“Lucharemos por nuestros derechos y los de nuestra patria, porque el problema de la igualdad de la mujer es el problema de la liberación de los pueblos”
“We will fight for our rights and those of our country, because the problem of the equality of women is the problem of the liberation of the peoples”.
Argelia Laya was an Afro-Venezuelan educator and women’s rights activist. She fought for women’s suffrage and was one of the first to openly speak of a woman’s right to have children outside of wedlock or obtain an abortion. She served as a guerrilla fighter for the communist party in Venezuela and she was one of the founders of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), pressing for anti-discrimination regulations to gain socio-economic parity for minorities, workers, and women.
Argelia Mercedes Laya López was born on 10 July 1926 on a cacao plantation in San José del Río Chico, in the state of Miranda, Venezuela. Her upbringing and her family values are considered to be the initial sparks that started Laya’s in equality and rights for all people. While still studying, she founded in Caracas the Center for Student Novelist and used it as a platform to argue for women’s right to education, and social and political equality. She formulated her ideas into a national plan establishing principles and strategies to eliminate gender discrimination.
In 1946, Laya co-founded the National Union of Women Organization (Organización de la Unión Nacional de Mujeres) and served as the secretary of the organization for over a decade. She called for debates and urged that women be granted suffrage. During her early years of teaching, Laya had a child and as an unmarried mother was suspended from teaching for her immorality. From this personal experience, Laya started fighiting against women’s discrimination and she wrotea letter of protest to the Education Minister, advocating her right to be unmarried and have a child. After several months, she became more vocal about the ways in which women faced discrimination. Recognizing that it was not just teachers who were barred from their jobs but that pregnant students were also suspended from school, Laya pressed for reforms so that all citizens universal right to education was recognized.
Laya also organized the Women’s Committee of the Patriotic Board (Comité Femenino de la Junta Patriótica) and served in the Legion of Women Nationalists (Legión de Mujeres Nacionalistas). She advocated for protecting the sexual and reproductive rights of women, pushing for both safe pregnancies and abortions. Laya was one of the earliest Venezuelan women to advocate for abortion rights and decriminalization of the procedure. Laya would later become majorly involved in these issues during her time as a board member of the Venezuelan association for alternative sexual education and defense of the violated women.
In the 1950s, Laya joined the Communist Party of Venezuela. By 1959, she had joined the Communist Party’s guerrilla groups and operated as Commandant Jacinta. For six years, she participated in guerrilla activities as part of the underground. In the late 1960s, she served as vice president of the First Congress of Venezuelan Women. Advocating for workplace protections including maternity leave and childcare centers, the Congress helped to formulate laws to protect the health and employment environments of the working class.
In the early 1970s, she joined and founded a splinter group of the communist party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS). As one of the founders, Laya was the first woman to occupy such a high position in any political party in Venezuela. Working to build the new party, she pressed for a code of ethics to be established for the protection of workers, laws to prohibit violence against women, and pushed for regulations to prevent discrimination and injustices toward Afro-Venezuelans and other minorities, peasants, and women.
In the 1980s, Laya served on the Women’s Advisory Commission to the Presidency of the Republic and, she took part in the civil code reforms to eliminate discrimination in adoption procedures to protect both mothers and children’s rights. In 1985, she was selected to attend the United Nation’s Third World Conference on Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya as the Venezuelan delegate. In 1994 she attended the First Meeting to Discuss Women and Education in Bolivia. There, she helped draft a program for eliminating sexism through education. The plan called for gender issues to become integral parts of study and dialogue throughout the entirety of one’s education.
Argelia Laya died on 27 November 1997 in Caracas. To this day, she is still regarded as one of the most influential female leaders in Venezuelan history. Throughout Venezuela, there are programs and policies related to gender equality that bear her name.
Written by WAVE Intern Diva Adelaide Edosini