Dignity & Strength for Venezuelan Refugees & Migrants in Colombia

Large numbers of people are bypassing immigration controls as they exit Venezuela. Credit: Tomer Urwicz

By Tomer Urwicz and Liliana Arias Salgado
CÚCUTA, Colombia, Jun 13 2019 – Not long ago, 15-year-old Nelsmar attended a middle-class school in central Venezuela. That was before her family was uprooted by the economic and humanitarian crisis in her country, which has pushed nearly 3.9 million persons to migrate or flee, according to recent estimates of the Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

Nelsmar’s family made the move over a year ago. They walked for eight days, and spent the rest of the journey traveling by bus, before reaching the border with Colombia. When they arrived in the border city of Cúcuta, she thought the worst was over – but she was wrong.

For weeks, Nelsmar slept either on the street or in a boarding house with shared toilet facilities. Her family struggled to access shampoo, sanitary napkins or even a flashlight to light the way at night.

“When you don’t have the means to bathe or change clothes, or you don’t have enough money, something as natural as one’s menstrual period becomes a real challenge,” Nelsmar told UNFPA.

There are 1.2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees living in Colombia, and large numbers continue to pour over the border. Many bypass immigration controls.

The mass displacement has led to a heightened risk of sexual violence and exploitation. According to the organization CEPAZ, some 37 per cent of migrant women have reportedly experienced some form of violence. Many migrants are also in need of health services.

Families of migrants and refugees are crossing the border in large numbers. Credit: Tomer Urwicz

UNFPA is working with the government and humanitarian partners to help women receive reproductive health care, including access to maternal health care, contraceptives and other critical services.

UNFPA is also distributing dignity kits, which contain hygiene supplies including sanitary napkins, soap and shampoo, as well as information on where to find health and psychosocial support services. And UNFPA is also organizing workshops on gender-based violence, helping vulnerable migrants identify abuse and learn where to find help.

“The aim of our work was to provide opportunities for the discussion of sexual and reproductive rights, prevent gender-based violence and sexual violence, and share information about the places victims of aggression can go to for care,” explained Dildar Salamanca, a UNFPA field coordinator in Cúcuta, the Colombian city that has received the largest number of Venezuelan migrants in recent years.

In Cúcuta and the city of Maicao, some 2,300 dignity kits have been distributed, and 2,600 women have been reached with contraceptives. More than 2,300 women and adolescents have received information about sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence.

UNFPA is supporting sexual and reproductive health services, including maternal health care. Credit: Tomer Urwicz

Despite the extraordinary challenges, Mr. Salamanca says he has seen that “migrant women and adolescent girls are extremely strong, resilient and capable of rising above the hostility of life.”

Nelsmar is one such example.

Today, she is living in Cúcuta, where she attends a new school and watches over her siblings when her parents work. She has even joined a group of volunteers who meet on Saturdays to work on youth issues.

Asked how she feels about her situation, she replied firmly, “Well, my dreams are still intact.”

The Storm is Over, But in Southern Africa, Cyclone Idai Continues to Rage for Women and Girls

Cyclone Idai’s aftermath in Mozambique. Credit: Denis Onyodi:IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre

By Edinah Masiyiwa
HARARE, Jun 13 2019 – In late March Cyclone Idai carved a path of devastation across Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi.  It was the deadliest cyclone to hit the region in more than a century, others have even referred to it as “Africa’s Hurricane Katrina.” More than 1,000 people were killed. Many more saw their homes, food crops, and even entire villages washed away.

My country, Zimbabwe, has been receiving aid from all over the world. Our citizens also have taken it upon themselves to donate toward the needs of those who survived. We may be feeling like things are getting better. But in fact, for many women and girls, they are getting worse.

We are experiencing an aspect of natural disasters that rarely receives the attention it deserves: the fact simply being female puts one at a far greater risk of suffering harm.

A recent report by the UN Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe observed that at least 15,000 women and girls in the areas affected by Idai are at risk of gender-based violence linked to disruptions caused by the storm.

In late March Cyclone Idai carved a path of devastation across Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi. It was the deadliest cyclone to hit the region in more than a century.

Edinah Masiyiwa

For example, there was a report of a 14-year-old girl who suffered a sexual assault in Chimanimani, a community in eastern Zimbabwe hit hard by the cyclone. This one case might be just the tip of the iceberg as there are women walking long distances to get to places where food and other aid is being distributed and being forced to sleep in long queues.

There also are concerns of women and girls being asked to provide sex in exchange for access to aid. Meanwhile, a UN Flash appeal report has noted the lack of privacy and lighting in camps for displaced persons, which can increase the risk of violence and transactional sex for female storm victims.

This situation is, unfortunately, not unique to Cyclone Idai.

UN Women has highlighted that there is a rise in violence, including sexual violence, against women and girls in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Just standing in a queue for food aid and other support leave women more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and, consequently, HIV infections.

Also, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in crisis situations one in five women of childbearing age are likely to be pregnant.  There is an urgent need to ensure access to reproductive health services. Lack of services such as prenatal care and assisted deliveries, puts these women at an increased risk of life-threatening complications. Suspensions in services that provide prevention and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections also have a greater impact on women.

Right after the Idai hit, the immediate focus of aid efforts was understandably on providing food and shelter. It is now time to broaden that focus to include interventions that protect women and girls from violence, sexual exploitation, and the loss of critically needed health services

Right after the Idai hit, the immediate focus of aid efforts was understandably on providing food and shelter. It is now time to broaden that focus to include interventions that protect women and girls from violence, sexual exploitation, and the loss of critically needed health services.

For example, all actors on the ground responding to the cyclone must ensure they integrate training programs that include efforts to mitigate the risk of gender-based violence. There should be clear procedures for reporting any cases of violence and measures to protect victims who step forward from suffering retaliation.

Zimbabwe’s Civil Protection Unit also should devote resources to helping women retain access to reproductive health services. Pregnant women should be screened for complications and those at high risk—such as women who need to deliver via caesarian section—should be transferred to hospitals where emergency care is available from skilled health workers.

Women will need access to contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which ultimately lead to unsafe abortions.  Also, at a minimum, there should be a system in place for the timely delivery of aid so that women are not forced to sleep in a long queue just to receive assistance. And any temporary shelter should include security guards to help protect women and girls from attacks.

A natural disaster can impose terrible hardships and cyclones like Idai could become more common as climate change increases the risk of weather extremes. But while we cannot prevent these events from occurring, we can ensure that, for women and girls, storms like Idai do not continue to rage in the form of sexual violence and other neglect that greatly compounds their trauma.


Edinah Masiyiwa is a women’s rights activist.  She is the Executive Director of Women’s Action Group and an 2019 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.