By Marisela Castillo Apitz
Women in Venezuela won the right to vote 65 years ago, a sign of the lag in the country’s inclusion of women in political and civic life compared with other nations in the region.
Ecuador was the first Latin American country to give women the right to vote in 1929. By 1933, Brazil had its first woman lawmaker. But Venezuela was absent in this arena until 1947 when Venezuelan women were given the right to vote.
Evangelina García Prince, a professor and researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences said the lag in recognition of women’s rights has had a serious impact on the current situation.
Citing figures from international organization Social Watch, García Prince said women in Venezuela suffer the most inequality in the region in terms of holding high-level positions in government such as the legislature, executive branch and courts.
Even though by 2011 women represented half of the electorate — or 9 million women — their presence in public offices is lacking. According to García Prince, women hold less than one-fifth of the mayoral offices and just 30 of the 165 seats in Parliament. Of Venezuela’s 23 states, only in two of them do women occupy the governor’s office: Lizeta Hernández in the northeastern Delta state and Stella Lugo in the northwestern Amacuro state, both of them from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV.
Venezuela’s constitution states that the government must adopt measures to combat discrimination. But this is “impossible to put into practice” because there is no accompanying legislation to outline how this can be accomplished, García Prince said.
The Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court in May 2000, under President Hugo Chávez, knocked down an article in a law that established a 30 percent quota for women in public offices “because it created a supposed advantage of women over men,” she said.
The decision was later ratified by the Constitutional Chamber in February 2011, which García Prince called a “machista sentence” and relieved public spaces from ensuring women’s participation.
María Corina Machado, a deputy in the National Assembly who came close to running for president for an opposition party said that women in Venezuela often hold subordinate positions and lamented the lack of confidence in women’s leadership.
“Even though Hugo Chávez’s government has given more space to women, this is a fictitious inclusion because none of the women are in strategic positions,” she said. Of Venezuela’s 32 ministries, women head 12, including the Education, Health and Labor Ministries.
Sandra Obregón, a representative of the United Nations Development Program, agrees and said that many of these women head ministries that are low-conflict.
“Women are currently subordinate to men and are not at the forefront of decisions and processes that define public life,” she said.
The polarization that has marked Venezuelan politics for years is also a factor contributing to inequality.
“Neither the opposition nor Chávez’s government are working as a team to guarantee gender equality,” said a member of the opposition Democratic Action party, who asked that her name not be used. “It’s unfortunate. The polarization consumes us and we are not able to put our ideologies aside to unite.”
María Colmenares, a community leader and a member of the ruling party said that Chávez is not a machista but that it is difficult to reach an agreement with the opposition because “the only thing they want to do is hurt him.”
“Even though women could hold more and better positions, politics consumes the principal debate because the real objective is install socialism as the government system,” she said. “Everything else can wait. First we have to have a revolution that becomes stronger with the support of everyone — men and women.”
Reality tells another story, according to García Prince. The researcher said that the government and political parties need to make a formal decision to ensure that women are included in political structures and policymaking.
Obregón said that beyond quotas, women also need more funding for their political campaigns.
Nations such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Panama require gender equality on this front, but Venezuela does not.
“There is no Venezuelan political party that has developed an explicit norm on the distribution of funds,” she said, calling the current situation a “political apartheid against women.”