Venezuelan Women March to Demand Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Feminist groups took to the streets of Caracas to promote a grassroots-led law proposal that paves the way for legal abortion.

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The Ruta Verde march was part of a global action campaign for International Safe Abortion Day. (Venezuelanalysis)
The Ruta Verde march was part of a global action campaign for International Safe Abortion Day. (Venezuelanalysis)
By Andreína Chávez Alava
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Caracas, September 28, 2022 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Hundreds of people marched on Wednesday in Caracas to demand sexual and reproductive rights including safe, legal and free abortion.

With a colorful display of cultural performances, music and dancing, women’s rights groups joined by a number of allied grassroots collectives marched across Caracas’ main avenues all the way to the National Assembly (AN), where they introduced a document demanding the abolition of the country’s over 100-year old penal code that criminalizes abortion.

“The criminalization of abortion is a form of gender-based violence prevailing in Venezuela’s laws [and] it violates the rights to life, health as well as the right of girls, women and pregnant people to live a life free of torture and patriarchal violence,” read the communique signed by the Ruta Verde platform, a feminist coalition organized to promote abortion decriminalization.

Several representatives from Ruta Verde were received by deputies from the AN’s Permanent Commission for Integral and Social Development to discuss their demands for sexual and reproductive rights. Lifelong feminist activist, former women’s affairs minister and current AN deputy María León participated in the meeting and expressed support for “women’s right to decide.”

Venezuela’s anti-abortion legislation is one of the most restrictive on the continent banning abortion in all contexts, including rape, incest, and fetus inviability. Articles 430, 431, 433 and 434 of the country’s Penal Code establish six months to two-year prison sentences against people who interrupt their pregnancies while doctors or anyone who performs or facilitates the procedure face one to three years in jail.

“We cannot advance in the area of sexual and reproductive rights unless these four articles [from the criminal code] are repealed,” Laura Cano, from the women’s rights collective Tinta Violeta told Venezuelanalysis.

The only situation in which abortion is legal in Venezuela is when the pregnant person’s life is at risk. However, the country lacks legal mechanisms to ensure that a medical protocol is activated in these cases, leaving the pregnancy termination decision at the medical personnel’s discretion.

“Doctors often refuse to perform abortions even when the mother’s life is in danger by alleging personal beliefs and most of them are not even trained to conduct these procedures,” explained Cano.

Criminalizing abortion has also resulted in an increased maternal mortality rate. According to the latest statistics released by the Venezuelan Health Ministry in 2015, unsafe abortions are the third cause of pregnant peoples' death due to complications from procedures or methods that do not conform to minimal medical standards.

Cano —the main spokesperson from Ruta Verde— stressed that clandestine abortions could be the second or first cause of maternal mortality given the lack of recent official numbers added to unsafe abortions going widely underreported due to social stigma and fear of legal repercussions.

“We can conclude that deaths caused by unsafe abortions and not having access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services are a form of femicide. Criminalizing abortion affects mainly poor and racialized Venezuelan women,” denounced the feminist activist.

Alongside the urgent demand to eliminate the legislation that punishes abortion, the Ruta Verde coalition’s September 28 march also promoted a legislative proposal that guarantees comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights for women, teenagers and the LGBTIQA+ community, including non-binary people.

Feminist groups are currently amidst a signature drive in order to build popular support and introduce the bill to the National Assembly’s 2022-2023 agenda.

So far, they have gathered approximately 7 thousand signatures and hope to reach the required 21,000 (representing one percent of the country’s electoral census) by November. At the end of Wednesday’s march, feminist activists handed out pamphlets to people, gave speeches promoting the law and collected more signatures.

The proposed legislation encompasses key demands from the feminist movement. Speaking to Venezuelanalysis, Suzany González Zambrano, feminist lawyer and director of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Center (CEDESEX), explained that the bill "above all, recognizes peoples’ sexual and reproductive rights as fundamental human rights.”

Through six chapters, the proposed Organic Law for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights guarantees the right to information and sex education in schools, free access to sexual and reproductive health services (including contraceptive methods and menstrual care) as well as people's right to autonomy and independence over their bodies, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Additionally, the grassroots-led proposal ensures access to planned parenthood services, the right to humanized childbirth, and obstetric healthcare free of violence and discrimination. The bill likewise paves the way for legal abortion by revoking the criminal code’s anti-abortion articles, guaranteeing access to safe abortion when the pregnant person’s life is at risk, and developing mechanisms to prevent unsafe procedures.

“This law proposal was written understanding that decriminalizing abortion does not solve everything and that it is necessary to have a broad perspective on the issue. That means fighting for sex education to decide, contraceptives to avoid abortion and legal abortion to prevent deaths. A slogan that unites feminists around the world,” emphasized González.

Although article 76 of the 1999 Constitution establishes that couples have the right to decide the number of children they wish to conceive, it does not explicitly recognize abortion. In 2018, a number of feminist groups proposed to modify the text and add the right to safe abortion but the demand was ignored.

That same year, feminist organization Faldas-R requested that the Supreme Court (TSJ) annul the penal code’s anti-abortion articles without success. Many other initiatives in previous decades also failed to gain traction.

However, last year Venezuela’s feminist movement earned its first tangible victory. In August 2021, more than 20 women’s rights groups and activists from across the country joined forces under the Ruta Verde platform and staged their first massive march in Caracas.

As a result, Ruta Verde activists began holding a series of work meetings with National Assembly deputies to discuss abortion decriminalization and introduced the first draft of the sexual and reproductive rights law proposal. The feminist coalition later launched a national campaign to promote the legislation aiming to build popular pressure.

Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.

 

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