Women’s reproductive health rights and the economic crisis in Venezuela

Women’s reproductive health rights and the economic crisis in Venezuela

Venezuela is stuck in a severe economic crisis. Inflation rates are reaching 1,000,000 per cent while GDP is falling by 18 per cent. But the crisis is not simply economic: it has also become a severe health crisis by which women are disproportionately affected. Their fundamental rights to sexual and reproductive health are infringed. As a result, Venezuelan women are forced to take extraordinary measures if they wish to exceed their right to sexual freedom.”

By Britta Moormann

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is stuck in a severe economic crisis. The country is experiencing inflation at a rate of 1,000,000 per cent and a falling gross domestic product (GDP) of 18 per cent as determined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF); [1] but the crisis is not simply economic. It has become a severe humanitarian and health crisis by which women are disproportionately affected. Fundamental women’s rights are infringed, primarily their right to sexual and reproductive health and sexual freedom. As a result, Venezuelan women are forced to take extraordinary measures if they wish to exceed their right to sexual freedom.

Sexual and reproductive health is recognized as a decisive pillar of gender equality and empowerment. In 1995, the Beijing Conference established a comprehensive approach to women’s rights. The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) is considered a consensus document by over 179 states. The ICPD’s document, just like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, defines equality of men and women with regards to reproductive rights (in its Article 16(1)(e) as ‘the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights(.)’[2].

Living a life of sexual freedom includes the positive right to produce new live as well as the negative right not to produce new life to which the accessibility of contraceptives is conditional. In light of the present crisis in Venezuela however, women, as the traditional primary caregivers to their families [3], lack these rights. As a Venezuelan woman very drastically attests in ‘Women of the Venezuelan Chaos’*: ‘Us women always suffer, and for everything. To give birth and to stop giving birth! To stop giving birth! To stop giving birth. My God. Like if we were cows or something.’ [4].

Contemporarily, deciding to give birth as a Venezuelan women means facing potentially life-threatening conditions. Deciding to live out sexual freedom means facing extraordinary economic challenges and health risks. 87 per cent of the Venezuelan households attest to living under conditions of food insecurity, following a mono diet within which man consume 15 different types of food and women consume only 12 different types of food [5]. The extreme food insecurity is exemplified by the fact that 9 out of 10 Venezuelans is unable to pay for its daily nutrients and 6 out of 10 Venezuelans lost around 11 kg during the last year due to the continuous situation of hunger [6].

The majority of families adopted a diet consisting of less diverse food products and a lesser amount of food in general. One family requires at least 51 average salaries to cover basic costs of alimentation [7]. Additionally, the access to and level of medical treatment has worsened strongly. Doctors and medical staff are working under war-like conditions, with 76 percent of hospitals experiencing shortages of medical supplies, of those hospitals among 81 percent lack surgical materials and 70 percent complain of intermittent water supply [8]. Many pregnant women cross the border to Colombia to reach the city of Cucuta to receive medical treatment, as pre-natal check-ups become a rarity in Venezuelan hospitals.

Since 2015, 14,000 Venezuelan patients have received medical treatment in the main hospital of Cucuta. Among the most vulnerable patients are children (suffering from skin diseases, diarrhoea or respiratory problems) and women (mainly due to malnutrition and with only few pre-natal check-ups). The Colombian hospital gives an aspiration of survival to Venezuelan women; a hope of not succumbing to the high maternal mortality rate of 65 per cent [9].

The reality of food shortages persists after child birth. Prices for dairy milk have risen 266,7 percent and the prices of diapers 71,4 percent in 2016 alone [10]. According to UNHCR around 2,3 million Venezuelans have migrated to neighbouring South American countries since 2015, the majority of which are living in irregular situations of non-documentation. Among the main reasons why Venezuelans continue to leave the Republic is the continuing economic and food insecurity, access to medical treatment or essential social services, and physical integrity [11]. Whilst a group of Latin American nations agrees on giving assistance particularly to Venezuelan migrants, Venezuelan President Maduro dismisses migration related figures as incorrect and fights grounds for pre-emptive justification of potential foreign intervention in Venezuelan affairs [12].

By means to secure contraceptives, Venezuelan women face disproportionate economic challenges. The price of condoms escalated to around $169 USD for three condoms on the black market, which equals a five-day salary. Safe sex has become a luxury only a minority of the Venezuelan population is able to afford. Subsequently, a higher number of patients suffer sexually transmitted diseases [14]. Moreover, the fear of getting pregnant is the main reason why more women see an obligation to medical sterilisation or clandestine abortions. In some hospitals, 30 sterilizations a week have been practiced during the course of 2017 to extraordinary cost. Irrespective of the continuing health deterioration, the Venezuelan government perceives its health systems as one of the world’s best. Official health statistics remain unpublished nonetheless [15].

President Maduro denies the reality of a humanitarian crisis politically and continues to follow an antagonistic position towards reproductive health care. Stipends are offered to pregnant women for new born children where maternity culturally is a considerable fate. Contrarily, free sterilization days are offered in public hospitals with rising tendency of patients [16]. Non-governmental organizations criticise the disproportionate risks women take in order to live out their rights to sexual and reproductive health. If both carrying a child and taking measures not to get pregnant is directly linked to taking either disproportionate economic or physical risks, women are exposed to unequal conditions of exercising fundamental human rights.

* A movie portraying the life of five women under the extremity of the Venezuelan crisis, made by filmmaker Margarita Cardenas and presented at the Human Rights Watch’s Film Festival in New York.



[1] Friesen, Garth. 2018. “The Path To Hyperinflation: What Happened To Venezuela?”. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/garthfriesen/2018/08/07/the-path-to-hyperinflation-what-happened-to-venezuela/#7bc8884a15e4.

[2] UN. 1998. Rights to Sexual and Reproductive Health – the ICPD Convention and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. [ONLINE] http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/shalev.htm.

[3] Taraciuk Broner, Tamara. 2018. “Mujeres del caos venezolano”. La Vanguardia. https://www.lavanguardia.com/internacional/20180529/443912937067/mujeres-caos-venezolano-venezuela.html.

[4] Marillier, Lou. 2018. “Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn To Sterilization And Illegal Abortion”. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2018/06/10/venezuela-crisis-sterilization-women-abortion/.

[5] AVESA, CEPAZ, FREYA, Mujeres en Línea. 2017. Mujeres Al Límite. El peso de la emergencia humanitarian: vulneración de derechos humanos de las mujeres en Venezuela. [ONLINE] https://avesawordpress.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/mujeres-al-limite.pdf, p. 14.

[6] ENCOVI. 2017. Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida. Venezuela 2017. Alimentactión I. [ONLINE] https://www.ucab.edu.ve/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/02/ENCOVI-Alimentación-2017.pdf.

[7] Caritas Venezuela. 2018. Monitorio de la Situación Nutricional en Niños menores de 5 años. [ONLINE] http://caritasvenezuela.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/6to-Boletin-SAMAN-Enero-Marzo-2018.pdf.

[8] Watts, Jonathan. 2016. “’Like doctors in a war’: inside Venezuela’s healthcare crisis”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/19/venezuela-crisis-hospitals-shortages-barcelona-caracas.

[9] Moloney, Anastasia. 2018. “As Venezuela’s health system crumbles, pregnant women flee to Colombia”. Reuters. https://uk.reuters.com/article/colombia-migrants-health/feature-as-venezuelas-health-system-crumbles-pregnant-women-flee-to-colombia-idUKL5N1T34JJ.

[10] AVESA et al., p. 11.

[11] UNHCR. 2018. Venezuela Situation. Fact Sheet. [ONLINE] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/64428, p. 3.

[12] Valencia, Alexandra. 2018. “Venezuela’s neighbours seek aid to grapple with migration crisis”. Reuters. https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1LK2T0.

[13] UNFPA, The Danish Institute for Human Rights, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2014. Reproductive Rights are Human Rights. A Handbook for National Human Rights Institutions. [ONLINE] p. 18. https://www.unfpa.org/publications/reproductive-rights-are-human-rights.

[14] Wright, Emily. 2016. “Safe Sex Is a Luxury in Venezuela, Where a Pack of Condoms Costs Nearly $200.” Broadly. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/bmwqy4/safe-sex-is-a-luxury-in-venezuela-where-a-pack-of-condoms-costs-nearly-200.

[15] Ulmer, Alexandra. 2016. “In crisis-hit Venezuela young women seek sterilisation”. Reuters The Wider Image. https://widerimage.reuters.com/story/in-crisis-hit-venezuela-young-women-seek-sterilization.

[16] See Reference 4.

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