Venezuela's Birth Control Crisis

The humanitarian health crisis has resulted in a massive scarcity of prescription drugs and contraceptives. What this might mean for the country's future is chilling.
By Julie Morse,
Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo: Julio César Mesa/Flickr)

Toilet paper. Diapers. Vitamins. Milk. These are a few of the items Venezuelans can no longer expect to find at their local grocery stores and markets. The scarcity can be traced back to 2014, when oil prices first started to plummet and the economy found itself in dire straits. Venezuela's oil revenue makes up 95 percent of its export earnings, and the slump in oil prices has buried the country in $10 billion of debt.

The continued drop in the price of the gallon has thus negatively impacted Venezuelans' ability to afford many of these essential goods. The absence of one product in particular has resulted in dangerous repercussions for women throughout the country: condoms.

Venezuela has 85 percent fewer condoms and other contraceptive products than it did earlier in the first half of 2015, according to Freddy Ceballos, president of the Pharmaceutical Federation in Venezuela. Today, there are very few pharmacies that carry condoms at all, and the ones that do have marked them up to exorbitant prices—4,500 bolivars (around $700) for a single box. In a country where the yearly minimum wage is only 11,578 bolivars (or $1,823), it's safe to assume splurging on condoms is not an option for most Venezuelans.

"The shortage of condoms affects the entire population of women here."

It's not just condoms that are scarce. Every type of contraceptive—the pill, the ring, birth control shots, even pregnancy tests—is hard to come by. The lack of contraceptives is just a facet of the massive medicine shortage at large. A whopping 80 percent of pharmacies don't carry basic medicines. The scarcity has led the National Assembly of Venezuela to call it a "humanitarian health crisis," according to the BBC.

"The shortage of condoms affects the entire population of women here," says Mercedes Muñoz, director of the Venezuelan Association for Alternative Sex Education. "It's a 'taboo' subject, and there's no way for women to decide if they want to have children or not because there are no contraceptives." In the northern state of Aragua, which is home to over a million and a half people, the scarcity of condoms has resulted in a 50 percent increase in pregnancies within low-income areas.

Even before the crisis, Venezuela had long grappled with reproductive health-care issues, especially with regard to high teenage pregnancy rates. Venezuela has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in South America, and the fourth highest in all of Latin America, after Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, according to the World Bank.

Oswaldo Vegas Aru, a student at the School of Public Health at the Central University of Venezuela, believes that remedying the epidemic is out of the public's hands. "We cannot educate the community; that's the government's job," he says. "They need to provide the community with lectures and workshops on sexual health. Unfortunately, those kind of resources are not controlled by the universities, they're run by the state."

The crisis has completely altered daily life for Venezuelans. The food shortage has resulted in grocery stores rationing products for their customers. To make matters worse, Venezuelans are only allowed to shop at public markets two days a week. In terms of health care, close to 70 percent of public hospitals can no longer provide diagnostic services and surgery, and the medical staff in these facilities has reportedly dropped by 50 percent, a figure made even more drastic considering that 68 percent of outpatient clinics have closed. And when it comes to Zika, there is very little hope in fighting the virus, as mosquito repellent is another product on the long list of scarce goods. The number of Zika cases in Venezuela could be as high as 500,000, according to the newspaper, La Nacion.

Yet what has been deemed a health crisis is inextricably tied to Venezuela's flailing economic state. The perpetually sinking gas prices and the climbing inflation rates (inflation soared to 180 percent in 2015) have not made it easy for Venezuela to recover from this national catastrophe. In February, President Nicolás Maduro took desperate strides by announcing that he would be raising the minimum wage by 20 percent and increasing gas prices by over 6,000 percent, from 0.097 bolivars to six bolivars per liter starting in March.

How Maduro's changes will impact Venezuelan society, and women in particular, is still to be determined. "This crisis is very dangerous. There has to be a way out," Muñoz says. Yet there's still no telling how.