Photo credit: Melanie Agrinzones

She was just thirteen. Nearly malnourished, she had dropped out of school. Her brain still developing, her self-esteem at its most vulnerable, she was raped, repeatedly, by a neighbor. She didn’t consent, she couldn’t have. She was just thirteen, and now she was pregnant.

Her mother refused to let it be. Surely, she felt the pressures of her very traditional surroundings. After all, Mérida, in the Venezuelan Andes, is a notoriously conservative enclave in the already conservative country. One can only imagine the sense of despair, and the sheer determination to avoid the horror of seeing her child raise a child. That’s when she called Vannesa, the minor’s former schoolteacher who she knew to be a Human Rights defender. Overcoming fear, shame, and doubt, she asked for the pills. It was illegal, outlawed by both Church and State. But she was a mother determined to not let her baby raise a baby.

Abortion is illegal in Venezuela, the only exception being when the mother’s life is in danger. Not rape, not incest. Even then, there’s fear. To facilitate an abortion is also a crime. Because the victim was thirteen, and therefore couldn’t consent, they accused Vannesa, the schoolteacher, of not only facilitating but of forcing her to have an abortion.

Vannesa Rosales spent three months in jail, before being placed on house arrest. She gained notoriety when her case reached the newsroom of The New York Times, which ran her story—and our anonymous thirteen-year-old’s— shedding light on just how hard being a woman, even if barely one at that, is in a nation that claims a socialist government, but that has done little, very little, to advance women’s rights.

That’s when we meet Venus. Ironically, perhaps, her name recalls the Roman goddess of fertility and sex. The founder and Director of 100% Estrógeno, a feminist NGO that promotes women’s participation in politics, sexual and reproductive rights, and fights gender-based violence, she acted as Vannesa’s attorney, defending not only a woman’s right to choose but also Vannesa’s rights as a Human Rights defender, to right the wrongs of rape and forceful pregnancy.

Having just left Venezuela alleging political persecution, Venus sat down with Cristina Ciordia, an activist with the Venezuelan Human Rights organization CEPAZ (Center for Justice and Peace), to discuss the case and the uphill struggle of Venezuelan women for their sexual and reproductive rights.

Cristina Ciordia: Tell us a bit about the basics of this case

Venus Faddoul: After being questioned by the police while still in the hospital, the victim confessed where she had gotten the pills. When they raided the teacher’s home, she was in possession of Misoprostol, a medication that causes abortions, but the cops didn’t know what it was. Instead, they thought they were detaining a “bachaquera,” someone who sells goods on the black market. Vannessa was detained in October of 2020, and it was really a case of criminalization of poverty. The police were very surprised when they saw that Vannesa actually had a legal defense team. Just who is this woman? They accused her of three crimes, among them conspiracy, and forcing someone to have an abortion.

From then until January 2021, the case went on in silence. However, once the case went public and was picked up by international news outlets, Vannesa was placed under house arrest while she awaited trial. It was a political move. In this case, we can’t separate the legal from the political. The outrage over the case brought together women from different political parties and the government did not like that. When the Attorney General gave a press conference where he discussed an outstanding warrant for the rapist, he never mentioned abortion nor what was happening with Vannesa.

Finally, after being detained for eight months, they reached a deal where Vannesa would plead guilty to the crime of forcing an abortion (with time served) and was dismissed of the other two crimes—which were demonstrably false—and for which the State had no evidence.

CC: It seems like going public was key in this case. How did this come about?

VF: The notoriety of the case is due to the fact that different feminist organizations, such as 100% Estrógeno, Women’s Link, and Avesa, were able to generate impact through the international media. It wasn’t until they started to cover the case that the local press and public opinion in Venezuela started to pay attention.

The international press better understood that Vannesa was a Human Rights defender, and that she was using the WHO guidelines for interrupting a pregnancy, a protocol that has a very high range of safety in preventing the death of mothers. That information is practically unknown in Venezuela, and explaining that to the local media was difficult because many of them would just say “What was a schoolteacher doing with those pills?”

Even then, it was hard to “convince” international public opinion, because Venezuela isn’t considered a country with a women’s rights problems. The State has ratified every international treaty and has sold its “feminist revolution” very well. If this had happened in Mexico or Central America, we wouldn’t have had too much trouble being believed. But here, even though there are many problems, women’s rights aren’t thought to be one of them.

CC: So, How exactly is Venezuela in terms of women’s rights?

VF: The truth is that we are extremely behind in many ways. Even though the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has called on the Venezuelan State to at least be flexible on the three humanitarian grounds for abortion (danger to the mother’s life, incest or rape, and fetal malformations incompatible with life), they haven’t done so and it’s not a topic that has much support from the public. I’d say 80% of Venezuelan society opposes abortion and no politician will even talk about it. They didn’t do so even when the case went public. In Venezuela, most people have internalized that abortion is a crime, and that’s that, that it’s wrong from every point of view.

It’s important to say that these problems are not a product of the current economic crisis, although they worsened with the crisis, and the situation keeps getting worse. There is no public policy with gender provisions. In 2007 they passed the Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free from Violence. There have been three reforms since then and the State has not been willing to enforce it. It’s just a façade.

CC: What does the Venezuelan Penal Code say about abortion exactly?

VF: Having an abortion, or helping someone have one, are crimes and carry a two-year sentence. The only exception is if the mother’s life is in danger. But, because the protocol to know when the mother’s life is in danger is not clear and it’s discretionary, if the doctor claims conscious objection they let the mother die and no one will open a process for medical negligence or malpractice. What ends up happening, then, is that those who have money and can afford a private doctor will do so in secret, and those who don’t will probably die or will end up in a bad way. This is what happens every day.

CC: What options are women left with?

VF: Those that can afford it can access Misoprostol pills. That is the easiest way. There is a woman who is helping out in the movement that developed an App called Aya Contigo that explains this well, but even then, getting the pills is expensive. Those who can afford it will consult a doctor, but Venezuelan doctors rarely speak of the WHO protocol. They still resort to curettage, which is much more dangerous.

CC: What has to happen in order for this to change?

VF: First, to reform the Penal Code. However, the Venezuelan Constitution dictates that all Human Rights treaties ratified by the nation have supra-constitutional order and are of immediate enforcement, so one may argue that at least the three humanitarian grounds for abortion are already the law. In fact, the State’s response when questioned by CEDAW has been that while the internal norm hasn’t changed, in practice, abortion is a crime that is not prosecuted. The pressures by conservative groups to avoid any reform are very strong.

CC: Are there any political factions that fight for these topics? Shouldn’t a self-proclaimed socialist and feminist government carry out these changes?

VF: Women’s rights have never been part of the political agenda, on either side of the aisle. The advances in other Latin American countries have made it possible to discuss the issues, but when that happens you are often rejected. Even women that are part of political parties take a deep breath when I touch on the subject.

Political sectors, represented mainly by misogynous men, don’t see this as a real problem, as a structural issue. Sometimes, they will take advantage for political gain, but not because they have any intentions to change public policy or to really show what women go through here. The result of all this is that almost no one cares that we have penal legislation that hasn’t changed practically since 1889!

No one wants to bell the cat due to the strength of the conservative lobbies that exist everywhere. President Nicolás Maduro himself, when pressed by the Washington Post, said that women’s rights were not on the agenda. The Law for the Right of Women to a Life Free from Violence was approved due to pressure from the Latin American Left, not because they were really interested in it. The strategy by both the government and the opposition has been to keep silent, to not mention it at all, to make it invisible, and not include it in any debate. Here, the Evangelical lobby is very important, as it is said to represent over three million votes.

 CC: The media was key in having the case be “resolved,” but making these types of cases public also carries risks. Tell us about that.

VF: This case was risky for all those involved. Even I was liable to be charged with apology of a crime. We all received threats.

Abortion is a crime, but it’s a misdemeanor that carries less than two years in jail. This is why they throw in association to commit a crime and conspiracy. Even so, when going public, it was important for us to tell the whole story so that the press could see that the guilty party was the government and not Vannesa.

For me, the most important thing to come out of this has been the remarks by UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor, in April of 2021, because I don’t remember any important figure in the UN ever taking the Venezuelan State to task and saying “How is it possible that a Human Rights defender is jailed for assisting in the abortion of a raped thirteen-year-old girl when this is one of the three humanitarian grounds that should decriminalize abortion? More so, a child that was nearly malnourished and had left school because she didn’t have the resources to attend.

CC: Now that you have left Venezuela, in part because of the threats you received from this case, what do you want to accomplish?

VF: The realistic expectation is that at least people will keep talking about these issues, that they won’t forget. I know even that won’t be easy. Our goal is to position the issue in public opinion. We need to promote a conversation about decriminalizing abortion. Even pro-life groups end up doing us a favor because they can reach a segment of the population that we have a hard time getting to. This is hard work, but we can make it happen. We have to talk about it, not only on special days or days of commemoration but every day.

As a movement, we must also break some internal stigmas, and political polarization has made things even more complicated. Vannesa identified politically with chavismo, while I didn’t, and many of her comrades were more concerned with me defending Vannesa than with Vannesa’s well-being. In the end, unfortunately, I feel that the feminist movement has lost great impulse since the case came to light, which is why we have to keep pushing, we have to keep talking about these cases where women’s rights are so blatantly disregarded.

Cristina Ciordia is the Coordinator of Activist Networks at the Center for Justice and Peace (CEPAZ).

Venus Faddoul is the Founder and Director of 100% Estrógeno, a feminist NGO that promotes women’s participation in politics, sexual and reproductive rights, and fights gender-based violence.

Daniel Fermín is a PhD student at The New School for Social Research, Assistant Managing Editor of Public Seminar, and activist with Soluciones para Venezuela.