Politician corruption, high unemployment and record breaking inflation have created a humanitarian crisis like no other in Venezuela. The nation, once the richest in South America during the 1960’s and 1970’s, has fallen so far, that 5.3 million of its citizens have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Whilst there has been widespread reporting on the crisis, the impact on the women has largely gone unreported. They have become the unseen victims of the Venezuelan crisis.
According to a recent report by Venezuelan non-profit organization Center for Peace and Justice (CEPAZ), the crisis has increased women’s vulnerability – to sexual abuse, financial stability and social justice. During the Chavez era, women and the fight for gender equality were at the heart of his economic and social programs.
However, in a bid to retain power, Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro has used these social programs as a tool for social control, with his government restricting access only to those who pledge loyalty. As a result, the millions of women who depended on the system for income and food have now been left out in the cold, lacking economic security for speaking out.
A 2020 survey by the United Nations World Food Program has revealed just how bad the crisis in the country has got. The report showed that one in every three Venezuelans is struggling to meet minimum nutrition requirements with their current food intake. The findings are backed up by a United Nations High Commissioner’s (UNHCR) report which confirmed the findings but also found that, shockingly, the malnourishment rates were highest amongst pregnant women and children.
Health is another area of concern. The collapse of Venezuela’s economy has left hospitals without basic supplies and lacking electricity and water infrastructure. Venezuelans are forced to buy all material themselves, from injections to bandages and adhesive tape. Most of these materials are available only on the black market, often at hugely inflated prices. The situation in the country is so bad that a large number of pregnant women undertake the perilous migration journey just to give birth abroad.
Despite this the official position of the Venezeualan Health Ministry is that pregnant women have free access to prenatal and delivery care at all public hospitals and that medical supplies were easily available at all such facilities. However, when The New Humanitarian investigated the veracity of these claims it found that they were simply untrue.
Deily Torrado, 29, who gave birth to her second child, Oliver, nine months ago in the Venezuelan city of San Antonio del Táchira, said she spent 50,000 Colombian pesos ($14.5) for the delivery at a public hospital. Although this doesn’t sound like much, it is well out of the reach of millions of Venezuelans, whose monthly minimum wage is now as low as $1 due to hyperinflation and the collapsed economy. This has resulted in a triple-digit increase in the number of Venezeulan women giving birth in Columbian healthcare centres. 1.3 million Venezeulans now call Columbia home, because of Columbia’s open border policy. This generosity is because in between the 1960s and the 1980’s, millions of Columbians fled to Venezuela to escape the country’s drug wars.
Even before giving birth, the ability of Venezuela’s women to control their fertility has diminished significantly. A 2019 report by Venezuelan NGOs found that the economic crisis has led to a scarcity in contraceptives in Venezuela. The report estimates that the nation faces a shortage of contraceptives, with supplies having fallen by 90%. The effect has been a huge surge in sexually transmitted diseases as well as a massive increase in teen pregnancies. The United Nations Population Fund estimates a 65% increase in teen pregnancies since 2015.
Latin American women are no strangers to inadequate living conditions, discrimination and labour exploitation but the challenges don’t end there. According to the Atlantic Council
Gender vulnerability grows exponentially, with the risks that women face as migrants both in transit and destination countries. This results in a heightened exposure to trafficking, sexual exploitation, and gender-based violence. A Reuters report found that from 2017 to 2018, authorities in Peru recorded more than 1,700 victims of human trafficking, of which about 10 percent were Venezuelan, which is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to a report from Refugees International many Venezuelan women and girls are placed right in the crosshairs of traffickers because there are not enough “legal pathways” for them to seek asylum in neighbouring countries like Colombia and Ecuador. They are then forced into fleeing their country through illegal means within the black market, making them susceptible to traffickers looking to place them into forced sex work or labor. Devone Cone, author of the report believes it is difficult to determine a concrete number as to how many women have been trafficked but it’s clear that the problem is rampant.
The Centre for Peace and Justice (CEPAZ) reported that women and girls’ vulnerabilities intensify due to the different forms of gender discrimination they face, linked to sociocultural patterns in Venezuela and Latin America that perpetuate gender asymmetry, and to hyper-sexualized stereotypes of Venezuelan women.
Having a more balanced approach, one that better takes into account the very real issues that women face will be crucial in any resolution of the Venezuelan crisis, as it will help generate a more peaceful and stable environment. Tackling the most important issues that women face will not only promote equality, but also untapped economic growth by providing opportunities to half of the Venezuelan population that has been overlooked.