This piece was written by Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, a global girls rights organisation working in almost 80 countries and aiming to transform the lives of 100 million girls. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.
Venezuela was once the most prosperous country in Latin America Rich in natural resources, its potential was great and its future bright.
Yet decades of poor governance have driven the country, and its people, to the brink of collapse. Venezuela has the lowest growth, highest inflation and one of the worst murder rates in the world and is fast becoming the biggest economic disaster in modern history.
This has led 3.4 million people to flee the country, many staggering out to the relative safety of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, with only the strength of their legs to carry them.
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To put this in perspective, imagine the entire population of central Madrid started leaving their homes one day and walked over the Pyrenees and into France. Except that Venezuela’s millions of migrants are hungry, tired and desperately poor, and the countries receiving and generously hosting them are already struggling with their own development challenges.
The children among these migrants, and girls in particular, are very vulnerable. They face daily dangers of violence and kidnap and at least one in five girls who are displaced in a crisis like this will experience sexual violence or abuse.
As if that was not bad enough, their plight is worsened by the political pressure-cooker that surrounds them. Powerful Presidents within Venezuela and across the Americas — all of them men — keep on raising the stakes. Humanitarian aid is held hostage, violence is breaking out in border areas, and political confrontation means the country rests on a knife edge.
If a peaceful solution is not found soon, it will be girls and young women who suffer most
If a peaceful solution is not found soon, as is such a familiar tale, it will be girls and young women who suffer most.
Plan International has mobilised a response across three countries (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) and is working with UNHCR and other partners to protect thousands of Venezuelan girls and young women there from all forms of violence.
We are helping them access education, healthcare and livelihood opportunities. Plan International is doing its part to try and mitigate the worst of the effects of the crisis on those in our care.
Even in the most difficult of circumstances, we also try to keep hope alive for girls and help them to use their own power to create a better future.
Arantza, a 15-year-old from Venezuela now living in Peru, willingly gave up her childhood dream of a quinceañera (traditional 15th birthday celebration marking transition into young womanhood) so that her family could escape Venezuela in search of a better life. “I told my mother not to worry about my fantasy, we need to take the money and use it to leave the country” she said.
When she first came to Peru, Arantza endured hardship and harassment. Her mother and father struggled to find a job and she told us that “Boys often harassed me … I often felt bad” which caused her to drop out of school.
However, things changed when Arantza joined a Safe Environments programme run by Plan International, with support from UNHCR, that helps Venezuelan families to prevent violence, sexual harassment and abuse. She is now a project promoter and engages with community leaders on building safe spaces for other girls in need. Arantza’s family is also working and doing well.
Arantza’s story is an inspiration, yet sadly it is also an exception, not the rule. Many more Venezuelan girls and young women waiting in neighbouring countries for an end to the crisis continue to suffer. We have also met countless Venezuelan boys who have fled and who are now working in difficult and dangerous conditions to scrape together a living for their families.
Girls and young women are the greatest hope for Venezuela’s future
The international community must step up to make sure resources are available to assist all Venezuelans and to help de-escalate tensions inside the country and in the wider region to ensure help arrives in the hands of those who need it most.
We know where the best place to start is, too. The power and resilience of girls like Arantza prove that girls and young women are the greatest hope for Venezuela’s future.
We know that when girls can thrive, the economic, social and political benefits are big, faster growth, inclusive governance and more sustainable development. It is girls like Arantza who have the potential to create a better Venezuela — it’s time we empowered them to do so. — Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen
(Picture credit: Flickr/Wildfredorrh)