By Xili Fernandez
Photo credit: Feminist assembly in Caracas, March 8, 2022. Jose Daniel Ramos. IG: @danielj2511
A lot has happened in the Venezuelan feminist movement since March 8, 2021. A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and just a month and a half after protesting in the streets on that March 8, the #Metoo wave hit Venezuela, bringing into light hundreds of testimonies of sexual harassment and violence committed against minors and women, mostly. Some feminist groups then, most of them politically autonomous, called for a united feminist movement against what seemed to be the start of a long and painful reckoning with the fact that sexual violence is embedded in our society. We were finally having a global conversation, locally.
In September 2021, feminists with different political positions gathered in the streets for the International Safe Abortion Day, on a mass protest in Venezuela, especially for such a sensitive topic, gathering more people than the March 8 protests. In a tendency we pointed out in an article in 2020, the movement seemed to be rising above the political divide, at least on the topic of abortion, even though pro-government feminists opt just for its decriminalization instead of abortion’s full legalization, as they claim this is a more realistic goal. Ironically, sexual and reproductive rights remain a dream in the so-called “Bolivarian revolution”, which is actually profoundly conservative and anti-women’s rights.
For this year’s March 8 demonstrations, like every year, there were different calls in different parts of the country and of course in Caracas too. On March 7, Minister for Women and Gender Equality, Diva Guzman, called for a mass demonstration in Caracas to celebrate women’s day in what she called “a national anti-imperialist march to show that women in Venezuela are progressing, hand in hand with president Maduro”. She addressed young women and the different feminist groups in particular, saying women would join from different parts of the country to also reclaim the Esequibo region (see a socialist critique of Venezuelan reactionary irredentism here) and ensure the warranty of young women’s sexual and reproductive rights – a curious remark, considering the self styled “feminist government” is not moving a finger to offer sexual and reproductive education in public schools, decriminalize abortion or make contraceptive methods affordable, as teenage pregnancy rates are among the highest in the region. In regards to trans rights, there is no acknowledgement of the reality experienced by this community as they lack fundamental rights, let alone the needs that they have.
This March 8, the government call was for 11am and in the same area where autonomous groups had called for their events, within the same time period (the latter organized actions between 9am and 1pm). The slogan for the day by a small group of autonomous feminists was #EstamosJuntas (#WeAreTogether), meaning that all the events being organized by different groups belonged to a feminist agenda for March 8. However, soon it would be clear that the government and its agents did not move in the same spirit.
The different events
Around 9am, women from the health sector, unions and non-profit organizations denounced the precariousness of the living conditions created by Maduro’s policies. With banners denouncing corruption and demanding better salaries, social security and improved conditions for hospitals, they also asked for protective material against COVID-19.
Around the same time, a group of feminists accompanied Yudennis Sánchez to OPSU (the University Sector Planning Office). Yudennis a woman who denounced harassment at her workplace and was separated from her position in retaliation for raising her voice. A few activists took the opportunity to connect her experience with how violence escalates to extreme forms, such as femicides, as the justice system fails to believe women and deliver justice and reparations efficiently, not to mention the lack of real and tangible preventive measures. They demanded the end of procedural delays – a form of institutional violence that grew exponentially under the excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic –, denouncing also, as they do every year, the miserable salaries, the lack of access to contraceptives and their high cost, the need for respect of their fundamental rights in regards to their working and living conditions. Free, legal and safe abortion was a slogan present in the agenda of the autonomous feminists throughout the day.
Maduro’s violence against autonomous feminism
Then, the government’s act tried to portray a supportive narrative onto the different actions taking place in the area: “Chavez, heart of the people”, “Everyone with Maduro” was shouted by a man from a stage set up next to the place where autonomous feminists were supposed to hold a feminist assembly. Around the stage, a small group of feminists shouted at him, “which socialism are you talking about, if we’re being killed?” shaking their heads in disapproval as they asked him to step down and stop boycotting their actions. The infamous cliché of a man trying to silence women on March 8 was only surpassed by a pro-government women’s activist who phoned colectivos (armed paramilitary gangs who usually move in motorbike brigades) to come and attack the group of autonomous feminists rejecting the government’s event. Gabriela Buada, a human rights activist, journalist, researcher and university teacher, explained it on her Twitter account here:
Some of the people accompanying the small group of autonomous feminists, including trans women, men and non binary people decided to leave the area, angry about the manipulation by pro-government supporters, including self-styled feminists, but also to avoid being attacked. Colectivos are known to act recklessly against those they deem enemies of the state and this group was certainly an easy target.
Most of the media reports claim this March 8 protest was small compared to previous years and some of them, such as the German DW, completely ignored the actions of the autonomous feminists, reporting only the pro-government event, stating that it was around 500 people, mostly women, shouting slogans supporting Maduro, such as “to the victory with socialist feminism”, “Venezuelan women have guts”, referring to that toxic notion that is often contested by feminists, of a Venezuelan woman who “can take it all”, including abuse.
The small victories of autonomous feminists
Despite the government’s violence, there were small victories to celebrate, such as the restitution of Yudennis Sánchez, the worker who denounced harassment at her workplace. Important also, was the small feminist assembly that took place after the security incident with government supporters, where autonomous feminists spoke about the importance of taking the streets despite their different positions and agendas, occupying the space, speaking truth to an authoritarian government in power, and showing their solidarity with women suffering the consequences of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
The Venezuelan feminist movement might not be able to overcome political polarization and gain massive support at the same time. While some are willing to promote unified actions to fight for common goals, such as the decriminalization of abortion, most feminists and supporters of feminism in Venezuela do not feel safe sharing spaces with pro-government self-styled feminists. After this March 8, those fears are hard to discredit and mobilizing for women’s rights from now on will not be an easy road to navigate, in a country where inequalities keep growing while some benefit from the de facto dollarization happening since 2019 at a larger scale, and democratic rights like the right to protest are severely limited, leaving feminist issues at risk of being deprioritized again.