Latin America: a revolution for women?

Submitted by cathy n on 24 November, 2006 - 3:36

By Rachel Ward

Last week Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega swept to victory in Nicaragua’s presidential elections, just days after a referendum banning all abortion in the country. Part of the reason for Ortega’s unequivocal opposition to all abortion has been his shift from a “communist” ideology towards the Catholic centre of Nicaraguan politics.
The continuing centrality of Catholic culture to all of South America is important when we consider the “women’s liberation” carried out under governments like the Sandinistas and Chávez, reinforcing the traditional role of women while glorifying their part in the movement for “socialism” in the abstract.

At the recent Global Women’s Strike meeting in London, progress for women’s rights in Venezuela was explained in relation to two issues; wages for housework, and “micro-credits” which help women set up food distribution and health co-operatives. Women are assisted to do domestic work and run small businesses (that is, for “women’s work”, like nursing and cooking) - why is it better that they’re paid to do this rather than getting unemployment benefit?

Women are, sadly, not allowed to control their own bodies - what women’s self-determination can exist without that? Sex workers’ unions are banned. There are no abortion rights - Chávez has twice in the last three years rebuked moves towards its legalisation, under pressure from the Church hierarchy. Presumably it is not central to his plan to build “the Kingdom of God on Earth”. And this in a continent where countless thousands of women die each year because of clandestine abortions.

Under the Sandinistas it was not so different. A big deal was made of the role of women in fighting for the ‘socialist’ revolution (baby in one arm, rifle in the other), sometimes organized as women separately from men. 30% of the Sandinista army were women. But what does that really mean? Saying that “socialism will liberate women” is to ignore that the struggle against patriarchal norms is itself part of the struggle for socialism.
The emancipation offered up by the Sandinistas was socially conservative in many aspects - prostitution was suppressed harshly, the right to “therapeutic abortion” for raped women was not extended to others, and the traditional family unit was reinforced. Of course, in 2006, closer than ever to the Church, Ortega has helped clamp down on even that limited abortion right, which had been in place since 1893!

In the social movements of Latin America, women’s self-organization is largely quite poor, despite the important part they play in the fight against neo-liberalism. At least 75% of the workers at the worker-occupied Brukman clothes factory in Buenos Aires are women, and the women who work in Bolivia’s informal economy, such as selling food in the streets, are central to community organizations such as FEJUVE in El Alto.
When I visited Bolivia, we were constantly explained the view that “she who holds the purse strings rules the world” - ultra-traditional indigenous social codes apparently empower women. If an adult man goes to a market in La Paz and tries to buy something, he’ll be turned away. The market is only for women. Does this fact represent women’s authority over men, or the domestic role which they are expected to play?

It is clear that women’s organizations in Latin America need to organize not simply as women, but instead for women. Women revolutionaries need to fight for their own demands, for their own status in society, not just build support for ‘social-justice Catholics’ like Chávez and Ortega.

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