Many Pregnant Women Are Among Those Leaving Venezuela

Mar 30, 2019
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KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a different border - the one shared by Colombia and Venezuela. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Ari Shapiro has been reporting from there all week. And he joins us on the line from Colombia's capital, Bogota. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Korva.

COLEMAN: Ari, can you take us to the border and tell us what you saw when you first arrived there?

SHAPIRO: It's just an overwhelming scene - masses of people, lots of them Venezuelan. Everybody is shouting. Some are selling bus tickets to the interior of Colombia. Others are offering to buy hair. This is a way that Venezuelan women can make a small amount of money, selling their hair for wigs. People are selling cigarettes, candy, phone minutes for people to call home.

It's basically a huge open-air market for all of the things that people can no longer buy in Venezuela since the economy has collapsed and hyperinflation has made their income and savings basically worthless.

COLEMAN: You've brought us a story of one particular part of this crisis that I know you were surprised to discover.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so it's hard to miss that in this crowd of thousands of people, there is a disproportionate number of pregnant women and mothers carrying newborns. So I went to talk to one of them. This woman is 19-years-old. Her name is Yuletsy Martinez. And the newborn baby in her arms is just 17-days-old. This is her second child. She also has a 1-year-old girl.

Did you decide that you wanted to start a family and have children? Or did this just happen?

YULETSY MARTINEZ: (Through translator) With her, I didn't know I was pregnant.

SHAPIRO: How did you feel when you found out?

MARTINEZ: (Through translator) I was surprised.

SHAPIRO: In Venezuela, she couldn't find food or medicine. There was no medical care. So she and her husband crossed the border. And she gave birth at a hospital here in Colombia.

MARTINEZ: (Through translator) They took good care of me. And they helped me there.

SHAPIRO: I met a woman in the city of Cucuta who is trying to help these mothers-to-be.

MARIANNE MENJIVAR: My name is Marianne Menjivar. I'm the country director for Colombia and Venezuela for the International Rescue Committee.

SHAPIRO: She showed us a home that IRC has converted into a clinic focusing on pregnant women and new mothers.

MENJIVAR: So we are in the Comprehensive Care Center set up by IRC in Cucuta. And this is a safe and healing space for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. It's a big whitewashed house. And it's full of light. And we chose it on purpose because we wanted to have an uplifting environment for the migrants and not somewhere where they come and get services that's depressing and grey.

SHAPIRO: And I see you've got Peppa Pig cutouts on the door, little cartoons.

MENJIVAR: Well, this is full of kids, right? So, you know, this is our way of trying to make it child friendly.

So one of the things that for us is very important is that we're able to provide a full service to Venezuelan pregnant women. So that means ultrasound, labs, medicines if they're sick, if they have an infection, if there's something wrong, vitamins, folic acid so that they are able to see the pregnancy through because this crisis sort of manifests itself in vulnerable women, women at risk, pregnant women and children. They're the ones that have the least access to some services inside Venezuela.

And you also see, you know, why are they pregnant? And it's literally - they have no way of planning their lives and what kind of families they want to have and when they want to have their families.

SHAPIRO: And so are you seeing young women with many children who, if this had been 10 years ago in Venezuela, they would have had the resources to choose when they want to get pregnant and when they want to have a family?

MENJIVAR: Exactly. So we see a lot of young women with multiple pregnancies. I mean, these are children having children. So when you say to me a 15-year-old is having a child, that's a child. That's a child whose life is going to be marked forever by this significant event in her life.

SHAPIRO: And you have a number of 15-year-olds here.

MENJIVAR: Oh, yeah. We have 15. We have 16-year-olds. We have 19-year-olds who already have three kids and are on their fourth pregnancy.

SHAPIRO: The pregnancies are challenging enough if there weren't shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation that makes savings worthless. All of those added challenges must make this just overwhelming for so many people.

MENJIVAR: Yes. You know, it's not just overwhelming. It's just - so it's a kind of drastic situation. It's very extreme but in a way that it has multiple layers. So it's like, you know, 15 tsunamis hit the same person.

So it's a pregnant woman with an unplanned pregnancy who has not enough food to feed herself. She's worried about how she's going to feed this baby. There's no medicine. So if somebody gets sick, you know there's nothing available to you. There's an issue of insecurity where you're living in Venezuela that, you know, in times of crisis, relationships tend to break down.

So then you get partners walking away or you get issues of gender-based violence or you just get permanent stress and tension. And you don't know where you're going to give birth. You don't know if there's going to be anything available when you give birth at the hospital.

So all these things are just, you know, multiple contentions for a human being to have to deal with at a time when you feel extremely vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: Marianne Menjivar, thank you so much for talking with us.

MENJIVAR: Thank you.

COLEMAN: That was NPR's Ari Shapiro reporting from Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.