Venezuela’s health systems are crumbling – and harming women in particular

By Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton

Venezuela sits on the world’s biggest oil reserves, but in terms of GDP growth per capita, it’s now South America’s poorest economy. It is mired the worst economic crisis in its history, with an inflation rate in the region of 500%, a volatile exchange rate, and crippling debts that have increased fivefold since 2006.

The economic crisis is inflaming a longstanding “economic war” between the government and the business sector – and a dangerous cycle of protest and repression is further polarising Venezuela’s already divided society.

In this scenario, violence of all sorts is approaching what could be a point of no return. The very ability of democracy to combine forces of transformation and resistance is at stake.

The crisis in Venezuela has also taken centre stage in regional organisations. The Union of South American Nations and the Organisation of American States are gravely concerned with the weakness of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, its culture of impunity, and the criminalisation of dissent. But they’re overlooking one of the biggest tragedies of the crisis: the crumbling of Venezuela’s health and welfare systems, which not long ago were beacons of hope. This collapse is truly dangerous and is affecting Venezuela’s women particularly badly.

Venezuela’s promise

For more than a decade, Venezuela was a focal point in the continental promise of a more direct and inclusive alternative to dominant marketised approaches to development and democracy. At the end of the 1990s, governments across South America began embarking on various “post-neoliberal” experiments – and for more than a decade, those experiments seemed to work.

Between 2000 and 2014, the region nearly halved the proportion of its people who lived in poverty, and the bottom 40% of its the population saw their incomes rise dramatically. In Venezuela, social, political and economic reforms between 1998 and 2012 helped cut poverty by a spectacular 50%, and extreme poverty by 65%.

Venezuela also became a regional health and welfare pioneer, greatly expanding the number of primary care physicians in the public sector and offering millions of poor citizens better access to healthcare than ever. Under a flagship programme titled Oil for Doctors, Venezuela subsidised oil exports to Cuba in exchange for deployments of Cuban medics and medical training programmes. The Barrio Adentro programme was set up to provide free basic medical care; Mission Miracle provides free eye care to people across the region, and other Venezuelan initiatives tackle the needs of people with disabilities across Central and South America.

But these remarkable projects all depended on revenue from Venezuela’s oil bonanza and accumulated reserves. Once the country was hit by an international oil industry downturn, the result was a string of shortages, outbreaks and widespread social deprivation – and a spiralling socio-political crisis.

Today, thousands of patients cannot receive essential medical treatments – and thousands more are on the waiting list to undergo vital surgery because doctors do not have the necessary resources. Likewise, diseases such as malaria and diphtheria – previously eliminated or controlled – are now on the rise, with disastrous results.

These assorted crises have implications for all Venezuelans, but women in particular. Their rights and choices are affected in distinctive ways, especially when it comes to reproductive rights, sexual health, and gender-based violence.

Women’s rights and dignity

Even before the economic collapse, Venezuela had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. To tackle the problem, the socialist government rolled out entitlements to contraception – but the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimates that since 2005, the country’s stocks of contraceptives have fallen by 90%. This is fuelling a rise of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV, and more and more women are seeking out illegal abortions and even sterilisations.

According to Amnesty International, between 2015 and 2016 maternal mortality increased by 65% in Venezuela – wiping out recent advances and returning to the situation that prevailed 25 years ago. Among the main causes are the lack of medicines and basic medical tools and equipment, and the ever-falling number of medical personnel, many of whom are either emigrating or simply unable to work without equipment or pay.

Women find themselves in desperate situations and who fear dying in childbirth are fleeing to give birth in neighbouring Brazil and Colombia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the overall number of arrivals in neighbouring states steadily increased to 5,000 a day as of early 2018. More than 56,000 Venezuelans crossed the borders in January alone – 40% of them were women.

The ConversationSo far, Venezuela’s South American neighbours and the regional multinational organisations have responded to the crisis principally as an economic and fundamentally a constitutional problem, justifiably worried as they are by the Maduro’s rapidly expanding authoritarianism. They have focused on isolating his government, condemning Venezuela’s farcical elections, recalling their ambassadors and even moving to suspend the country from organisations such as the Organisation of American States. But this is a humanitarian disaster, not just a democratic one. It’s time for other countries to step up and address the crisis’s disastrous effects on women, their rights, and their dignity.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How not to write about female leaders

By Beata Rek, PhD student in Politics, @BeataRek (https://twitter.com/beatarek). You can find more about Beata here.


 

As Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton, as well as many other women, rise to the political top, it may be reasonable to theorise that the glass ceiling is no longer a barrier for women in politics. However, the situation of female politicians might not be quite as simple as it may seem at first sight. Indeed, although women could have smashed the glass ceiling into smithereens, it does not yet mean that all the issues which they face – for example media coverage – are over.

When analysing this year’s press coverage of the Conservative leadership election, at some point I observed a significant increase in the number of articles about female leaders from different parts of the globe. This was around the time when all male candidates were eliminated one by one, and the election turned into a two-woman race. However, what the media gave with one hand by praising female politicians for all their hard work and achievements, it took away with the other by referring to them as ‘cleaners’ who are there to pick up the pieces of their male predecessors. Moreover, the media undermined their authority by suggesting that women might have won their positions only as a result of political instability. An article in the Guardian suggesting that ‘all we need is just someone who will lead us out from the mess‘ and a piece in the Independent arguing that Theresa May “is criticised for being dull – but that’s exactly what Britain in turmoil needs” are just a few of many examples.

Even though the press give the impression of writing about female politicians in a positive light, in reality it also sends a veiled, negative message. First of all, by writing that women are cleaning the mess made by men, the media did not present women as an equal part of the political scene. Indeed, ‘othering’ women from male politicians has been previously described in the academic literature and examples of such practices include unnecessarily labelling their gender (and not doing so for males) or emphasising how ‘rare’ is a woman’s appointment for the particular office. Similarly, reducing the role of female politicians to fixing the damage done by men does not aid creating a gender-equal environment, and potentially limits their chances for being elected in the future as well as undermines their authority.

Second of all, while writing about May and Leadsom, the press had a tendency to mention that the election is taking place in the time of political crisis. One message from so-constructed statements is that women’s success might not be related to their abilities, but rather to unusual political circumstances. This might thwart their position as candidates who are able to win in every situation, while in the future, once the crisis is over, this could also pose a question whether a woman is still a good choice. Therefore, the media could devaluate the candidates, by linking their success with times of turmoil, rather than attributing it to their experience and potential ability to successfully run a country.

While in the past there have been more severe examples of gendered coverage, framing of females as ‘political cleaners’ is yet another confirmation that more changes in press attitudes towards women are required. It is a well-established fact that women are a part of politics for quite a while now, and thus it is shameful that in 2016 the media still relegate women to “postmodern Elektras in suits and rubber gloves” who are supposed to clean the mess caused by men.

Where are all the women? Reflections on International Women’s Day

Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

Saturday 8th March is International Women’s Day, and routinely an occasion for reflection on how much remains to be done in the fight for women’s equality. And while it’s true that the battle is, sadly, far from over, it’s helpful also to think of the achievements that have been made, if only to keep our spirits high. Which is why some recent polling on Hillary Clinton’s prospects should she choose to run for the US Presidency in 2016 offers a ray of light.

The USA Today/Pew Research Centre Poll indicates that Clinton is better liked and more respected than when she ran in 2008. This is good news on two fronts, irrespective of whether you support her as a candidate. First, that she is more respected can be attributed in large part to her time as Secretary of State, and is a notable indicator of how important it is for us to see women in strong leadership roles: the more women we see in leadership roles, the more we will acknowledge them for performing well, and the less unusual it will become to see women in those roles – a virtuous circle. Second, the news that Clinton is better liked is the real break through. Research consistently shows that women face a significant ‘likeability’ factor in the workplace and that men do not: in studies, people (both men and women) report liking women less when they are as strong leaders, but report no such negativity for men under the same conditions. This was regrettably exploited by Obama during the 2008 presidential elections when he declared Clinton to be ‘likeable enough,’ a barbed comment that simply would not have had the same resonance if applied to a male candidate.

This new polling indicates that respondents judge gender as a less important factor for Clinton than it was in 2008, and that the ‘likeability’ factor is far more muted. This may be good for Clinton, and for those who would like to see her elected president. But beyond this specific example, these numbers provide encouragement on the journey to increase female representation across all leadership positions in society. Perhaps one day, we will celebrate International Women’s Day, not by lamenting the absence of women from the key positions of decision-making, but by celebrating because there are so many.