The first-ever Venezuelan Women and Leadership Summit organized by the Atlantic Council and a group of partners is taking place from May 24th to the 27th.
Why is it important? Because there is a shared recognition that women have been generally underrepresented where political and policy conversations about Venezuela are taking place. There is also an understanding that the current crisis affects women in a different, and often disproportionate, manner but we continue to see mostly men leading the conversations at the political level.
This is not new. Venezuelan women are empowered, they exert an important leadership role at the local level, and within their political parties. However, when it comes to political decision-making authority they continue to be underrepresented. This is something that needs to be fixed.
Today, in global terms, although women make up 50.7% of the Venezuelan population, since 1948 when the country transitioned to democracy (and until 2015 it had its last internationally-recognized election), only 95 women have been elected to the legislature compared to 568 male legislators. That’s a mere 14% of women’s representation. Today, only two women are in the presidency of registered political parties in Venezuela, and for the 2015-2020 election, they achieved a scant 16.16% representation.
What explains this history of underrepresentation? There sure are cultural and educational explanations that have to do with the persistence of a culture of inequality and machismo in the country. But let’s look at some of the institutional factors.
For one, and as opposed to most countries in Latin America, Venezuela has never really had a quota law but rather a single article: Article 144 of the 1998 Law on Suffrage and Political Participation. On top of appearing as one article within the electoral law, it was later declared unconstitutional by the National Electoral Council (CNE, for its Spanish acronym) in the year 2000 rendering it ineffective, and also showing the abuse of authority and functions exerted by the Venezuelan electoral management body.
In the absence of a parity measure, and with incessant demands by women’s groups, the CNE has adopted different rules in each election—and this is the second problem. The CNE has been designing and imperfectly applying ad hoc parity regulations for each election. These regulations are also weak by having “escape valves” like the primaries, and with an electoral body willing to negotiate pardons with parties to evade its application.
A third problem is Venezuela’s political leadership. I often wonder how, to this date, no political party has prioritized advancing a legislative initiative that puts the issue of gender parity back on the table for discussion. It is not fair or politically correct, but would make Venezuela look good in front of the international community. It has really been the women’s movements that have continued to advocate for quotas and parity that can help women’s representation. More subtly, within the parties, women have also pushed for this but carefully calibrating the cost of not “burning” themselves with their party leaders if they are too insistent.
A parenthesis to invite us all to dismiss those arguments that propose a false dilemma between advocating for Venezuela’s transition to democracy versus advocating for women’s rights, and especially their political representation. These are not mutually exclusive agendas. In fact, the women’s rights agenda is central to the democratic transition and consolidation in the country.
There are two other factors that play a role in the future implementation of parity measures in Venezuela. First, whether political parties will continue to be the “gatekeepers” of women’s access to political spaces. Part of Venezuela’s road back to democracy includes political party modernization, and this includes updating the leadership and composition of parties to include more women and youth. This also requires serious discussions on how best to mainstream a gender approach in the way they function. No easy task. Second, how to move towards a political reform for gender parity in Venezuela when we continue to be immersed in a pervasive deinstitutionalization process. Any reform to the gender electoral regime in the future must be law, and not applied or interpreted in an ad hoc manner. And once approved, it has to be protected from ineffective application; fortunately, Latin America has a lot of experience with this, and there is much we can learn from other countries. But when the rule of law and culture tell everyone to go around the law, what could be expected of a parity measure in Venezuela?
Questions we need to ask, and answers we need to have. Regardless of difficulties, this is an important conversation to be had because it will contribute to the peace and re-institutionalization of the country and the consolidation, hopefully permanently, of democracy in Venezuela. Follow the Atlantic Council for more information on the Summit, and to participate in these discussions live or online.
* Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).
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