Photo: Cristian Hernández

More often than not, people ask me “what does it mean to be a woman in Venezuela today.” My answer is that, in more than a few aspects, Venezuelan women live as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did in the 19th Century: no contraceptive pills to control their fertility, no access to safe abortions, no sanitary pads to allow a life during their periods, no official institutions to turn to when beaten, raped or verbally and emotionally abused by men, no policies to combat gender-based violence, no fully functioning health facilities looking out for pregnant women and their newborns. No support in caring for others, including children, older people, the sick, the disabled –a responsibility still seen as a woman’s job.

In the report “Mujeres al Límite 2019,” written by a coalition of Venezuelan women called Equivalencias en Acción, we examine these issues and provide evidence that confirms the specific challenges and setbacks in rights that Venezuelan women, teenagers and girls face, especially in the context of the ongoing humanitarian emergency.

In more than a few aspects, Venezuelan women live as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did in the 19th Century.

Machismo is deeply ingrained in Venezuela’s seemingly classless and egalitarian society, so there are numerous obstacles for women’s rights and their full participation in society. Humanitarian emergencies are not gender neutral. Therefore, it’s not the same to be a man as it is to be a woman in a humanitarian crisis. As it is not the same to be an educated middle-class woman from an urban area, and being a woman from an indigenous community located in a remote, rural area. Women are affected differently and, quite often, disproportionately.

We tried to understand better several issues, mainly how the humanitarian emergency has impacted sexual and reproductive health and rights of women in Venezuela. Without official data, we set out to gather ourselves information that would help us grasp the severity of the situation. In one study, during a five-months period (August-December 2018,) we surveyed the availability of contraceptive methods most commonly used by women in private pharmacies at five cities: Barquisimeto, Maracaibo, Mérida, Porlamar and Caracas’ metropolitan area. Another study followed teenage pregnancy, abortions, maternal mortality and general conditions of services at four hospitals in Carabobo, Miranda and Caracas over the same period.

The results are staggering: for instance, shortages of birth-control methods were overall between 83% and 92% for all five cities. In Barquisimeto, shortages of oral contraceptives during the first half of August and the first half of September 2018, reached 100%. Condoms were the most widely available method, but even then they reported a 52% shortage. When condoms are on pharmacy shelves, their prices are beyond reach for most Venezuelans.

None of the four public hospitals  –two in Carabobo (Maternidad del Sur and Ciudad Hospitalaria Enrique Tejera), one in Caracas (Maternidad Concepción Palacios) and one in Los Teques (Hospital Victorino Santaella)– had a steady supply of contraceptives. In fact, throughout the study, they showed no availability of oral or injected contraceptives, two of the most widely used by Venezuelan women. The same goes for emergency contraceptives and IUDs.

While this might seem as a minor hurdle, for most women lacking contraceptives might be life-changing. Before 2013, contraception was readily available and affordable for women at private pharmacies, and while the approval of emergency contraception involved major public opinion battles in other countries in the hemisphere like Peru or the U.S., in Venezuela they were introduced in the market without much noise. No prescription required for any type of contraceptive. Current shortages impair women from taking fundamental decisions around their bodies and their life plans.

Unwanted pregnancies in Venezuela are on the rise and women have very few options, not only because they lack contraceptives, but because abortion is illegal.

As a consequence, unwanted pregnancies in Venezuela are on the rise and women have very few options, not only because they lack contraceptives, but because abortion is illegal. Our survey of 4 hospitals revealed a total of 2,246 women who arrived with abortions in process (an average of 15 daily abortions.) There was an abortion for every four registered births.

Given legal restrictions, doctors are unable to differentiate between spontaneous or induced interruptions. Many of these abortions are associated with malnutrition, young age and lack of opportune medical attention. But many are induced. We registered four abortions in girls below 12 years-old and two abortion-related deaths, all in Carabobo. Doctors affirm they’re seeing abortive practices, such as the use of soaps, hangers and herbs, they hadn’t seen in years thanks in part to the use of Misoprostol, which is also unavailable in Venezuela.

The four hospitals were in such calamitous conditions that they have become a risk to the lives and health of pregnant women and their newborns. Their needs are too many to count: essential medicines, supplies like test tubes, gauze and antibiotics, cleaning products, including soap, antibacterial and disinfectants, anesthesiologists and neonatologist, as well as electricity, water and meal services.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights is but one of the areas where Venezuelan women are feeling the brunt of the humanitarian crisis. Women’s reproductive autonomy is being systematically violated. And Nicolas Maduro’s de facto government is to be blamed for it.

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