Women are chronically underrepresented on Venezuela’s national political stage, both within Chavismo and the opposition. While women tend to be very politically active at the local level, comprising 72 percent of local community councils, they are often restricted to local and or subordinate positions while men are appointed or elected to higher office.
Recent years have seen improvements at the national level, with the 2015 legislative elections allocating 33 percent of National Assembly seats to women. Many women, including outspoken opposition politicians such as Maria Corina Machado and Marialbert Barrios, have risen to the national stage, leading protests and demanding political change.
However, women continue to be left out of senior decision making, inhibiting the ability of both the opposition and the Maduro government to incorporate a gender lens into any efforts to address the country’s crisis. For example, only 3 out of 20 deputies involved with the creation of Plan País were women, contributing to the apparent lack of a gender perspective in the policy plan to reconstruct the country.
Even when women do rise to the national political stage, they are often overshadowed by their male counterparts. A key example is Delsa Solorzano, a widely popular deputy to the National Assembly for Un Nuevo Tiempo. Based on the opposition coalition’s previous agreement, in 2018 the National Assembly presidency would go to Un Nuevo Tiempo and Solorzano was the most popular leader of the party at that time. Nevertheless, the National Assembly ultimately elected 73 year old Omar Barboza, whose legislative career dates back to 1959. Later that year Solorzano split from UNT to form her own party, Encuentro Ciudadano. In her letter of resignation she pointed to the lack of internal democracy and recognition of her contributions.
While women tend to be excluded from elite political circles, they continue to be targets of persecution by the Maduro government. In the government’s efforts to persecute perceived political opponents, the spouses and family members of those deemed a threat are routinely targeted, many of whom are subject to sexual violence, humiliation, and torture by government security forces.
For example, in April, Andrea Bianchi, the girlfriend of Guaidó ally Rafael Rico was harassed and arbitrarily detained by the Maduro government in an effort to force Rico to surrender to the authorities. This trend has only intensified as political persecution and arbitrary arrests have increased since the nationwide COVID-19 lock down was imposed in March.
The chronic underrepresentation and political manipulation of women seen under the Maduro government is also evident in Chavismo. While Socialist Party (PSUV) leaders claim to advance feminist ideals, over time PSUV-affiliated feminist groups have lost their independence and faced accusations of exclusively serving government interests.
This was perhaps most clearly seen in Chavista adaptations of the ‘Violador en tu camino’ song widely used in 2019 feminist protests across the region, intended for use in protests to highlight gender inequalities and impunity against gender-based violence. Opposition and Chavista feminists held separate protests, with Chavistas modifying the chant to make clear that they were not rejecting the Bolivarian revolution.
In reality, in recent years the government has failed to invest in women’s development programs, contributing to the massive inequalities in access to public services seen today. Chavista politicians also continue to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, advancing the image of women as mothers and caregivers before all else.
This one-dimensional perception of the role of women was on display by the recent public statement by Maduro on International Women’s Day that “all women should have 6 children to grow the homeland.” Not only do suggestions like this completely disregard the dangers of pregnancy and motherhood in Venezuela today, but they reinforce the traditional role of women as mothers, not as constituents or political actors.
As Magdymar Leon, Venezuelan human rights activist and Executive Coordinator of the Venezuelan women’s rights organization Avesa, says, “This public policy that has been developed is not directed at women, but actually at mothers. Venezuelan women exist as mothers, not so much as women…It is not really a discourse of equality. It’s a discourse of women as a uterus to produce men for the revolution.”
Women have also been excluded from most negotiations between Chavismo and the opposition, with no women present in the 2019 Barbados and Oslo negotiations. This is unfortunate as research suggests having women involved actually increases the likelihood that negotiations lead to a lasting solution. According to a study by the International Institute of Peace, negotiated agreements are 35 percent more likely to last for 15 years or more when women participate in the negotiation process.