After almost a decade of deep economic crisis, the healthcare system in venezuela has fallen into disrepair, with even the most common over-the-counter medications disappearing from the shelves and unlikely to return soon.
This collapse brings down with it reproductive and maternal health products and services for Venezuelan women and families, who are struggling to feed, clothe and house all of their children while trying to prevent their families from growing.
Venezuelan long-standing healthcare issues
Venezuela’s economic struggle intensified in January 2019 following a political power struggle between the interim president Juan Guaidó, recognised by the majority of Venezuelan citizens and fifty other governments as the rightful leader, and Nicolás Maduro, the supposed deposed president who many believe is responsible for the drastic economic decline during his first term.
This political conflict and economic problems led to a greater humanitarian crisis that persists to this day. The full extent of the impact this has had and continues to have on healthcare services isn’t one hundred percent known because of the Venezuelan government’s resistance to publishing figures and information.
However, a Human Rights Watch investigation in 2019 found
“a health system in utter collapse with increased levels of maternal and infant mortality (…) and increases in numbers of infectious diseases”
Hospitals became incredibly overwhelmed as more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and infectious diseases grew more frequent, due to decreasing amounts of medical and cleaning supplies as well as food and access to clean water. This, coupled with the lack of upkeep for hospitals and rapidly decreasing standards, led to a vicious cycle.
While this is happening, along with the vast social and political unrest, medical supplies and medications are increasing in price and dwindling in supply, including reproductive health products. According to an article by the New York Times:
“ a pack of three condoms costs $4.40 [USD] – three times Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage of $1.50 [USD]. Birth control pills cost more than twice as much, roughly $11 [USD] a month, while an iud (…) can cost more than $40 [USD] – more than 25 times the minimum wage.”
In 2016, according to the last official report and statistics from the Venezuelan Ministry of Health, maternal mortality rose by 65% and infant mortality by 30%.
These issues have all been exacerbated by the pandemic, pushing the country further into economic and medical crisis pushing reproductive and maternal health further from the spotlight.
The impact on Venezuelan women and families
Despite the promises of socialist leaders for greater equality of opportunity, improved family planning, and maternal health services in their campaigns, Venezuelan women and girls have been historically neglected by their government.
These women have been left to desperately fend for their families, battling the ongoing economic crisis, while also struggling to stop them from growing.
Women are being forced into unwanted pregnancies due not only to the lack of affordable birth control, but also an extremely severe nationwide ban on abortion – something that was discussed but never fully decriminalised by Maduro’s government. These forced pregnancies not only occur for women in relationships and who already have families, but also are the result of sexual assaults and domestic violence.
Abortion has been illegal in Venezuela since 1926, with little to no consideration for extenuating circumstances until a revision in 2000 that allows an abortion if the pregnancy is a danger to the mother’s life. Women who receive or self-perform an abortion could be punished with a minimum of six months and up to two years in prison.
This ban has led to thousands of women seeking dangerous and life-threatening methods to terminate their pregnancies, most of whom do not want to lose their child but cannot provide a decent life for them in their current economic and political climate.
Because of this women are seeking other far more dangerous methods of termination, including self-mutilation and buying pills online or on the black market. Drug dealers have found a market in Venezuela for selling misoprostol – a medication for medical abortions – for upwards of $100 USD.
However, medications like this are intended to be used in conjunction with another form of abortion medicine, so women are further endangering their lives with the threat of infection and sepsis due to lack of access to birth control.
It is estimated that in 2016 (when official figures were last available), deaths from illegal and self-induced abortions rose by 69% and are assumed to have only increased further.
Previously, while still illegal, some medical practitioners would perform much safer abortions; as the economic crisis has developed, around half of Venezuelan medical professionals have emigrated in the past decade, forcing women to these extreme and deadly methods.
In an interview with the New York Times, a young woman recounts her horrifying experience using misoprostol, stating:
“It’s not OK that I had to have an abortion in a warehouse. It’s not OK that I passed out, that I became depressed (…) It’s not OK that the country pushes you into this desperation (…) I am resilient, yes. But at some point, all of us get tired (…) and I am so tired.”
Is there a solution?
It is clear that many of these issues and their resolutions rely on the recovery of the economy and the settlement of the political conflicts in Venezuela. However, there are smaller ways to take action that would still have a great impact on the women and girls in the country.
In response to these issues, some non-profit organisations have already started offering free or cheaper birth control and working with clinics throughout the country. Nevertheless, their resources are limited and run out quickly as women and girls wait hours and days to receive contraception from these organisations.
Women Across Frontiers suggests that to support these non-profits, big medical companies and charities across the world could donate supplies and contraceptives directly to organisations already stationed in Venezuela.
Legalising abortion, or at least expanding the considered circumstances for abortions, would be a monumental step that could save thousands of lives and provide women and girls with safe procedures and protected environments. It will also communicate to the Venezuelan people that women have autonomy over their bodies.
The Venezuelan government and Ministry of Health still refrain from publishing public reports including statistics discussing the health and wellbeing of their citizens. In 2018 an activist group, Faldas-R, reported a 40% rise in calls to their abortion support hotline.