Here is some news that the conservative critics of Venezuela’s leftist government will not publicize. The Chavistas announced that a new labour law, part of which will grant recognition to non-salaried work traditionally done by women, will come into effect this week. Full-time mothers will now be able to collect a pension.
While there are a number of criticisms to be made of the Venezuelan government, the genius of the Bolivarian process is that it combines numerous forms of struggle against inequality. The most obvious lies in its commitment to economic redistribution, and measured by the Gini co-efficient, Venezuela has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. An equally significant form of struggle against inequality, however, lies in its pursuit of gender equity.
One of the major theoretical criticisms of the economic redistribution model in more general terms, often advanced by post-modern and post-developmental theorists, has been from the vantage point of questions of identity. Theorists like the anthropologist Arturo Escobar have noted that economic growth does not necessarily transform status relations such as those oriented around gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality; therefore some have contended that attempts at social change should place primacy, or at least equal emphasis, on the politics of difference. The question of difference: how can everyone in society be able to intervene with equal capacity when there is such significant variation in the recognition that we allot to diverse identities in society? Critics of traditional development have argued that the emphasis on economic redistribution, by either advocates of the market or the state, has ignored the crucial role that identity and diversity play in society. Economic re-allocation does not end the identity hierarchies that place women at a lower rung of the status ladder than men throughout Latin America.
The political philosopher Nancy Fraser has contended that advocates of cultural diversity implicitly start with the proposition that our identity is developed in interaction with others. Our self-esteem is constructed in relation to receiving acknowledgement from others and providing recognition to them; if a group is regularly presented with negative images of themselves, their self-esteem suffers. Non-recognition produces psychological injury: one’s self-perception becomes distorted. Therefore in order for groups to achieve full recognition from others, civil society actors maintain that there is a need to establish a system in which all actors can be full partners in social life. Feminists, both inside and outside the Bolivarian process, have advocated for social policies that encourage equal participation in all social institutions.
The Venezuelan government has made many progressive gains, with the most prominent example being the explicitly anti-sexist 1999 Constitution. This set of principles was the result of co-operation amongst members of the constitutional assembly’s Committee on Family and Women, the National Women’s Council and women’s civil society organizations. The constitutional assembly’s committee consulted women from every type of political campaign: legal rights, international agencies, academics, labour unions and small business leaders. The Constitution guaranteed women’s right to work, to health services, to social security and pensions. Most innovatively it recognized the monetary value of housework by, in principle, supporting housewives’ right to pensions. This week that principle has become a reality. Progressives around the world looking for ways to advance gender rights still have much to learn from Venezuela’s continuing social revolution.
Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.