Recently, Venezuelan women lost access to affordable birth control, highlighting major challenges for these women and their families. In the last few years, affordable birth control has been harder and harder to find for low-income families and individuals in Venezuela. Venezuelans already face difficulties: economic instability, lack of proper healthcare access, and extreme hunger, issues that have been ravaging the country for years and which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. These challenges have made it even more difficult for families wanting to prevent pregnancies to provide for their current families, moreover their unexpected unborn children, according to the New York Times.
Venezuelans are going through the worst economic crisis in the history of the country, claims The Intercept. In 2014, Venezuela’s economy declined because of decreasing crude oil prices and the government’s inability to rectify the situation, claims the New York Times. Since 2006, oil production declined rapidly and hit its lowest peak in 2019, claims the Borgen Project. This economic downfall resulted in a lack of free contraceptives at government-run hospitals and affordable contraceptives at private pharmacies.
Additionally, hyperinflation is causing widespread poverty across the country. Close to 96% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, similar to Nigeria and Chad, according to the Borgen Project and Reuters. Food and water shortages, which have intensified since the outbreak of COVID-19, have contributed to hunger. Additionally, the lack of medical equipment and medicines to combat already-high levels of measles, diphtheria, and malaria are putting Venezuelans at even greater risk, claims the Borgen Project.
The country is not set up to appropriately provide different forms of contraception. The minimum wage in Venezuela is about $3.60, claims Bloomberg News; A pack of three condoms costs $4.40. Further, birth control pills cost close to $11 each month, and an intrauterine device can cost close to $40 in addition to a doctor’s fee, according to the New York Times. Birth control is only available at private pharmacies, meaning it is affordable only to wealthy Venezuelans.
Ultimately, the lack of affordable contraception and therefore unwanted pregnancies leads many women to choose illegal and dangerous abortions. Abortions in Venezuela are illegal in most cases (due to 70% of the population being Catholic), and defying this law can result in prison time, claims The Intercept. No access to legal and safe abortions leads women to choose to take pills – misoprostol – alone and potentially die or develop depression. According to Women Across Frontiers, from 2015 to 2016, there was a 66% increase in the number of deaths due to illegal or self-induced abortions.
Due to healthcare system failures, maternal death rates increased drastically between 2015 and 2016, claims the New York Times. According to this new source, on top of this, about 30,000 of the country’s doctors have stopped practicing in the last few years, making healthcare providers very few and far between. Further, between 2010 and 2016, HIV infection rose close to 25%, claims UNAIDS. In the next year, over 120,000 Venezuelan men, women, and children were diagnosed with HIV, claims Women Across Frontiers. After 2016, there is little data about reproductive health, deaths, and related statistics.
Because of the risk of unwanted pregnancies and STDs, dangerous abortion options, and the inability to obtain necessary contraceptives, many Venezuelan women are choosing sterilization. For those who can afford the $120 surgery, the process is mostly undoable and very intrusive but also gives some women peace of mind, according to Women Across Frontiers.
These societal challenges are causing even greater distress for younger generations: Global News claims 23% of births in Venezuela in 2012 were to women under 20 years old. Without reliable updated data, some women’s health groups estimate that percentage to be close to 28% in 2019. According to The Intercept, Venezuela is the number one country for teenage pregnancy in Latin America.
Hugo Chávez, former President of Venezuela, promised the government would continue to provide women opportunities to have “full and equal participation in society,” according to the New York Times. Other than legalizing abortion, Chávez took steps to fulfill this promise. He was a proponent of allowing couples to decide how many children they will have, by making birth control available throughout the country. Though President Nicolás Maduro agreed with Chávez early in his administration, Maduro’s government has become corrupt and domineering.
Maduro’s second term began in 2018 after a re-election dispute. Opposition parties boycotted the elections, and neighboring countries and the U.S. considered the election results unofficial, claims The Intercept. While Russia and China support Maduro, the U.S. and European Union are recognizing Juan Guaidó’s leadership. Guaidó claimed the presidency in January 2019, but Maduro has not given up his power or his control of the military. However, as Venezuela’s political corruption and societal struggles come to increasing light, more outside actors support Guaidó as the rightful leader of the country, claims the Borgen Project.
On an international level, many Venezuelan women are fleeing to Colombia to have their children, claims Global News. According to this news source, since 2015, 26,000 women from Venezuela have given birth in Colombia. Colombia’s healthcare system is already struggling, and its immigration system is overloaded. If Venezuelan leadership continues to not provide affordable contraceptives to the country’s women and forces them to burden other countries, the region will undoubtedly become more unstable: the nation’s economies will suffer, populations will rise disproportionately to food production, and poverty will remain a constant threat.
Currently, the United Nations Population Fund is sending contraceptives into the country, but their efforts cannot rectify the entire situation, claims Global News. Non-profit organizations should play a larger role in obtaining and distributing contraceptives to Venezuelans as well as in educating the population on reproductive health and teenage pregnancy. What is challenging to these international humanitarian organizations giving aid is that the Maduro government has only recently allowed them to enter the country, according to Global News. Much of these organizations’ focus is on food and medicine yet reproductive health is increasing in importance.
Not to mention, the Venezuelan government should make reproductive health a priority and regulate prices and distributions of contraceptives around the country. According to Global News, health professionals assert that if the government provided contraceptives to Venezuelan women, the country’s maternal mortality rate could decrease by a third.
Without affordable contraception, Venezuelan women are having unplanned pregnancies while already facing difficulties in trying to feed the families they already have due to government incompetence. Some may argue that the government should not provide such medicines to everyone (at a low cost) as they believe that contraceptives are not essential. When in reality, contraception is necessary to combat cyclical poverty and regulate population growth by the country’s infrastructure. Additionally, many Venezuelan women fear for their unborn children being born into poverty and instability, and contraception prevents women from having children before they are ready. Lastly, contraception allows women (and men) intimacy without fear of significant repercussions based on their income level: Couples have tried to plan intimacy around being able to afford contraceptives and around a woman’s menstrual cycle, but these tactics do not always work.
Some might say that this is only a women’s health problem. However, much relies on improving and providing for women’s health and reproductive health. With appropriate women’s health initiatives, women can join the workforce, work outside the home, help pay for childcare and other household expenses, and have a greater chance of providing effectively for their families – All of which is even more important if a single mother is raising children. Not to mention, the economy benefits from women playing more of an active role in society, and women deserve to be more in control of their personal lives and futures.
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