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Venezuela: Violence and the “crowding-out” effect for women

Natasha Morales E.


Photo: Meridith Kohut
Family and friends mourn the death of Yanil Alexander Cemeño Figuera at his funeral in Caracas, Venezuela. Cemeño was fatally shot in Petare, and was his mother's fourth child to be murdered.

Every week in Caracas between 70 and 200 people die due to acts of violence. According to 2009 official data, it is estimated that the homicide rate in Venezuela is approximately 100 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. The social cost is not evenly divided between men and women and the economic impact originates broadly in gender relations and the demographic bonus.

However, other development indicators are encouraging. According to the Venezuelan National Report on the Millennium Development Goals 2010, income inequality decreased considerably between 1994 and 2010. Although there are many discrepancies with respect to poverty estimates, official data shows a downward trend over the last 10 years. 

How can this paradox be explained? Can a country’s social indicators be positive when violence reigns in society? Studies that have tried to explain the relationship between poverty and violence have not found any evidence that a decrease in poverty consistently reduces levels of violence. But evidence has been found to correlate the average age of the population and violence levels.

More than half of the population of Venezuela —56 per cent, according to the National Institute of Statistics— is less than 30 years old, and the largest population group is aged zero to 15 years. In other words, Venezuela will continue to be young for at least two more decades. According to Julio J. Waiselfisz’s Map of Violence presented in 2008, the majority of the victims and murderers in the country are young men between 15 and 30 years old, and the number of victims is three times greater in the young male population than in the rest of the population. In this age group, 16 per cent of young males neither study nor work; this percentage is the highest in the region. What do young people dedicate themselves to? 

The rate of demographic growth and the present characteristics of the demographic structure and the labour market may lead one to believe that urban violence will continue to increase at the same rate as the growth in population if urgent measures are not taken. 

In 2009 approximately 50,000 people suffered gunshot wounds, most of them young men, and more than half of them were left disabled. Who is responsible for caring for these people? Their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, aunts— in other words, women. 

Thus, in an androcentric society, where male competitiveness and aggression is valued, the problem of violence significantly increases the amount of time women must devote to the care of their families. This activity may, on the one hand, end up replacing their paid work activities and, on the other hand, may substitute the role of the state to recognize and accept responsibility for urban violence as a public health problem and take action against it. 

In addition, research carried out by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 2004 found evidence that in violent countries, domestic violence is greater and vice versa. Public policies in the private domain are more difficult to tackle. In a machista culture, reporting domestic violence is still taboo, resulting in an inaccurate picture of the magnitude of the problem. In spite of this, it is estimated that six out of every 10 Venezuelan women experience some type of domestic violence. 

Violence against women has disastrous consequences throughout society. Several studies have shown that women who were victims of violence had a greater number of unwanted pregnancies and dead children. As well, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) produced evidence in 2008 of low birth weights, premature deliveries and abortions in the case of these victims.  

According to the United Nations Population Fund, Venezuela is the country with the most adolescent pregnancies in the region. But the most worrisome statistic is that between 1990 and 2007, the percentage of adolescent pregnancies increased by four percentage points. Is urban violence one of the factors that increase the number of adolescent pregnancies?  

This trend is exacerbating the so-called “single motherhood” or “widowed motherhood,” whereby men do not take responsibility for the children they create with adolescent women or die at a very young age. This places a greater economic burden and responsibility for care on the parents of the adolescents, and puts even more pressure on household incomes. 

In and of itself, the loss of life of thousands of young Venezuelans is not only detrimental to the young labour force, but also has negative consequences in terms of the impoverishment of women. 

Based on calculations derived from household surveys, between 1994 and 2007, the proportion of adolescent women (between 13 and 19 years old) in poor households increased by eight per cent; this does not occur in the rest of the population. While in the country as a whole the trend shows a reduction in poverty, young women are becoming more impoverished.  

Venezuela currently has a government body responsible for gender equality at the highest level, the Ministry of Popular Power for Women and Gender Equality (Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Mujer y la Igualdad de Género). Venezuela has also signed onto all the international commitments to achieve gender equality. This demonstrates the political will to progress in the area of gender equality. 

However, inefficient government efforts to curb the problem of urban violence, as well as the absence of effective policies aimed at young people, could be widening the equality gap, generating a “crowding-out” effect of gender especially among young and adolescent women. This means that social investment efforts aimed at women and young girls are being eliminated or reduced to the minimum by the impact that urban violence has on the lives of women.  

Natasha Morales E. has more than seven years of experience working on social programs and policies in Latin America, with special emphasis on gender and human rights. She has worked for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She currently works as an international consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank. The author may be contacted at natasha.morales.e@gmail.com.

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