Finding a Safe Space: Venezuelan Women Face Harassment and Gender-based Violence as They Seek a New Place to Call Home
The impact of the Venezuelan crisis continues to expand, disproportionately impacting women across Latin America and the Caribbean. Of the over 5 million Venezuelans who have left their homeland and crossed international borders, at least 40 percent identify as female.
Mother and child, Venezuelan refugees in Cucuta, Colombia. Photo Credit: Terje Lillehaug / Alamy Stock Photo.
A Dangerous Journey
Leaving Venezuela is extremely difficult for women. They are vulnerable to forced sex, sexual exploitation, and trafficking along the migration journey. Growing restrictions preventing Venezuelan migrants from entering other countries has led to an increase in the use of irregular migration routes where passage may be through smugglers, only further aggravating this situation for women and children. Migrants are often targeted by groups controlling the “trochas”, or land border crossings, who may demand sex in exchange for passage at these de facto checkpoints.
One example of this is the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, the main border crossing for Venezuelans into Colombia. According to Alvaro Gaitan, the Communications Officer for JuntosEsMejor grantee Safe Schools, “[Y]ou can find many points of that neighbor[hood] where that girls of Venezuela have to suffer sexual exploitation…[It] probably is the hardest thing that they have to face is that point.”
How to Manage the Increase in Migration
According to Claudia Esparza, a software engineer and a JuntosEsMejor grantee LOOP, said of her homeland, Peru, “ [I]n the beginning people felt very empathetic...they were welcomed.”
“Venezuelans have always been here in the country, part of the culture, part of the community," stated Marlene Charles the director of the WELCOME project in Trinidad and Tobago, funded by JuntosEsMejor.
Indeed, migration is not a new phenomenon in Latin America or the Caribbean. While Venezuela had traditionally been a migrant receptor country, this trend started to reverse in the early 2000s. As the economy continued to plunge, in 2014 the number of Venezuelans migrating to neighboring countries increased to worrying levels. By 2018 this trend turned into a mass migration and is now considered the largest external population displacement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. As such, it has strained resources and caused tensions between Venezuelans and their host communities, and there have been some examples of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in host countries.
When mass migration began, attitudes towards these migrants across host countries changed, in part, due to competition for limited resources and services. In countries such as Peru, many began to believe their jobs were being lost to Venezuelans, and according to a 2019 Institute of Peruvian Studies poll, 73 percent of Peruvians are against these migrants coming to Peru. Many employers realized that the Venezuelan population, due to their desperation for work and often undocumented status, could be exploited. “This is not xenophobia because they come from Venezuela, it comes from many things that you can add up together,” said Claudia.
“It started going wrong when the media started putting the spotlight on the bad situation of Venezuelan migrants,” said Claudia. According to her, the media in Peru began focusing on a few violent crimes committed by the migrant population and blaming Venezuelans for violence within Peru. However, studies from 2019 suggest that Venezuelan immigrants commit substantially fewer crimes relative to their share in the overall population in host countries such as Colombia, Chile and Peru; suggesting that public perceptions of Venezuelans as criminals and responsible for increasing communities' insecurity are misleading.
In fact, Venezuelan migrants make important contributions to the local economy and the host country's development. A World Bank case study finds that in Peru, the Venezuelan migrant population is relatively young and well-educated. Forty-two percent of the population is between the ages 18-29, and 57 percent of working-age Venezuelans in Peru went through higher education. The study also finds that if Peru incorporates these migrants into its formal labor market, labor productivity would increase by approximately 3.2 percent.
“In some cases there is xenophobia regardless of their [Venezuelan migrants] presence for a long time. There is still discrimination towards them because they are arriving as refugees and there is xenophobia towards migrants at the border,” said Maria Luisa Cristancho, Interim Grants Coordinator for Safe Schools about Colombia
Demonstrations against the government’s support for Venezuelan migrants began to occur in Trinidad and Tobago. According to Marlene, “[T]he streets became crowded with protesters and then you became aware of how...I'm not sure angry is the word, but there were people that were just not pleased that the government was registering all of these people that they felt had no right being here in the first place.”
While these instances impacted all Venezuelan migrants, cultural stereotypes about Venezuelan women, particularly ones that depict them as ‘hypersexualized,’ exacerbate their struggle to begin a new life. “Men can bunk with whoever. You can just sleep on the floor, whatever. But if you're a woman, and you're here with your own children, then your choices become different. Your choices may become a lot harder or you just may not have choices. And I think that's how women would be more affected,” said Marlene.
The Fear of Street Harassment
These untrue stereotypes often lead to harassment and sometimes abuse of Venezuelan women within their new societies, making many fearful of public spaces and how they may potentially be treated. A 2019 Democracy International study found that Venezuelan women in Trinidad and Tobago are often threatened and harassed in public spaces, including public transportation, supermarkets, and health centers. Due to this, many Venezuelan women avoid using these services, increasing their risks for gender-based violence at home. Marlene has witnessed instances of street harassment against Venezuelan women. Recalling a particular instance when a man from Trinidad targeted a group of Venezuelans, she said, “I wondered, how come nobody else around did or said anything?.. There were other men, there were other people walking around, there were other cars passing, and nobody did anything. And I just remember thinking, it cannot be easy living in a situation where that could have just happened to you.”
Similar situations of harassment have occurred in other countries. According to Claudia “Unfortunately...they are suffering harassment in the streets...Because of machismo...and our society is a really tough place for women, Peruvian society. They suffer harassment in the streets, sometimes at their jobs also...It's really hard for Venezuelan women to live here in Lima.”
But men aren’t the only perpetrators of violence towards Venezuelan women. Claudia said, “One of the ladies that participated in our focus group told us, ‘The day after a Venezuelan murderer appeared in the news, I was selling coffee on the street and a woman saw me and she realized that I was Venezuelan because of my accent and she yelled horrible things at me and she cut my hair.’” Claudia recalls tearing up at the horrible nature of the instance, “I’ve never heard of something like that.”
“[I]t’s so popular in the thinking of...Colombians that the Venezuelan women come to Colombia to work in sexual work. In Bogota you can find a street called Venezuela street. Also in Cucuta and Medellin. So probably the women and girls...they have to face more difficulties than boys or men,” said Alvaro. According to CARE, 48 percent of female Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are at risk of gender based violence.
While the situation may be dire for many Venezuelan women, WELCOME, Safe Schools, and LOOP, among numerous other JuntosEsMejor grantees in ten countries across the region are testing innovative solutions that either directly address the challenges that Venezuelan women face—both inside Venezuela and in their host communities—or have programs that are inclusive of all genders. WELCOME is building a network of advocates and using innovative behavioral science to stop street harassment at supermarkets, one of the main places where Venezuelan women in Trinidad and Tobago say harassment occurs. Safe Schools is testing an approach in Colombia to combat xenophobia in schools that prioritizes research that looks at how boys and girls experiences are different. LOOP is finding ways to employ women in Peru with temporary positions and is launching a media campaign where Venezuelan women will tell their own stories to reduce xenophobia.
As she thought of the woman who was harassed and had her hair cut, Claudia said, “What amazed me the most was that she told me, ‘It was just my hair, it will grow again and I’m here and I”m willing to participate’...So her resilience was the the thing that, it was amazing, really. Amazing.”
When asked what the WELCOME Project would do, Marlene answered, “It's women helping women, really. It's helping Trini[dadian] women become allies of Venezuelan women to stop the sexual harassment and xenophobic behavior.”
Maria said about the Safe Schools Program, “Through this program teachers and caregivers will be encouraged to reflect upon gender dynamics in the classrooms and the role of boys and girls at home. They will be better equipped to understand and respond to girls’ different feelings and needs. Also, the program aims at promoting peaceful coexistence in schools and developing strategies against xenophobia. This will have a positive impact, especially in girls, as Venezuelan women are associated with negative stereotypes.
Recognizing the unique challenges that migrants face based on gender, USAID, through the JuntosEsMejor/BetterTogether Challenge, launched a specific call for applications to identify, fund and scale home-grown solutions to prevent and address gender-based violence (GBV) within the Venezuela crisis context. The winners will be announced in the coming months.
Written by: Sandra Coburn, USAID Catalyst Project at Resonance Global.
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