How Venezuela’s Crisis Has Affected Women’s Lives

This past July, The New York Times’ front page featured an image of Venezuela’s street protests, showcasing the deep political, economic, and human rights crisis in the country. The violence that has ensued is a serious problem, but other, less visible effects are also problematic – and some affect the country’s women more than its men.

Situations of conflict and crisis are not gender neutral. Luz Patricia Mejía, a Venezuelan expert in women’s rights working at the Organization of American States, made this point in an interview when saying that in any kind of crisis, women’s rights are disproportionately affected. Three areas in which women have been suffering the greatest in the Venezuela crisis: menstrual and sexual health, maternal and infant health, and gender-based violence.  

Menstrual and sexual health:

Food isn’t the only things missing in Venezuela’s supermarkets and pharmacies: so are condoms, birth control pills and menstrual hygiene products.

Earlier this year, factories from different companies had to stop production of sanitary pads, affecting not only the women who desperately need them, but also the women and men employed by those factories. Venezuelans have had to turn to social media to find basic necessities, and many women have resorted to this to get tampons and pads – by exchanging them for flour, for example.

Venezuela is the country with the highest rate of teen pregnancy and earliest start of sexual activity in South America. A lack of contraception is especially problematic. Because of this, couples have had to make drastic changes to their sex lives to avoid pregnancy, such as using calendar-based methods and buying birth control pills off the black market.

Some Venezuelan women have chosen an extreme method of avoiding pregnancy during the crisis: sterilization. Speaking about her decision to go through the procedure, a young mother of two, aged only 25, said in an interview: “I will not bring a child to suffer. 

Some women who do find themselves pregnant amid the crisis have resorted to a dangerousand illegalalternative: unsafe abortions through homemade herbal medicine and introducing acids through the vaginal canal, procedures that can cause severe and life-threatening bleeding.

Maternal and infant health:

Lack of medicine and basic hospital supplies, as well as a reduction of the number of doctors in the country (in recent years, around 20% of doctors have left Venezuela because of working conditions) adversely affect maternal and infant health in the country. Hospitals have been lacking incubators and other essentials to care for pregnant women and newborn babies. Lack of food also means many mothers are unable to breastfeed.

More worrisome, infant mortality increased by 30% and maternal mortality by a staggering 65% in 2016—and back then, the crisis was not yet at its worst. 

Gender-based violence:  

Domestic and gender based violence don’t stop just because the rest of the country is in a crisis. In 2016, for example, the number of femicides increased compared to the year before. The dire situations in hospitals also affect the victims of domestic violence who need medical attention. Impunity of gender-based crimes is also a major issue, especially given that it’s currently estimated that impunity of human rights related crime in the country hovers around 98%.

As the crisis in Venezuela persists, so do the daily struggles of women to access their basic needs and rights. The ways in which this crisis has affected women’s lives highlights how gender issues are extremely important in the context of crisis and conflict, and should be taken into consideration as these situations are studied, researched, reported, and addressed.

Politics in the Face of FGM: Kenya Edition

Kenya is scheduled to hold presidential elections this coming August. In every election cycle, citizens engage in dialogue and negotiations with their respective political aspirants regarding pressing local issues. Based on past election cycles, these issues include infrastructure, healthcare, education, sanitation, food, security and peace – among others.

In democratic societies, communication between leadership and citizens ensures that information vital to the existence, survival and development of constituents is available to them in a timely and balanced manner. Thus, the visible silence regarding harmful cultural practices by the candidates vying for the various positions in Kenya this year is hugely significant.

Given the officialdom associated with  legislators such as Members of County Assembly (MCAs), Members of Parliament (MPs) and other elected officials, the campaign period provides a perfect opportunity for members of the public to access  prospective power wielders. This is particularly important because, apart from being eventually responsible for representing their people both at county and national level, legislators are responsible for making and amending laws. An early encounter can create a rapport between citizens and lawmakers that will be invaluable during a future term in office.

It is during campaign season that activists have a perfect chance to reach out to prospective candidates and have a genuine discussion about the need to include eradication of FGM as part of any political agenda. These negotiations could not only inform the party manifesto but also raise the possibility of creating an official policy – should the particular party and its leaders ascend to higher office. In this case, anti-FGM activists can piggy-back on political aspirants at the grassroots level to reach out to their party leaders as a means of escalating the message to discourage the practice of FGM.

More specifically, women political aspirants – by virtue of vying for a special political seat of ‘women representative’ – have a more powerful platform to mainstream ‘women’s issues’ within their agendas. They can address the issues that their male counterparts would still rather not talk about. Women representatives aspirants, irrespective of party affiliations, are by virtue of their position expected to speak on women’s causes without fear of losing votes.

Overall, I fault the donor community for the silence around FGM in current Kenyan politics. Despite being conscious that 2017 was an election year, they have not considered the importance of investing in activities aimed at bringing together anti-FGM actors and aspirants in areas where harmful traditional practices still occur. While it is understandable that donors may prefer to remain apolitical, when it comes to battling FGM they must be more willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. FGM is, after all, a cross-party, urgent issue that requires massive political capital.

On a disappointing note, I fear that that most politicians will avoid talking about FGM among other harmful traditional practices for fear of losing votes. It defies logic how leaders elected on the promise of alleviating poverty and misery can ignore or even encourage a practice that continuously enslaves the electorate.

Why Transgender Rights are Women’s Rights

Feminism is inherently controversial, even within itself. There is a political spectrum of feminism, from radical feminists on one end to what Roxane Gay describes, tongue-in-cheek, as ‘bad feminist‘ on the other.

Where this political spectrum becomes hurtful is when it excludes or devalues certain women’s experiences over others, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the denial of transwomen’s rights as women’s rights.

Radical empathy may render the thinking behind trans-exclusionary feminism understandable on a knee-jerk emotional level, if not still impolitic. It is easy to be a little bitter as a woman. Many of us have at least the occasional moment where we have a twinge of intense impatience or frustration when our male family members or friends or colleagues are surprised at the minute discrimination we experience daily.

This resentment can spill over into a resentment of transwomen, for what some think of as their former privileged position as a man. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example, came under fire for her comments that “I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.” (She later clarified that this did not necessarily mean she did not equate trans rights with women’s rights.)

Yet basing the right to be a woman on privilege is a straw man argument. Cis women (the term for women whose gender identity corresponds with their biological sex at birth) themselves face different degrees of discrimination. Women range from those born into the 1% to those trapped in sexual slavery in obscurity – neither is considered less of a woman for their differences in experience, stark as they are.

An additional point of contention has been that allowing transgender women who haven’t fully physically transitioned into women’s spaces increases the risk of sexual assault against cis women, and therefore prioritizes trans rights over women’s rights. Yet there is little evidence transwomen are any more likely to commit acts of sexual assault. On the rare occasion it may happen, to condemn an entire group for the sins of a few is one of the most baseless forms of prejudice. As Katy Guest asked in an op-ed in The Independent, “When men dress up as taxi drivers, teachers, doctors, priests, friends or lovers to commit rape, do we curtail the rights of taxi drivers, doctors, lovers and priests?”

Transgender women face the same discrimination and violence women face; between 2008 and 2014, there were 1,612 murders, the equivalent of a transgender person being killed every two days.

This is in addition to everyday harassment, discrimination and legislation which excludes them from healthcare, representation and protection.

Transwomen may have entered the game later, but they still play by the same skewed rules, with the odds stacked against them. To add opposition from cis women themselves is at best, misguided and at worst, cruel.

Women’s March on Washington: 5 Lessons for my Son

For most of 14 hours on Saturday, my son and I were on our feet in Washington D.C., unwilling to be comfortable and refusing to be silent. As I saw it, the educational possibilities justified skipping a day of school, even when the learning opportunities at the march included Henry reading a sign and asking loudly, “What’s an orgasm?”At that moment, I faced one of few occasions when I’ve replied: “Ask your father.”

Though I bypassed that teachable moment to keep us on task, the Women’s March on Washington served my mothering well. Together with my son, who is privileged enough to live a life in which his privilege is so fundamental as to render it mostly invisible, we marched to experience some basic lessons in responsible, active citizenship. Here are the lessons I hope he and other kids at marches around the globe might have experienced:

1. Humanity and decency are not political.

img_2621We might vehemently disagree with the political ideologies of the new administration, but standing up and marching with millions of people around the world was less of a political statement than it was an ethical one. When our leaders speak with violence, degradation, and indecency, any political concern comes second to a concern for fundamental humanity. Most children learn the difference between nice and mean before they learn about sides of the aisle, and I wanted my son to be clear that social responsibility is a basic tenet of leadership and citizenship, regardless of your political leanings. That social responsibility needs defending these days, and the march was a chance to do just that. Sure, we strongly asserted our political positions at the march, but to my mind, I was teaching my son that standing up for kindness is an imperative that transcends politics. Henry and I were part of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children objecting to inhumane leadership, selfishness, threats to democracy, and a disregard for dignity. It was telling that not only were there no arrests at the March on Washington, but the police presence was minimal – perhaps because we were there in the name of peace and respect.

2. Silence is political.

Those of us who prefer to be silent on what’s happening in the world may perceive silence as apolitical, but I wanted Henry to learn that silence can be a bystander’s  crutch. And when we lean on it, we allow for injustice when we could be making a real human difference in the life of a person or people who need our advocacy. I wanted him to learn that silence can be a powerful message when used skillfully and that when it comes to activism, we have a right to be silent. At the same time, we have a responsibility to the members of our communities to defend their rights. This plays out most often in the hallways and lunchrooms of my son’s world – not on the ellipse outside the White House – but that makes it all the more important. Being quiet in the face of bullying and abuse of power is not as noncommittal as it might seem. At the March, we practiced voice – loud and clear – and my deep hope is that my son will carry that practice into his daily life of social complexities at school.

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3. Intersectional feminism matters to white, middle class, teenage boys.

Before he asked about orgasms, Henry read a sign and asked, “What’s intersectional feminism?” Though caught off guard enough to say, “Ask your aunt,” this is a question I wish on every parent. His aunt, conveniently both a gender studies professor and right there standing next to us, fielded the question deftly. I realized that my boy, who will likely never know the first-hand experience of a disenfranchised identity, was seeing people of different colors, genders, orientations, faiths, and classes (to name a few) intersecting with clear voices of respect, refusing to march in competitive parallel play. The demonstration grew so large that it became many intersecting streets and manifested an ambulatory perpendicularity of diverse chanting voices, united. My boy both noticed and was immersed in the intersectionality of diverse people. As a result, the issues plastered on signs and ringing through the air weren’t other people’s issues. My son chanted that black lives matter and that a woman’s body is her choice, embodying the lesson that an issue doesn’t have to affect you to matter. Seeing him among other men and boys of all colors was a gentle lesson that women’s issues are human issues.

4. Discomfort is a developmental imperative.

img_2616Before we marched, we stood, waited in line, walked, and stood some more. On a very physical level, we were not comfortable. At 7 a.m., as we waited for an hour in a crowded tunnel to get on the Metro, I looked over at Henry and he was apprehensive, uncertain of the space, the people, and what he signed up for. At other times, I grasped his hand or his arm a bit too tight, driven by that maternal fear of losing one’s child in a massive crowd. But discomfort – physical and mental – brings growth. The experience of not knowing what comes next was palpable and emblematic of what many of us feel when we check the news every day. With the firm grasp of his mom to secure him, I wanted Henry to learn that comfort and complacency overlap beyond their first three letters, and endurance through sore feet and uncertain times is bolstered by the power of a people standing up together. “It’s good to stand up for what you believe in,” Henry told me a few days after the March. “Why is it good?” I asked.

“Because it’s good to feel like you’re doing something.”

5. Voice and kindness are neither mutually exclusive, nor optional.

One of the most important lessons I could teach my son through activism is that speaking up and kindness are not incompatible. Too often, I wonder if I send the message that being nice means being passive or quiet. By taking him to the March, that notion came to forefront of my mind. We were there to speak up for many things, speaking up for speech among them. But as we marched to speak up for humane and respectful speech, we were obliged to practice what we preached. By chanting for justice and humanity, Henry found a clear voice of agency and assertiveness. At the same time, he practiced kind speech, the type of considerate action many of us feel is lacking in the White House. At one point we marched near a young girl and her mom, the girl holding a sign that read Use Kind Words. It was a beautiful, loud statement that the basic human decency we learn as children is where we must start now.