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Women on the Rise

An Interview with Nora Castañeda

Saturday 20 September 2008, by Michael Albert

In early September I went to Venezuela to give a talk about economic vision at a conference there. I stayed a week, and with Greg Wilpert interviewed numerous people about the Bolivarian Revolution. These interviews will appear in coming days and weeks on ZCom. Here is the first, about the role and situation of women, held with Nora Castañeda, head of the Women’s Bank in Venezuela and prominent activist in all dimensions of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Albert: What is your position in Venezuela and briefly what is the route that you took to get where you are?

Castañeda: I am the head of the Woman’s Bank and also part of the women’s movement and feminist movement. So I combine class struggle and struggle for women.

Why a Woman’s Bank and not just a bank? What is it in Venezuela’s past that makes the situation of women such that you need a women’s bank, in particular?

Venezuelan women have been talking about the human rights of women but women in general are agreed that the economic rights of women have not been included anywhere in the world. The integral full rights of women haven’t been respected.

At the women’s conference in Beijing in 1995 there was an agreement to fight for the economic rights of women. That gathering agreed that funds to promote micro finance instruments for women should be provided. When President Chavez came to power in 1998, the women’s movement presented a proposal to create a bank for women because among the poor, the poorest are women. And so it came into being.

Can you broadly summarize, since 1998, the steps that have been taken to overcome sexist oppression with regard education, jobs, daycare, health care, the way women are characterized in the media, and so on?

In 1999 the new constitution was implemented. The entire constitution includes women’s concerns. There is one article, in particular, number 88, where it points out something women specifically asked for.

The work that women do at home, work that isn’t remunerated - is work that creates wealth for the country and social status for the family. The state should be obliged to provide integral social security for it. And about three years ago a new mission was created - mission women of the barrio - and now the poorest women in the country are given economic support which is 80% of the minimum wage and since the minimum wage is increasing every year, this financial support for women is increasing as well. So far 100,000 women are receiving this support and the women’s bank also provides credit to help these and other women pass into additional productive activity.

Are daycare facilities and provision better than they were?

For women who work outside of the home, yes, we now have a place to take children within the barrios where other women from the same neighborhood take care of them. And right now, the Ministry of Education is creating something that is called, in translation, something like "little Bolivars."

To these, the children can come at 8 AM and get a breakfast, then a snack, and then lunch, and then another snack. At 3 PM their parents pick them up to go home, and it is all completely free. The children get quality education and means to play as well as nutrition, and the parents have the opportunity to work.

Are the changes occurring in daycare, health, and education leading to changes in the way men and women are relating in the household? Are the ways people are doing tasks, or who are doing tasks, changing? Are men different now than they were in the past?

The work that women are doing is certainly changing, so what men are doing is changing too - but the machismo culture is still very strong. So now we are additionally working a lot on what is being called masculinity, on the new position of men in society.

The situation is like this. Men have to some extent been displaced by women’s new activity because previously men were alone in charge of the income and now with women playing a big role, this has generated conflicts.

So we are working with the men and the women to deal with these conflicts in a positive way.

We still maintain that our enemy is imperialism and capitalists. Our enemy is not the men at our side. But we also have to resolve the problem of machismo. And we women are also machista because this is an ideology that also affects women. So we are working on these problems economically, but also culturally and ideologically.

Is there any Bolivarian discussion in Venezuela of family structure, or marriage, or parenting also needing to be changed?

Yes. First, in the constitution it doesn’t talk about the family, but about families, plural, because there are various family types particularly in rural Venezuela with different indigenous ways of organizing family life than, say, for typical families in Caracas.

We have also introduced a law about responsible parenting, motherhood and fatherhood, and about how to construct new families, different families, that are more in solidarity with one another and co-responsible for young people something that is very much needed in a country where there is a lot of irresponsible fatherhood.

Where are these types of changes discussed? Who is talking about this?

The broad women’s movement is trying to do this, academic women, the International Women’s Institute, the Women and Youth Commission of the National Assembly, and the Women’s Bank.

So this effort is very much women led, female led...

Yes, but with some allied men.

Do the women’s organizations have to put pressure on the government to get the laws you spoke of or is the government taking initiative about feminist issues on its own?

The President is definitely collaborating, as is the leadership of the National Assembly. But not all the government is collaborating because many don’t understand the gender perspective.

Still, the President signed an executive order according to which the entire public administration should be gender sensitive. The development of budgets should include attention to gender. The Planning Ministry and the National Office for Budgeting, and the National Statistics Institute work with women on this. But there is still a lot to do.

What would you like to see happen in the next 3, 4, or 5, years? What steps do you think would solidify the gains of women and take those gains to a new higher level?

We would like that many of the experimental new programs that are directed toward women are converted into public policy so that they are obligatory for the entire public administration and applied universally. There is, for example, a Woman’s Minister of the State, which is a kind of special but partial ministry, and I would like to see it become a full ministry empowered to make sure all branches of government follow the new gender policies.

What about a successor to the President who is a woman? Would you like to see that?

No, (laughing) we want Chavez to be the next President because he has a very strong commitment to women and if we had a woman take his place we could end up with a woman who doesn’t have a very strong commitment to women. Someone like Margaret Thatcher.

What about the place of children? Are boys and girls treated the same in schools, are they graduating in the same numbers, are they going into medicine and other professions in similar numbers?

In Venezuela young girls are doing better than young boys. In elementary school they perform more or less equally. But in High School girls do better and graduate in higher numbers and beyond that, the universities are basically feminized in almost all areas, except for engineering, where the number of women is increasing but still well behind. We may even need a law, or something, to deal with engineering.

What is causing this disparity?

With the poverty that has existed, many boys leave school at an early age in order to start earning income. And boys are also less focused in their work, their attention is more dispersed. There is also a drug problem among boys, much more than girls. The girls are more disciplined, perhaps due to their greater participation in the family and as a result they achieve more in their studies. The girls get better grades than the boys. But, nonetheless, when boys and girls enter the labor market, there is still discrimination so that men make more money than women.

In Venezuela, additionally, women tend to have children at a very young age and as a result employers tend to prefer to hire boys instead of girls because in Venezuela there is pre and post natal leave for births, which is fully paid. The employers would rather have a male worker, who won’t take that leave. Also, a woman who has just had a baby, or who is pregnant, cannot be fired until the child is one year old, at least. So employers would rather avoid these various costs by hiring men in place of women.

So why doesn’t the government pass a law that both parents should get pre and post natal leave and neither parent can be fired for a year, so employers have no reason to prefer to hire men over women?

I agree. In the new law that we are now discussing in the National Assembly, that change would happen. But still, it is the woman that breast feeds, not the man. And in our culture it is felt that the woman should take the child to the doctor and not the man. And even if the father does go, the woman should always goes too because it is considered to be the woman’s responsibility, in part because the man doesn’t do it as well as the woman.

But that is why I asked earlier whether there were changes in families, and particularly in ways of bringing up children, because without those changes there are pressures that will tend to undo all the nice policies that are enacted. So, you enact a law to benefit women, that women get leave before and after birth and, can’t be fired, etc., but actually, at least in part, the law seems to also hurt women because it reduces their likelihood of getting good jobs with good pay. It seems, you need the laws in the economy, of course, but that alone they aren’t enough. You also need to deal with what is going on inside each household and in families. So is that happening too?

Yes, we can have profound changes in the economy but that will often generate conflicts in the working of the family, in legality, and in social relations. That is why we are also working in the cultural area, in families, in the church, and in schools - because in all these areas there is discrimination against women.

For example, in Afghanistan, women were gaining rapidly and then the Taliban came and women’s situations went back to zero. The traditional culture was re-imposed, horribly discriminating against women.

In Venezuela, however, there has been no serious regress, though it is true there are certainly still lots of conflicts and problems to resolve.

For example, most of the people studying in new literacy programs are women, and the same holds for the new high school completion program, and for the university scholarship program. And most of the people who have received micro credits also tend to be women - which is very good.

But many men feel badly that they are not getting as much benefit from the revolution, though there is no policy forcing them to get less. So there is some resentment and then too men complain that women aren’t taking proper care of children, or aren’t properly cleaning and ironing men’s clothes, and that they are always outside the home, working in the health committees and the communal councils.

But why isn’t the answer that the men should also be doing all that, in the home and the community too?

There are many reasons why men aren’t incorporating themselves into as many activities as women. Our revolution seems to be one that is of the women and for the women. Women are working a lot and this means that they are getting stretched thin because they have so much to do. Of course we don’t want that. We want that men and women are equal, inside and outside the home. In paid work, house work, and participating in social programs.

Could you imagine, sometime in the next year or two, a march in Caracas of a hundred thousand or a quarter of a million or a million women saying that men need to carry their share of the load in the home and in the revolution and basically putting forth a feminist program?

But women are already saying that men should be doing this. We need to solve this problem but we are talking about a country where still half the population lives in poverty and the poorest of the poor are women.

So, yes, we have to reverse the problem that women are more actively participating but also having to take care of the home alone. The woman is now mainly responsible for child care and for the home, and is also working outside the home at a paid job, and is also volunteering in the community. So it is like having three responsibilities. For the men it is not the same. They don’t feel and aren’t held responsible for the household, and they also participate much less in revolutionary activities in the community.

Perhaps women should have a full vote in elections and men should have only a third of a vote.

I like that, (laughing) but really, men should have their vote, but they should earn it, like we do, doing their share. But you know, this isn’t just a problem of the men. There is a historical process that has led to women doing all the household work for a long time. Now women are entering into public life, with jobs and also social involvement, which creates additional need for men to share more.

So you would like to see a massive movement of women marching in Caracas?

Yes, of course I would like that. And I would like much better that we achieve responsible fatherhood, as well.

When you say responsible fatherhood - wouldn’t most men say, wait a minute. Motherhood is all those things women are doing. And fatherhood is the things we men are doing, making decisions in a few minutes. So we are being responsible. I am already a responsible father.

They might say that, but in fact irresponsible fatherhood is a very serious problem in our country...

What about responsible parenting? Why should there be a difference between what women are doing and what men are doing?

In our society, the women are responsible for the children and the men feel it is women’s work. Men who decide to leave a marriage tend to abandon not only the woman, but the women and the children, both emotionally and economically. And this causes women to become the poorest among the poor, not because of any personal failing, but because they not only have to earn pay their own way and that of their children, they also have to care for the children and the household, without the irresponsible men. And typically, families have many children, especially among the poor.

So are you saying that the change should be that society should no longer say women are alone responsible for the children, but instead both men and women are responsible?

Yes. Exactly.

Is that what will be on the banner of 500,000 women marching in Caracas? And does the President understand all this?

Yes, that would be great on banners, and yes, President Chavez understands this and in many of his public speeches has made calls to men to become responsible. He does this regularly perhaps because he comes from the plains and there men are more machista than elsewhere in the country so he feels particularly the need to deal with these issues.

Are there women heroes in Venezuela?

Of course, yes. From the colonial times we have many female heroes, and from the Republic, and we have everyday heroes too. But of course most are invisibilized.

What is the proportion of women playing a role in the Bolivarian government, and is it growing?

Yes, it is growing all the time. I don’t have the percentages here, but recently in the government, there is a rule that the proportion of candidates for each party, in local elections, should be fifty-fifty for men and women. And the President issued a rule that equal sharing has to occur in his party, and that rule is being obeyed.

What about ministers in the government?

In the ministries the majority are still men. We had a female Vice President and in some of the ministries women are in charge, but still overall it is a minority. In public administration, however, the majority are women. And most notably, of the five branches of government, four are headed by women. The exception is the President. Thus, the Attorney General is a woman and so is the head of the Supreme Court, the president of the National Assembly, and the president of the electoral council.

So, four down and one to go?

No, (laughing) we don’t want to replace the President, not even with a woman.

I know you have to catch your plane, now, but maybe you should make President Chavez, an honorary woman...

He already is.

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