Venezuela is undergoing a Complex Humanitarian Emergency, a type of humanitarian crisis which is protracted throughout time, that often has a political origin, and results in forced displacement. Food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, generalized violence, and widespread human rights violations have displaced over five million Venezuelans, the largest migration crisis the region has ever seen, second only to Syria worldwide. The analysis and policy decisions to address this crisis have generally excluded women. Including their views and perspectives is important to improve women and girls’ lives as well as human development indicators in the country, and ultimately guarantee the sustainability of Venezuela’s progress in the long run.
Considering that humanitarian and displacement crises affect women disproportionately and exacerbate existing gender inequalities, it is crucial for researchers and policymakers to understand the differentiated impact the crisis is having on women. Women have been particularly affected by political and economic changes. For instance, as a result of the collapse of the health sector, maternal mortality and teen pregnancy are on the rise, and due to increasing food insecurity, women have become the main shock absorbers within their families. Lack of access to health services and adequate food also end up becoming drivers of migration. In their migration process, women are also becoming victims of human trafficking. Future government policies need to ensure the protection of women’s rights to health, nutrition, socio-economic empowerment, and a life free of violence.
Rising Maternal Mortality
In 2017, the last time epidemiological surveillance numbers were published, Venezuela had a maternal mortality rate of around 65.8 percent. By 2018, infant mortality rates, usually linked to maternal mortality, had increased to 21 deaths per 1,000 live births. These high levels of mortality make evident the differentiated impact the collapse of the health system has had on women, who lack critical access to prenatal care including regular check-ups, access to prenatal vitamins, prenatal vaccinations, and testing for tetanus, anemia, malnutrition, and sexually transmitted diseases. Although these are standard attention protocols in most countries, they are seldom available to pregnant women in Venezuela. Governmental health policies in the country must prioritize bringing these services to women and, more broadly, expanding coverage, infrastructure, and access to basic medicines and hospital supplies. Additionally, crucial to the prevention of maternal deaths is the resumption of epidemiological surveillance to monitor occurrences and potential risks, as well as guaranteeing health services post-delivery. Not having access to these services in Venezuela is pushing expectant mothers to seek them out of the country. Indeed, many mothers-to-be have had no choice but to head to Colombia and Brazil to give birth. Back in November, almost eight out ten children born in Cúcuta were of Venezuelan mothers. Therefore, addressing maternal mortality is crucial to improving Venezuela’s human development and reducing the pressures on the already fragile health systems in Brazil and Colombia.
No Contraceptives for Women
In Venezuela, access to contraceptives is almost nonexistent. Public hospitals do not make them available and, in the few cases where contraceptives are available, private vendors sell them at extremely high prices. Family planning generally reduces the number of pregnancies women have and allows shifts in the timing of pregnancies from high-risk to lower-risk ages, and from shorter to longer interbirth intervals. Moreover, most unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, a procedure that is illegal in Venezuela, performed at clandestine facilities. The absence of adequate obstetric care compounded with increasing numbers of unwanted pregnancies—often resulting in abortions—is producing an unprecedented rise in maternal deaths as a result. Moreover, lack of access to safe sex products is causing appalling levels of teen pregnancies, which increase maternal mortality and compromise the future of young women. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Venezuela has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the region, with one in four babies born to teen mothers. Addressing teen pregnancy is key to ensuring that young mothers can escape from poverty and improve the development of their children and their communities.
Women: Shock Absorbers of Food Shortages
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, by 2018, around 21.2 percent of the Venezuelan population, or 6.8 million Venezuelans, were malnourished. These high rates of food insecurity have differentiated impacts on women. Indeed, the 2019 Report by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights documented that food scarcity is having “an especially adverse impact on women, some of whom reported, spending 10 hours a day in queues to buy food.” With women heading around forty percent of households, they are responsible for generating the income to purchase food items and lining up to purchase them when available. A CEPAZ study found that, in sixty percent of households in the poorest districts, women also serve as shock absorbers of food shortages by self-postponing or skipping meals so that family members can eat. Policy responses must address these structural factors, while strategies to ameliorate the effects of shortages must focus on the delivery of humanitarian aid to women and children.
When Migration is the Only Option
The humanitarian crisis has been a push factor for Venezuelan migration; indeed, it has caused the displacement of around ten percent of the overall population. While migrants were once mostly men, women are now migrating at relatively similar rates. Women now generally comprise 40 percent of migrants entering Brazil, while in Colombia around 49 percent of the 1.5 million Venezuelan migrants are women. These numbers show women’s changing role in migration processes, as they are taking the lead in migration. In this context, it is crucial to guarantee the regularization and socio-economic inclusion of women in receiving countries. Effective policies include granting them legal pathways towards regular or permanent residence, humanitarian visas, temporary protected status, or work permits. These key policy decisions will allow women to escape the shadow economy, earn their living in the formal labor sector, contribute to social security, and ultimately guarantee their socio-economic integration and empowerment.
Venezuelan women are also migrating in dire conditions, which makes them particularly vulnerable to criminals who, through force, fraud, or coercion, put them in situations to which they did not consent or cannot freely escape. The IOM reports that worldwide, women and girls are usually seventy-one percent of human trafficking victims. It is thus not a surprise that Venezuelan women continue to be disproportionately affected in the migratory crisis, especially in terms of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and human trafficking. Given that regularization and access to jobs are key to socio-economic empowerment, focusing on the inclusion of women would lessen the threats of traffickers. Awareness raising campaigns on the risks associated with the migration process are also key to prevention. Once these crimes occur, Venezuelan consulates must provide victims with consular services as well as access to health services and psycho-social assistance.
Tackling Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis without considering women’s perspectives only addresses half of the huge challenges the country faces. Including women’s particular needs in the responses will not just improve the lives of individual women but will also enable long-term sustainable progress for the country. In the realm of social and economic rights, policies need to make sure women are guaranteed access to prenatal care and post-delivery care, contraceptives at affordable prices, adequate nutrition, and social and economic opportunities that lead to their autonomy.
*Views are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States.
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Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian is Director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Organization of American States (OAS). She has over 20 years of professional experience in international relations, democracy and elections, as well as equity and social inclusion. She has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of South Florida, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Florida International University.