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Venezuela’s Young Women Particularly Vulnerable to the Crisis

A pregnant teenage girl sits in a Caracas plaza. Teenage pregnancy often leads to dropping out of school or turning women into heads of single-parent households at a very early age, curtailing their possibilities for personal growth and fomenting multigenerational poverty. CREDIT: Avesa

A pregnant teenage girl sits in a Caracas plaza. Teenage pregnancy often leads to dropping out of school or turning women into heads of single-parent households at a very early age, curtailing their possibilities for personal growth and fomenting multigenerational poverty. CREDIT: Avesa

CARACAS, Nov 2 2023 (IPS) - Hemmed in by poverty, with barely two days of school a week, and often at risk of unwanted pregnancy or the uncertain prospect of emigration, young women and adolescents are among the main victims of the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

“Yes, my boyfriend and I have sex less often or for example he pulls out so as not to risk pregnancy, because buying contraceptives is expensive and we can’t always afford it,” Anita, a 22-year-old computer science student, told IPS from the west-central city of Barquisimeto.

"Instead of education being the gateway to the labor market (for women), dropping out of school at a young age means a very high risk of teenage pregnancy." -- Luis Pedro España

A pack of three condoms costs at least four dollars, a month of birth control pills more than 10 dollars, an intrauterine device about 40 dollars (plus the medical cost of its implantation), and in the country the minimum wage is four dollars a month and the average monthly salary barely exceeds 130 dollars.

A survey by the Women’s Peacebuilding Network found in September that 42 percent of Venezuelan women between the ages of 18 and 24 do not use birth control, and one of the reasons is the high cost in relation to their meager incomes.

The Venezuelan Association for Alternative Sex Education reported in a study in April that only three out of 10 women of reproductive age use contraceptive methods in this country.

“The lack of contraceptives and access to sexual and reproductive health is of great concern in the case of impoverished adolescent girls, who most need to avoid early pregnancy that could keep them out of the classroom,” said María Laura Chang, editor of the report by the Women’s Peacebuilding Network.

Students at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas take part in a protest against sexual abuse and aggression. Sexist violence stands out in the national context of poverty and scarce access to resources and education on sexual and reproductive health. CREDIT: Mairet Chourio / Efecto Cocuyo

Students at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas take part in a protest against sexual abuse and aggression. Sexist violence stands out in the national context of poverty and scarce access to resources and education on sexual and reproductive health. CREDIT: Mairet Chourio / Efecto Cocuyo

 

Omnipresent poverty

As a result, “the feminization of poverty has been prolonged, as young women gain more dependents and less time to devote to their economic well-being, education and self-improvement,” Chang added in an interview with IPS.

“All age groups are affected by poverty, lack of income and opportunities. Because of the education crisis, the women most at risk are adolescents,” sociologist Luis Pedro España, head of poverty studies at the private Andrés Bello Catholic University (Ucab) in Caracas, told IPS.

Every year Ucab conducts a Survey of Living Conditions of Venezuelans (Encovi), which found that in 2022 income poverty affected 81.5 percent of the country’s 28.3 million inhabitants, extreme poverty affected 53.3 percent, and multidimensional poverty (employment, services, health, education and income) 50.5 percent.

España highlighted the impact of the educational crisis that the country is going through “because schools only receive students twice a week, which makes adolescent girls more likely to drop out.”

The reduction from five to only two days of classes per week in many public schools and institutes is mainly due to the lack of teachers, who have left the classrooms – in the three year period of 2019-2021 alone a quarter of them left – due to low salaries, lack of transportation, deterioration of infrastructure and other resources, as well as high student dropout rates.

 

Women are a majority during an enrollment day at the private Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. University studies are an avenue for personal growth, but graduates, both men and women, suffer from the lack of opportunities due to poorly paid jobs in the midst of Venezuela's economic crisis. CREDIT: M. Sardá / El Ucabista

Women are a majority during an enrollment day at the private Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. University studies are an avenue for personal growth, but graduates, both men and women, suffer from the lack of opportunities due to poorly paid jobs in the midst of Venezuela’s economic crisis. CREDIT: M. Sardá / El Ucabista

 

According to official figures, there are 29,400 schools in the country, of which 24,400 are public, serving 6.4 million students, and 5,000 are private, serving 1.2 million students. Figures from universities and civil society organizations estimate the number of students dropping out of school at around 1.5 million in the last five years.

In the survey carried out by the Women’s Peacebuilding Network, 58 percent of the women respondents stated that the main reason for missing classes was because of their school’s suspension of activities.

For women, “instead of education being the gateway to the labor market, dropping out of school at a young age means a very high risk of teenage pregnancy,” España stressed.

The expert said that “an additional element that correlates with poverty is that of single-parent households that result from early pregnancy and are headed by a young woman who is not sufficiently trained for work, so that poverty is likely to continue to be the plight of her descendants.”

 

Young women run a street vendor's stall in Caracas. Girls who drop out of school also expand the ranks of the informal economy. It is part of the landscape of poverty in which the majority of Venezuela's population is embedded, following a decade marked by economic collapse, with a combination of recession and hyperinflation. CREDIT: U. Montenegro / Venezuela Red.us

Young women run a street vendor’s stall in Caracas. Girls who drop out of school also expand the ranks of the informal economy. It is part of the landscape of poverty in which the majority of Venezuela’s population is embedded, following a decade marked by economic collapse, with a combination of recession and hyperinflation. CREDIT: U. Montenegro / Venezuela Red.us

 

Disappointment and violence

Another consequence is the disappointment in the lack of opportunities even for young women who complete their higher studies, due to the prolonged economic crisis, during which, for example, the number of factories shrank from 13,000 in 1999 to 2,600 in 2020, according to the Venezuelan Confederation of Industrialists (Conindustria).

In seven of the last 10 years a recession has reduced the country’s GDP by four-fifths, and during at least three years of hyperinflation the value of the local currency and the value of salaries and pensions were decimated.

“I have studied for more than 18 years to end up applying for jobs where they want to pay me 150 or at most 200 dollars a month. With that I can’t even pay for my passport (which costs 216 dollars),” Mariela, a recent graduate in administration from a private university, told IPS.

Sitting on a sofa in the middle-class apartment where she lives with her parents, Mariela rattles off a list of grievances to IPS: she is tired of getting up so early to go to school because of the precarious public transportation; there are no good jobs in the country; going abroad is risky or unaffordable; electricity, water and internet fail in her house for several hours almost every day.

To top it off, “I am one of the few who registered in the Electoral Registry. Many of my fellow students did not. They are not interested in participating in politics at all,” said Mariela who, like other young women who spoke to IPS, asked not to disclose her last name.

In its September survey, the Women’s Peacebuilding Network found that only half of those over 18 (the minimum voting age) and under 25 were registered on the electoral roll, and even fewer were determined to vote in the presidential election scheduled for 2024.

Of this age group, 19 percent engaged in some community activity and 81 percent in none. Of the latter, 60 percent mentioned the lack of economic stimulus as an obstacle, and 55 percent mentioned the difficulty of transportation to get around.

Another issue faced by young and adolescent girls is gender-based violence.

Of 237 femicides or gender-based murders documented in 2022 by the Digital Observatory of Femicides, of the NGO Centre for Justice and Peace, 69 involved women between 16 and 27 years old.

In the Network’s survey, 38 percent of the women interviewed said they had been victims of sexist violence, mainly psychological but also physical. Of the respondents, 24 percent said they were victims of economic violence, both those over and under the age of 24.

In addition, 12 percent of the total number of women surveyed reported having suffered sexual violence, but in the 18 to 24 year-old segment the percentage doubled to 24 percent, reflecting the greater vulnerability of young women to this kind of violence.

 

Young Venezuelan women rest after the perilous journey across the Darien jungle between Colombia and Panama. Migration has marked the lives of Venezuelan families in the last decade, during which millions of people have left the country. CREDIT: Gema Cortés / IOM

Young Venezuelan women rest after the perilous journey across the Darien jungle between Colombia and Panama. Migration has marked the lives of Venezuelan families in the last decade, during which millions of people have left the country. CREDIT: Gema Cortés / IOM

 

Time to emigrate

Almost eight million people have left the country, especially since 2015, according to United Nations agencies. In 2018, Encovi reported, 57 percent of those migrating were between 15 and 29 years old, a percentage that decreased to 42 percent in 2022. For every 100 female migrants there are 116 males.

Migrants and asylum seekers are highly vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation, and most of the victims of these practices detected in countries in the region, such as Colombia, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago and the neighboring Dutch Caribbean islands, are Venezuelan.

Last year, civil society organizations reported the rescue of 1,390 Venezuelan victims of this type of crime abroad. Young women are a particularly fragile segment of the population and are sought by traffickers – often with deceitful offers of employment – to subject them to sexual and labor exploitation.

In the Network’s survey, 54 percent of young women between the ages of 18 and 25 said that a member of their family had migrated: 23 percent said it was their mother, father or both, and most reported that they have brothers or sisters who have left the country.

The report that accompanied the survey highlights that for young women and adolescents the separation from their loved ones has had a significant emotional impact, and has made them face new responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings or attending to new domestic chores, with an impact on their personal development.

The Network’s study proposes the design of government programs and policies aimed at overcoming the shortcomings faced by youth and adolescents, support services for victims of gender violence, and an appeal to international cooperation to curb gangs dedicated to human trafficking.

España said that “it is essential to strengthen schools, so that women in their teenage and young adult years do not have children prematurely and can empower themselves, enter the labor market and become independent, without depending on support from their parents or partners.”

“Unfortunately, policies and measures are not being developed to mitigate the immense damage being done by reducing the number of school days,” he argued.

 
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