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Safe Sex Is a Luxury in Venezuela, Where a Pack of Condoms Costs Nearly $200

Mar 10 2016 8:10 PM
Safe Sex Is a Luxury in Venezuela, Where a Pack of Condoms Costs Nearly $200

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Venezuela's economic crisis has caused unprecedented shortages of of basic goods—making contraception nearly impossible to find, and even harder to afford. As a result, teen pregnancy, illegal abortion, and HIV are all on the rise.

In Venezuela a pack of condoms costs nearly $200. The impact on women's reproductive rights and sex lives is immense.

Condoms and other contraceptives disappeared from many Venezuelan pharmacies and clinics this time last year. Sliding oil revenue and the government of President Nicolás Maduro's stringent price and currency controls have shattered Venezuela's economy. Spiraling inflation and a sharp decrease in imports have led to unprecedented shortages of basic goods, such as toilet paper, sugar, and condoms. Standing in line at supermarkets and pharmacies has now become part of daily life for many Venezuelans.

"The situation is critical," said Belmar Franceschi, head of PLAFAM, a Venezuela-based sexual and reproductive health advocacy group. "For over a year now, there have been shortages across the board. It is almost impossible to find condoms and other contraceptive methods, and when you do they are astronomically expensive."

In Venezuela's pharmacies, a pack of three condoms can cost as much as the equivalent of $169 USD, says Jhonatan Rodriguez, head of NGO StopVIH—which is roughly five days' salary for the average worker in the country. "We either eat or we buy other products. The minimum wage doesn't stretch far enough. It doesn't even cover basic groceries," he said.

It is almost impossible to find condoms and other contraceptive methods, and when you do they are astronomically expensive.

On the country's flourishing black market, the price of condoms doubles or even triples. When products become available, many struggling Venezuelans buy them and sell them on at inflated prices that most Venezuelans can't afford. The practice has become so common that a new word has entered Venezuelan lexicon: "bachaquero," named after a leaf-carrying ant. "Bachaqueros buy contraception and then sell it to people at whatever price they want," said Freddy Ceballos, president of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation. "People are desperate. They are taking anything they can get hold of."

It's difficult to track the impact that contraception scarcity has had on Venezuelans. For more than a year now, President Maduro's government has refused to release statistics concerning teenage pregnancies and domestic violence. However, despite the lack of official data, both PLAFAM and StopVIH are fearing the worst: that teenage pregnancy, HIV rates, and clandestine abortions will all increase as a result of the shortages and prohibitive cost.

Already, Venezuela is the country with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America, according to the UN's State of World Population Report 2015, and these rates have remained steady despite notable changes in other South and Central American countries. "This is a region where teenage pregnancy is not going down, which is remarkable considering fertility rates are going down all over the world," said Carmen Barroso, Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). According to PLAFAM, nearly 25 percent of all pregnancies in the nation happen among 12- to 19-year-olds. The lack of contraception is also expected to have a long-lasting economic impact, with pregnant girls more likely to drop out of school.

Being unable to get hold of contraception also puts more women in danger by increasing the number of people who attempt to get an abortion in unsafe, back-alley clinics, according to Barroso. As in many Latin American countries, abortion is illegal in Venezuela—but that doesn't prevent women from terminating unwanted pregnancies. A study by the Central University of Venezuela estimates that 16 percent of maternal deaths in the country are a result of complications from a clandestine abortion.

The HIV epidemic is out of control in this country. How are we going to minimize its impact if every day it is more difficult to get access to quality health care and condoms?

"While women in Venezuela have a difficulty in avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, they have an even greater difficulty in interrupting that pregnancy," Barroso said. And the situation is especially dire considering the spread of the Zika virus, which is believed to cause severe birth defects in infants; already, reproductive health advocacy groups are predicting that the amount of illegal abortions will increase in Zika-infected regions.

In addition, with condoms difficult to find and nearly impossible to afford, HIV rates—as well as those of other STIs—have increased and will continue to do so. Venezuela has the fourth-highest number of people living with AIDS in Latin America, according to HIV/AIDS charity AVERT. According to StopVIH, AIDS-related deaths have been rising drastically since 1999. "The HIV epidemic is out of control in this country," Rodriquez from StopVIH told Broadly. "How are we going to minimize its impact if every day it is more difficult to get access to quality health care and condoms?"

Many people rely on organizations like PLAFAM and StopVIH to get contraceptives in the capital. But the shortages have affected their organizations, too. "The situation is difficult for us," says Franceschi. The organization's four clinics across Caracas are working around the clock to access contraception, but supply very rarely meets demand. "When we do have birth control pills or implants, people line up for them, and they are gone within the week," she said. "People are looking for them everywhere, but they just aren't on the market."

Unfortunately, the situation seems unlikely to change. In a 2013 televised address, President Maduro promised to build a network of condom factories to protect the young people from the effects of "capitalist pornography" and the country's reliance on imported condoms. However, his assurances have yet to yield anything. "We have not seen a single condom made in Venezuela," said Rodriguez. "The lack of political will has left us with a medical system in collapse".

Pharmacies lack 80 percent of normal products, Ceballos told Broadly—a statistic that worsens when it comes to contraception. "There is no time; there is no tomorrow in this country," he said. "We need the president to assume responsibility for the health system, with its shortages of medicine and equipment, and make a decision immediately. It is a humanitarian crisis."

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