Venezuela’s Gendered Crisis I: Differential Impact of the Humanitarian Emergency

Venezuelan women take an oath to fight for women's rights during a rally to commemorate International Women's Day in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

This is the first in a three-part series on the impacts of Venezuela’s crisis on women and girls. See part II and part III.

While Venezuela’s ongoing political and economic crisis has had a profound impact on the entire population, it has also exacerbated existing gender inequalities, with evidence increasingly suggesting that the burden of the country’s crisis has fallen disproportionately on Venezuela’s women and girls. As policymakers in Venezuela work to address the various elements of the crisis—humanitarian, economic, migratory—the particular needs of women have been largely overlooked. 

Venezuela’s economic collapse and chronic scarcity of basic goods has led to higher levels of unemployment for women, many of whom assume the caregiver role in their households. As the deteriorating public health system struggles to meet the everyday health needs of Venezuelans, compounded by the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, maternal and reproductive health have been left off the list of priorities, leading to unprecedented levels of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and maternal and infant mortality. Women and girls who flee Venezuela face a statistically higher risk of exploitation by criminal groups, which can take the form of sex trafficking, forced labor, and/or forced prostitution. 

As the various dimensions of Venezuela’s crisis continue to escalate, the specific needs of half of the population have been systematically excluded from the response, in part due to a lack of gender representation in national decision-making processes.

Many of the vulnerabilities that women face within Venezuela emerge from the failure of the public health system to prioritize sexual and reproductive health. The chronic scarcity of contraceptive methods, coupled with little to no sexual health education, has led to a rise in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Venezuela has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Latin America, with approximately one in four babies born to a teenager.

The increase in unwanted and teenage pregnancies and the subsequent inability to access much-needed maternal and reproductive health services has led to an increase in unsafe and home abortions. This issue is only made worse by the fact that Venezuela has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the region, leaving women without the option to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Higher numbers of unwanted pregnancies, coupled with inadequate public policies on sexual and reproductive health, have been accompanied by a dramatic spike in maternal and infant mortality. Following several years of steadily increasing numbers of pregnancy-related deaths, the maternal death rate soared by 65.8% in 2016, which corresponds with the onset of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. The rate of infant mortality has similarly increased by 41.6% since 2014, with current estimates suggesting that 24 out of every 1,000 children born in Venezuela die before the age of 5. Though the government promptly stopped releasing official statistics on maternal and infant mortality in 2016, these numbers are likely to have increased further as the humanitarian situation has deteriorated in recent years.

Venezuela’s economic collapse too has had a disproportionate impact on women, aggravating preexisting gender inequalities and reinforcing a clear division of labor between the country’s men and women. The economic crisis has forced more women to leave the workforce and commit their time to accessing food and medicine and taking care of family members, with women reportedly spending as much as 10 hours per day queueing for food. As food scarcity becomes even more dire, women and girls have had to shift from attending school and work to engaging in precarious work in the informal economy to make a living.

Increasing food scarcity and these shifts in the labor force have reinforced women’s role as primary caregiver, with an increasing percentage of households led by women. This trend has only been intensified by the scarcity of contraceptives and sexual health education, as more and more women are forced into motherhood. Maria Corina Muskus of Venezolanas Globales says, “In the context of the complex humanitarian crisis, it is women that spend their time looking for food. It is women that do not eat so that they can give food to their children.” With 90% of the Venezuelan population living under the poverty line, and 32.3% in a state of food insecurity, this means that millions of women have been forced to sacrifice their own well-being in order to cope with food shortages.

The unaffordability and scarcity of food has caused more families to depend on government food distribution programs, such as the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP), which has been used by the Venezuelan government to consolidate social and political control in poor communities. What’s more, women comprise 90% of CLAP recipients, making them particularly vulnerable to efforts by the Maduro government to weaponize food distribution to gain political support. Magdymar Leon, Venezuelan human rights activist and Executive Coordinator of the Venezuelan women’s rights organization Avesa, describes this as a system of ‘self-censorship’ in which Venezuelans, and women in particular, have no option but to continue supporting Maduro in exchange for much-needed food items.

Women are also facing widespread gender violence. Even as the forced migration of approximately 15% of Venezuela’s population has been accompanied by a steady decline in violent crime overall, violence against women and femicide has not abated. Though the Maduro government does not release official statistics on violence against women, the rate of femicide reportedly increased by 10.89% in 2018, and another 18.89% in 2019. The increase in gender-based violence is inextricably linked to the deteriorating humanitarian situation, as resource scarcity has aggravated tensions between families and increased the tendency of domestic violence.

In addition, as more women have been forced to find work in the informal sector, many have been subject to exploitation by criminal groups or forced into prostitution as a means of survival, further increasing their vulnerability to sexual abuse and violence. Already in 2020, 122 women have been murdered in Venezuela, a trend that is expected to worsen as families are forced to stay home under the COVID-19 lockdown.

These threats continue in spite of legislation such as the Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free from Violence, which was established in 2014 to prevent and address cases of violence against women. This law is one of many that has not been adequately enforced in practice, leaving victims of gender-based violence without the legal protection that the law would theoretically provide. In fact, cases of gender-based violence are rarely brought to trial, setting a standard of impunity that leaves victims without a legal framework to seek justice.

Venezuela’s Gendered Crisis II: The Impact of Displacement on Women and Girls

Venezuela’s Gendered Crisis III: Politics and Underrepresentation