Feminisms, challenges and changes in Latinamerica

Feminism is plural, it has never responded to some single political line; it grew out of different situations, with matrices inherent to each context. It has multiple political points of reference that converge on one common point: the struggle against patriarchy, which is not only political or cultural, but rather a social system based on maintaining power relationships, founded on a complex of economic, political and social relations. With this political point of reference and an absolutely de-centralised structure, the feminist movement achieved, at the end of the 20th century, recognition of the universal rights of women, a historic step that symbolically redeemed women as a collective and individual subject. However, reparations to material inequalities which resulted from age-old relations of subjugation didn’t follow at the same pace, as most of these depend on structural situations arising from the overlap between patriarchy and capitalism, and which thus imply profound revolutions in both at the same time.

This is the most recent challenge that comes out of the processes of change that Latin America has been undergoing over the past decade where nearly all these countries have begun different initiatives of change that imply, in a number of them, the conception of a new model, arising from innovation and from people’s own experiences. It’s a unique moment, marked by a call to the different Latin American societies to look at themselves and to define their present and future within new parameters.

For Latin American women, who entered the 21st century in the midst of a massification in the fall in social and economic conditions caused by neo-liberalism – but also conferred from the previously-mentioned rights – this context poses a big challenge, which is no other than the opportunity to include feminist proposals in the new model. Yet without abandoning their scope for action, nor their critical role and autonomy as a social movement.

The propitious terrain to meet this challenge is one of process, which women’s struggle initiated: recognition of the obvious structural inequalities between genders and the need to face up them, an issue that is now being tackled with different matrices as part of these countries’ agenda of change. Especially among those who initiated or finished new versions of constitutions, and in new plans that stress the need to take measures regarding structural questions; and designing policies on inclusion and equality, which interrelate the different factors that can generate them.

It’s a moment in which the clear inter-dependence between the viability of rights, the need for structural change and designing a new model is being discussed. It’s quite evident that the spread of exclusive, neo-liberal policies made the universality of previously-won human rights virtually inapplicable. Although recognition of rights in recent years became public policy, they were characterised by their ‘assistencialism’ and by an omnipresent mercantile focus, whose dynamic generated oppressive and discriminatory features.

It’s in the context of the Latin American process of change that the turnaround is also expressed by new forms of women’s inclusion in politics and the social sphere, which results it’s participatory identity and from the emergence or strengthening of the dynamics of social and economic construction from the grassroots and popular movements.

All the new Latin American constitutions in the 21st century include new focuses on gender (in some as a central ‘hub’) and all cite equality as a priority. It is also mentioned in proposals for regional integration, a key to securing these changes.

The 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the first of the run, includes non-sexist language through to a call to include a gender focus in macro-economic policies and development plans; recognises the economic value of domestic labour and the right of housewives to social security; includes equality in every sphere; and defines in its preamble that human beings – not capital – to be the subject of development.

It’s this last point that exemplifies the most significant measures adopted in that country. The Women’s Development Bank, established by the Bolivarian revolution, is the only publicly-owned bank that is managed by women and geared to their needs, which aims to eradicate the poverty and exclusion they suffer and sees women’s empowerment as an integral process that doesn’t depend on access to resources but instead on real changes in power relations. Mutual, solidarity and cooperative credits open up possibilities to sketch out an extra- or non-domestic economic perspective from a collective standpoint.

Women’s presence in grassroots, popular-power initiatives (Misiones) is growing, as well as in the managerial spheres of the revolutionary process: the National Assembly’s president is a woman, as is the president of National Electoral Council and a number of ministers.

In Bolivia, whose population is 62% indigenous, as well as including an important section on gender equality in its 2008 constitution, emphasis is given to identifying the country as ‘pluri-national’, a principle that was preceded by one of the most significant symbolic (and material) advances: the irruption of indigenous women in key paces of decision-making and power. A historic event, particularly considering that this social group has suffered the most from a long history of discrimination: until 1953 indigenous women didn’t even have political rights.

The arrival of indigenous women in positions of power not only restores them as a political subject, it also illustrates a break with technocratic views on managing the state, racism and androcentricism. A symbol of this new tendency is the role played by the peasant leader Silvia Lazarte, under whose presidency the new Bolivian constitution was approved, despite stiff opposition from the right that refuses to recognise the majority, a rule of the electoral game created by bourgeois democracy itself.

In Ecuador, ‘the citizen’s revolution’ initiated in 2007, only required a year to draft its National Social and Productive Development Plan, which includes a cross-cutting gender focus and, within that focus, innovative issues such as sexual diversity, which for the first time is considered to be a national concern that requires actions, policies, and an institutionalism that forms part of proposals for reforming the state. At the same time, the design of the new constitution, which is currently being drafted and is propelled by citizens’ participation and discussions on the economy of care, diversity and solidarity, and the viability of equality and diversities. The new constitutional text will present innovative initiatives in the context of a country which, since 1998, has been declared pluri-cultural and egalitarian, and includes non-discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, sexual and reproductive rights, and the right of people to take decisions freely concerning their bodies and sexuality, as constitutional issues. Thus, current challenges revolve around defining the model and structural changes that lead to their application.

In this case, the political ascendancy of equality between genders is such that the government declared violence against women as a national concern and declared health and education (which particularly involve women) to be a national state of emergency. At the same time a ban was placed on sexist events in public spaces, such as beauty contests and other discriminatory activities.

In Brazil, a state policy is being drafted regarding the National Plan for Women, which was preceded by an extensive process of consultancies in which national state and social organizations participated. Its implementation is aimed at improving gender policies in governmental spheres and includes measures such as improving the situation of the 15 million women who are single parents. Its contents are geared to putting into practice women’s civil, political, sexual and reproductive rights, and implementing policies on education, culture, communication and knowledge production.

Uruguay also approved its 2007-2011 National Plan for Equal Opportunities, Rights and Public Policies for Women with the aim of prioritizing women’s’ rights in the public agenda. The purpose of its lines of action are to encourage an integral vision of equality, confront discrimination based on sex, gender, age, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, social and economic status, place of residence, and disability.

Cuba is the only county that has maintained a consistent state policy for over half a century regarding social and economic equality, access to knowledge and to power decision-making spheres, participation, and other requirements for women’s’ equality. The country has seen advances unprecedented in the region that are backed-up by an agenda of process aimed at achieving full equality. The most recent of these advances in terms of equality and elimination of all forms of discrimination is the recognition of the right of people to legalize the gender identity of their choice, unique in the hemisphere, proposed in the 2007 Assembly of Popular Power.

But not everything is rosy. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista government’s president Daniel Ortega assumed office amidst regression regarding issues such as abortion and related rights, supported by his party, the same one that in 1980’s revolution developed one of the most advanced initiatives on women’s’ equality.

This incomplete summary of changes taking place in Latin America can’t finish without mentioning the issue of regional integration, proposed as one of solidarities, complementarities, co-operation, diversity, establishing equality, sovereignty, and as a unequivocal road for endorsing these changes. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Banco del Sur and the ALBA bank, energy integration initiatives, among others, mark a great change not only in the self-perception of the possibilities for regional sustainability, but also establish the guiding framework for possibilities to carry out deep changes in geopolitical power relations.

With these ingredients the new Latin American moment marks the path for a thorough change in the list of feminist proposals, at the same as these proposals sustain the challenge of thinking of these changes from a position of eliminating patriarchal power relations. We are facing a unique moment in which a good part of feminism is immersed, be it through direct incursion in the processes of change, such as the Women Transforming the Economy Network, which has drafted feminist economic policies, designing integration alternatives, among others, or from developing proposals for humanity, as the World March of Women has done, or from future issues such as that of food sovereignty raised by the Women of the Latin American Coordination of Rural Worker Organizations and of Via Campesina.

What is at issue in all these cases is the future of women in Latin American societies, situated on a planet with an expiry date imposed on it by the market’s and patriarchy’s greed, and which can only be saved through profound changes at the macro-social level and in daily practice.

Irene Leon

11th February 2008. Copyleft

1. Almost all Latin American countries are being governed within new, heterogeneous conceptualisations deriving from left and centre.

2. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

3. For example, SENPLADES’s 2007 National Social and Productive Development Plan, as well as including gender as a guiding principle, encompasses a number of different aspects concerning the comparability of the structural differences between the genders, and includes new issues such as sexual diversity.