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– The team at Les Glorieuses
June 21st, 2021
Reading time : 6 minutes
Migrant women are at the mercy of foreign powers for access to contraception, by Jill Filipovic. Photos by Nichole Sobecki.
In a three-story motel down a dimly lit street in Cúcuta, Colombia, Katherin, a curly-haired 24-year-old with a cross tattoo on her wrist, takes a break from getting ready for work. It’s 2018 – the height of an acute political crisis in Venezuela which sent thousands of migrants over the border to neighbouring Colombia – and Katherin has come to Cúcuta on the promise of a job, only to arrive and find it never existed. But the debts she accrued to get there were all too real.
The first day she exchanged sex for money, she said, was the worst of her life. Whenever she had a break, she would go to church and pray for forgiveness. « I will never be resigned to this life,” she said.
« It’s hell for these girls, » said Natalia, who co-owns the hotel with her husband. She tells the women who work there to protect themselves, not to have any more children they can’t afford to feed, to save their money. She knows that some clients insist on sex without a condom. And she knows that some of the women get pregnant and tell no one. « The girls usually run out before we can talk to them, » she said.
A shadow falls across an unmade bed in Natalia’s hotel in Cúcuta. Nichole Sobecki for Impact x Les Glorieuses
Cúcuta, a city of about 800,000 in the Colombian Andes, is connected to Venezuela by the Simon Bolivar International Bridge. As the crisis exploded, some 30,000 Venezuelans crossed every day, some to pick up necessities no longer available at home – medicine, toilet paper – and others planning to stay, toting mattresses, children’s toys, toddlers atop shoulders, and whatever else they could carry. Those who didn’t have legal documentation ran underneath the bridge, through dense green underbrush and past armed guards on both sides.
While the pandemic and border closures slowed the rate of migration from Venezuela to Colombia in 2020, and some refugees returned home during that time, the Organization of American States warns that the total number of
Venezuelan refugees could rise to 7 million in 2021.
Two aid workers come by the hotel, one a sympathetic volunteer, the other an employee at an Italian NGO. But other than that, Natalia says, no one helps the women who work there. This is part of the reason why Katherin, who already has a young daughter and does not want any more children, is not using any form of contraception. She often doesn’t make enough money to pay rent, and most of what she does make goes to her husband, child, and extended family back home in Venezuela. She can’t afford birth control, and as a woman living in Colombia without legal status, where would she get it?
Venezuelan migrants cross the border into Cúcuta, September 2018. Nichole Sobecki for Impact x Les Glorieuses
The reality is that there are organizations in Colombia that provide inexpensive or even free contraception, and the health providers who work there say getting reproductive healthcare services to Venezuelan women has been a years-long priority. But the years of mass flight from Venezuela into Colombia also overlapped with the Trump presidency in the U.S., which curtailed reproductive healthcare funding, including to Profamilia, the largest provider of family planning services in Colombia.
Migrant Venezuelan women are a particularly vulnerable population, health workers say. They’re coming from a nation where contraception shortages and limited access to health care have resulted in the highest teen pregnancy rate in Latin America. That, plus the broad illegality of abortion, has led to a surge of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths.
It’s also meant that many Venezuelan women come to Colombia needing help ending pregnancies. Marta Royo, the executive director of Profamilia,
a network of more than 40 reproductive health care clinics in Colombia, says young women often seek abortions after becoming pregnant as a result of rape. « In older women, what we see is that they haven’t had access to contraception for a long time and they get pregnant, » she said. Profamilia provided 1,400 free abortions for Venezuelan women in 2020.
The unmet need for contraception, coupled with the fact that safe abortion remains out of reach for most women in the world’s poorest nations, drives a nearly unimaginable volume of death and despair worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of women are injured or killed every year after unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions.
This is not a new problem. It’s not even one that’s all that difficult to solve. Inexpensive, safe, and highly effective forms of both contraception and abortion exist. So do organizations around the world that know how to distribute both contraceptive tools and
myth-busting information about actual risks and side effects. What’s missing is not ability, but resolve: the choice of wealthier countries to fully fund contraceptive and abortion services, or least not to impose their own abortion politics on women in other nations.
During the Trump administration, much attention was paid to the Global Gag Rule, which cuts off U.S. dollars to any organization overseas that performs abortions with its own money, refers women to safe abortion services, or advocates for abortion rights. The policy has been in effect under every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan, and rescinded under every Democratic one, most recently by Joe Biden. But even when the Gag Rule isn’t in effect, as is the case right now, American dollars still do not fund abortions overseas, thanks to a 1970s-era law
called the Helms Amendment. A handful of Democratic congresswomen have called for the repeal of Helms, but so far, their bill has gotten little traction
Nor are U.S. funds immediately available to recommit to contraception funding when Democratic presidents lift the Gag Rule. Organizations have to start from square one once the policy is rescinded, re-assessing need and going through the long, detailed, and often tedious rigamarole of applying for USAID grants. As of publication, many organizations that lost funds under Trump have still not seen their USAID dollars restored, delaying – by months or even years – their ability to use those funds
to get contraceptive services to women in need. Those organizations also know that if Americans elect a Republican president, their funding will get cut off all over again, creating a cycle of instability and inability to plan long-term.
Heloísa Marques for Impact x Les Glorieuses
While the U.S. is arguably the most powerful player impeding women’s access to contraception and abortion worldwide, it’s not alone. A bevy of conservative and religious nations from Poland and Hungary to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have time and again not just scaled back women’s rights in their own countries, but interfered with the global community’s ability to find basic consensus on women’s health needs. In 2019, the U.S. joined Saudi Arabia, Russia, Libya, and nations in stating: « we do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights. »
Funding cuts further complicate the picture. The UK recently withdrew more than 80% of its funding to UNFPA, the UN agency dedicated to reproductive and maternal health, a move Simon Cooke, chief executive at MSI Reproductive Choices, said could be more devastating than the Global Gag Rule.
Colombia is just one of many nations where a lack of local support combined with foreign interference and funding cuts have forced women who were already vulnerable to confront impossible choices.
For women the world over, the ability to decide when and whether to have children is
frequently denied. For women who have fled conflict or crisis, that denial is particularly devastating: an unplanned pregnancy can mean the difference between just barely hanging on, or falling into the abyss.
This reporting was supported by an Innovation in Development Reporting grant from the European Journalism Centre.
– Jill Filipovic is a Brooklyn-based journalist, lawyer, and author of OK BOOMER, LET’S TALK: How My Generation Got Left Behind.
– Nichole Sobecki is a photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya, focused on
humanity’s connection to the natural world.
– Heloísa Marques is a visual artist whose principal mediums are embroidery and collage.
Brazil – Feminist collectives were among those in Brazil who marched on May 29 to denounce the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his handling of Covid-19 in one of the biggest mass protests since the pandemic began. « Bolsonaro out, no more racism, fascism and machismo, » protesters chanted. Women have been hit hard by the crisis: one in four have suffered violence during the pandemic and the country has registered 1,338 femicides since March 2020, according to the Datafolha Institute. Participation in the labour market
declined by 53% last year, with Black women worst affected. « This government encourages violence, promotes hate and weapons, uses a conservative discourse to polarize organized women and weakens mechanisms to combat the patriarchy’s violence, » Eduarda Carneiro, an activist from Levante Popular da Juventude told Les Glorieuses. « We protest because Bolsonaro is more dangerous than the virus. »
Argentina -« Are we going to raise our voices? They are killing us », journalist Marcela Ojeda tweeted in May 2015
following the femicide of Chiara Páez, a 14-year-old teenager. A month later, on June 3, more than 400,000 people marched across Argentina under the slogan ‘Ni Una Menos’, or Not One More. Six years on, there was no street action due to the pandemic, but the Ni Una Menos collective organized a number of virtual conferences to mark the anniversary, including discussions about femicide and violence against trans people and workshops on inclusive language. Since 2015, the movement has secured major victories for women’s rights, including the legalisation of abortion in December 2020. Now it is pushing for new mesaures, including a gender-sensitive justice system and a quota for transgender workers. « Ni Una Menos made male violence visible and did something even greater: it showed its structural causes. It demonstrated that domestic violence is related to economic
and institutional violence, and that there is no Ni Una Menos without the right to housing or the recognition of care work, » researcher and member of the movement, Verónica Gago told Les Glorieuses. « Ni Una Menos is a desire to change everything. »
Mali – Women and girls are suffering disproportionately following the coup in Mali, women’s rights advocates have told the UN security council. Fatima Maiga, the President of the Coalition of Women Leaders NSC, said 2.9 million women and girls in central Mali – the most dangerous part of the country for civilians – required emergency humanitarian assistance. She warned that in other parts of the country, women and girls were at increasing risk of sexual violence and denied access to schooling and healthcare. More Malians are currently displaced that at the peak of the political crisis in
2013. In May, the military arrested the transitional president and prime minister, an act that was described as « a coup within a coup« . Allies are urging the current government to hold peaceful, fair elections in 2022.
El Salvador – The Salvadoran legislative branch has dismissed several bills relating to trans rights – including a law that would allow people to have their gender changed and name recognised on official identification and an inclusion and non-discrimination
law which would sanction all forms of discrimination against the transgender community. After taking the majority in the assembly, President Nayib Bukele’s party argued that the drafts were « obsolete », even though Human Rights Watch considers El Salvador to be one of the most dangerous places in the region for LGBTIQ+ people. « We don’t have access to education, job opportunities or social benefits. We don’t have access to health care without discrimination. Neither life nor personal security are guaranteed, » Bianka Rodriguez, from the Asociación Comunicando y Capacitando a Mujeres Trans, a trans rights organisation, told Les Glorieuses.
China – China has increased its restriction on the number of children allowed per family from two to three. But experts warn this may not be enough to address the country’s falling birth rate. The infamous one-child policy, in place from 1979 to 2015, was designed to prevent overpopulation and stimulate economic growth. In recent years, like in many countries, an ageing population has become more of a concern. But women have been slow to take up the two-child option offered since 2015, with many citing maternity discrimination, inadequate childcare options and the high cost of living as reasons for not having larger families. Feminist activist Lü Pin wrote in a Medium post that the policy was « doomed to fail ». « The Chinese government’s efforts to prevent population crises have never effectively responded to women’s concerns, » she wrote.
US – More Latina women dropped out of the labor market than any other demographic group during the pandemic, a new study has found. From March to May 2020, 700,000 Latinas working in leisure and hospitality lost employment, according to the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. While many of those jobs were restored over summer, school closures then saw 337,000 Latinas drop from August to September. Today, Latina representative in the US workforce remains lower than before the start of the pandemic, when their participation had been previously expected to grow by 26% by 2029. Lead researcher Kassandra Hernández told AP that Latina women needed better access to childcare, educational opportunities and higher wages to re-enter the workforce.
South Korea – A report into digital sexual crimes in South Korea has revealed the extent to which women are suffering from tech-enabled gender-based violence. Researchers from Human Rights Watch spoke to 38 women who had
been victims of digital sex crimes, including the use of planted « spy cams » in their homes and unauthorised images being circulated on the internet without their consent. The report notes that securing justice for such crimes is difficult for survivors – police dropped 44% of digital sex crimes cases in 2019.
India – Women are losing out in India’s vaccination drive – with 17% more men receiving Covid-19 vaccines, according to government data. The gap between men and women is widest in the capital Delhi, and the most populous state,
Uttar Pradesh. Only four of the country’s 36 states and territories had vaccinated more women than men, data from early June showed. India is emerging from a devastating second wave of infections – driven by the delta variant – that at its height saw 400,000 new cases a day. Overall vaccination progress has been slow compared to richer nations that have bought up millions of doses of vaccine, often produced in India. Experts cite a lack of independent mobility and childcare options as well as widely circulating misinformation about vaccines as reasons for the gender gap.
This issue of IMPACT was prepared by Agustina Ordoqui, Heloísa Marques, Jill Filipovic, Megan Clement, Nichole Sobecki, Pontsho Pilane, Rebecca Amsellem and Steph Williamson from the team at Les Glorieuses.
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