Image: Diplomatic Corps of the Venezuelan Unitary Platform during the “Women for Democracy” forum, in Geneva, October 2021. Source: Mujeres por la Democracia en Venezuela.
Venezuela, once among the most prosperous countries in Latin America, is now one of the world’s top producers of refugees. Venezuela’s crisis is dire. A shocking three quarters of Venezuelans now live in extreme poverty, while a staggering 95 percent of the population is below the poverty line. Economic devastation, human rights violations, systematic destruction of the rule of law, and state-sponsored corruption have rendered life a constant struggle.
The crisis has affected all Venezuelans, but the impact on women and girls has been particularly corrosive. Venezuelan women are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed. Many have put their education and careers on hold in order to provide basic necessities for their families. Faced without economic alternatives, record numbers of Venezuelan women have been forced into sex trafficking, forced labor, and forced prostitution. As Venezuela’s healthcare system has collapsed, so has women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Women in Maduro’s Venezuela have experienced dramatic increases in teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and maternal and infant mortality.
A crisis that disproportionately affects women cannot be solved without women. The long-term solution for Venezuela lies in a credible negotiated settlement, resulting in free and fair presidential elections. Last summer, there was some hope of achieving this goal when Norway-mediated negotiations between the Maduro regime and the National Unity Platform commenced in Mexico City.
As a member of the National Unity Platform delegation (and one of a total of six women at the formal negotiating table), I saw firsthand the unprecedented triumph when the participating parties agreed to include a gender focus throughout the negotiations. We must keep pushing persistently in this direction so that more women are incorporated in the process when it restarts.
These negotiations have now been suspended since October. Nevertheless, hopes are currently emerging that a new round of negotiations may resume soon. If and when they do, it will be critical that women are not only present at the negotiating table, but are also taking the lead in charting Venezuela’s democratic transition.
Women’s inclusion is critical to the success of any negotiation, and for the past decade, it has been women-led organizations that have led the charge to improve Venezuelans’ lives.
Women-led organizations and networks like the Centro de Justicia y Paz (CEPAZ) and Red Naranja have drawn attention to the conflict’s disproportionate impact on women, the extent of sexual violence, and the steps needed to establish a democratic Venezuela. In addition, groups like Éxodo have provided resources on the rights of Venezuelan refugees, while the Frente Amplio de Mujeres has worked to unify women’s voices across the opposition.
This fall, a group of Venezuelan women and I launched Women for Democracy in Venezuela (MDV), an inclusive initiative led by Venezuelan women committed to a free and democratic future for our country. Comprised of lawyers, doctors, bankers, journalists, academics, refugees, human rights defenders, diplomats, and elected officials, we are working to generate women-led solutions to the current impasse and to amplify women’s voices and demands on the international stage.
Despite the stall in peace talks, women-led organizations are continuing to work hard to improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans and to create the necessary context for negotiations to succeed. We know that long-term solutions will depend on identifying areas where Venezuelans can find common ground now—and that is precisely where Venezuelan women have sought progress.
One area that urgently needs to be addressed is the issue of sexual and gender-based violence. Victims of sexual and gender-based violence can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. One woman is killed every 28 hours in Venezuela. Agreeing on a National Action Plan to deter gender-based violence, as women-led organizations have repeatedly called for, is an important step that could lead to the parties finding common ground.
Another issue that we should achieve consensus on is the natural environment. Over the past decade, Venezuela’s Amazon region has been illegally mined for gold, diamonds, coltan, and other minerals, with complete disregard for the environment or Indigenous communities. Criminal gangs and foreign insurgents have devastated our lands, endangered our biodiversity, contaminated groundwater, and released toxic gases. In the process, the Amazon region has become dangerous, especially for vulnerable women and girls. Women-led environmental organizations are advocating to end mining in our national parks, encouraging sustainable agriculture, and demanding that Indigenous peoples be consulted in any decision-making that affects their future.
On another front, women are also working to protect Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Over the past decade, millions of Venezuelan women and girls have been driven from their homes due to a lack of access to healthcare, physical abuse, discrimination, sexual and gender-based violence, and human trafficking. Nevertheless, just a fraction of Venezuelan refugees have official refugee status—the vast majority continue to live on the margins, without access to basic rights and protection.
Venezuelan women across the political spectrum have been working to grapple with these issues. They have developed concrete proposals to address them, which the parties involved in the negotiation process should consider when they return to the table. Achieving even modest progress on these issues could provide a foundation for discussions on more divisive areas central to securing democracy and stability, such as electoral integrity, democracy, the rule of law, and the need for justice and accountability.
Venezuela has a long and illustrious history of women uniting to create positive change. We must continue this legacy. And when political negotiations resume, we must ensure that the women who are rebuilding Venezuela today are meaningfully included in the construction of a prosperous and democratic Venezuela.
Mariela Magallanes is a member of Venezuela’s National Assembly and one of two women representing the Venezuelan National Unity Platform in the Norway-mediated negotiations in Mexico City. She was forced to flee Venezuela in December 2019 after spending eight months confined in the Italian Embassy in Caracas due to persecution by the Maduro regime.