for liberty and equality for all, not least for women.