Last month, four non-governmental organizations launched a report presenting the dire situation of women’s rights in our country, Venezuela. We called it “Women on the Edge” because this is the best way to describe current living conditions of most Venezuelan women and adolescents girls.
This report documents not only how Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency and democratic deficit has negatively and disproportionately impacted women and adolescent girls, but how the current situation involves serious regressions and violations of human rights that have failed to catch the world’s attention.
The findings tell a story of survival and resilience, where women have been left alone for the most part by a State that seems to be preoccupied only with keeping its grip on power. While poverty is on the rise, particularly among women, they are greatly exposed to hunger, malnutrition, extortion, ill health and violence.
In the context of a staggering socio-economic and political crisis never seen before in this country, the outlook for the year 2018 is grimmer and more complex. Already this year, 82% of Venezuelans live in poverty – more than half in extreme poverty. The minimum monthly wage sits at 4 USD. A professional with graduate studies earns between 15 to 25 US dollars a month: approximately 1 USD a day.
According to the IMF, inflation will hit 2.068% next year, which means that salaries and purchase power will collapse even further than this year. It is calculated that a minimum monthly wage is needed to cover just one day of basic food requirements for a regular family.
Even in 2013, before the deepening of this crisis, poor women outnumbered poor men: for every 100 men living in poverty, there were 107 women, and for every 100 men living in extreme poverty, there were 112 women. Overall, poverty among women is 6 points above the national average.
If we consider that 4 out of 10 households are headed by women (70% of which are women without partners), it is not difficult to conclude that many of those households live in some form of poverty.
Behind these figures lies a stark reality: women are carrying on their shoulders the bulk of the crisis. They are the first to leave their jobs in order to line up for food, medicines and other scarce supplies, or to care for children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled in a country where social safety nets, work-life programs, and social security are severely diminished. At the height of the crisis between December 2014 and December 2015, 99% of those who left the labor market were women.
Lines for food are made up mostly by women of all ages, who spend between 8 and 14 hours a week lining up. While standing, they are often subjected to different forms of aggression by security forces, including beatings of pregnant women. Despite being the ones looking for food, they consume less food products than men and are forced to consume less healthy products, putting their own health at risk. Last year, a survey conducted by 3 major universities in Venezuela found that 75% of those consulted had an uncontrolled loss weight of 8 to 9 kilos.
Caritas, a non-governmental organization working on food and nutrition monitoring in some of the poorest parishes in the country has identified several survival strategies used by families in the face of severe food shortages and soaring inflation: eating less and avoiding specific foods (70-80% of households); waiving one or two meals so that another person in the family could eat (53% of households); and spending the day without eating (48%). Women are the ones who most often waive meals so that someone else in the family may eat (33%), while more than half of families reported they sacrificed elder women’s food intake. Essentially, women are being forced to deny themselves food in order to survive and to ensure the survival of their dependents and loved ones.
The threats to their reproductive health are just as bad or even worse.
Today, Venezuelan women are being denied access to contraceptives despite the fact that historically, women were able to get contraceptives, including the morning after pill as well as condoms, through public hospitals or in private pharmacies,without obstacles. But since 2014, together with general shortages of a vast majority of medicines and medical supplies, oral contraceptives, intra-uterine devicess, and other family planning options have disappeared from shelves. This violates women’s rights to reproductive autonomy and health, both of which are constitutionally protected in Venezuela.
There are no official figures regarding public expenditures on contraceptives or on shortages. According to the latest available data (from 2015, the Ministry of Health’s purchase of contraceptives and condoms would amount to 2% of local demand for family planning methods. An online survey conducted by our organizations last June found out that 7 out of 10 women consulted could not find their desired contraceptive in the past 12 months.
Lack of access to contraceptives has had an impact on unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and maternal mortality. As recently as 2016, maternal mortality increased 66% according to official figures. The main cause of these deaths is hemorrhages. Considering that Venezuela has one of the most restrictive legal frameworks in the region on abortion, it’s not difficult to conclude that behind the increase in maternal mortality rates are women trying to end unwanted pregnancies. It is important to highlight that President Nicolas Maduro has never spoken of the issue of abortion in the 4 years since he came to power. There are also tremendous gaps in the health system infrastructure where the most basic medications and supplies are missing, with reports of pregnant women having to visit up to five hospitals to get medical attention.
Women are put on the edge regarding their sexual and reproductive health when they are unable to make fundamental decisions about their bodies and their lives, particularly in a context of severe socio-economic conditions and shortages of food, diapers, menstrual hygiene products and milk formula, among many other basic items.
Our study also explored the increasing numbers of femicides and impunity around cases of violence against women in general. In the case of femicides (the killing of women out of hate or contempt towards them), which is a criminal offense included in Venezuela’s progressive violence against women legislation, the rate has shown an increase from 0,77 per 100,000 women in 2015 to 0,78 per 100,000 women in 2016. However, due to lack of proper training of police and criminal justice officers in identifying what constitutes femicide, these figures indicate major underreporting. On other forms of violence against women, despite efforts by the State in creating and strengthening institutions in this area, including special courts to deal with cases involving violence against women, impunity is high. Out of almost 71,000 cases reported in 2014, only 482 or 0.6% made it to the courts. Victims of violence face all sorts of obstacles and revictimization within the justice system as a result of which many opt not to report their cases.
As indicated in our study, all of these situations are occuring on the watch of a government that calls itself “feminist,” but does not guarantee the most basic rights to women and is involved in violating their rights. Never before have Venezuelan women been more vulnerable or had their rights trampled upon in this manner. And the State is mostly responsible for that which begs the question, when and how will the impunity end?