Authors: Dr. Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi, Carolina Cortes, Hannah Garcia, Emma Wells.

Center for Migration, Gender, and Justice- University of Portland


In May 2020, the international community committed to important efforts to support and protect Venezuelan migrants amidst heightened displacement and the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that more than five million migrants (including refugees and asylum-seekers) have left Venezuela. Along migratory routes and in host countries, Venezuelan migrants face a myriad of challenges to cover basic needs such as shelter, food, and healthcare. These challenges carry specific gendered dynamics with increased gender-based violence (GBV), exploitation, and trafficking being reported (US Department of State, 2019; United Nations Population Fund, 2019; Amnesty International, 2019).

To confront these challenges, the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform (R4V), in coordination with national and local authorities, has implemented efforts to sustain livelihoods of Venezuelan migrants. These efforts are framed within the “Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela 2020” (RMRP 2020) and the “International Donors Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean,” and include financial assistance, emergency medical services, information-sharing, as well as stakeholder support (Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, 2020; UNHCR, 2021).

While these response plans are imperative to address the consequences of displacement and migration, they don’t address the factors leading to displacement and migration, nor do they prevent the impacts thereof. More so, the response plans largely overlook gendered dynamics in displacement and migration despite heightened experiences of marginalization and vulnerability of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants. For instance, although the RMRP and the International Donors Conference list the prevention of GBV and the support for GBV survivors as priority areas, research suggests that host countries are often not equipped with the necessary resources and services to address these gender dimensions of the Venezuelan situation (Kohan & Rendon, 2020).

In envisioning the role of the United Nations (UN), specifically the UN Security Council (from here on Council), in the Venezuelan situation, we find that gendered approaches towards advocacy in international decision-making are imperative. We contend that decision-making processes must involve gender bodies at the UN and in civil society. In this context, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda provides an important framework in identifying alternative solutions through bottom-up, civil society-led efforts. The WPS Agenda forms a key thematic pillar of the Council’s work and links gender to international peace and security through various processes and mechanisms. We suggest that the WPS Agenda, and with it, the Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security (IEG), the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security (NGOWGWPS), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and the newly formed Women, Peace, and Security and Humanitarian Action (WPSA-HA) Compact present platforms through which the Venezuelan situation can be addressed in meaningful ways.

Venezuela, the UN Security Council, and the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda:

Since 2019, the Council has engaged with the Venezuelan situation on a few occasions. In a meeting in January 2019, Council members were briefed on what has been unfolding in the country, yet gender matters were rarely mentioned (UN Security Council, 2019a). Indeed, the absence of discussion on gender matters in the Venezuelan situation has been pervasive throughout Council meetings. In a follow-up meeting in February 2019, for example, two competing draft resolutions were vetoed, neither of which addressed the specific needs and challenges of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelans (UN Security Council, 2019b, 2019c). In a meeting in April 2019, concerns about Venezuelan migrants were briefly brought up in a contribution by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (OCHA), Mark Lowcock. Lowcock highlighted that the majority of displaced persons are women and children and that women and girls compose 72 percent of trafficking survivors (UN Security Council, 2019d).

A year later, the Venezuelan situation was discussed under ‘any other business,’ following Venezuela’s letter to the Council referring to the announcement by the United States (US) that it would deploy warships to the western Caribbean Sea. At this meeting, Reena Ghelani, OCHA’s Director for Operations briefed the Council on the humanitarian situation and the impact of COVID-19 in the country. Ghelani called for increased access to assistance and more funding (Security Council Report, 2021). Until this date, subsequent action has been finite, particularly as it concerns gender dimensions of the Venezuelan situation.

In light of this limited engagement by the Council in the Venezuelan situation, we find that the WPS Agenda provides an important framework to conceive of the role of the UN moving forward. The WPS Agenda operates in significant ways at the Council. Since the adoption of Resolution 1325 in 2000, nine additional resolutions have been issued, making the WPS Agenda a key thematic pillar of the Council’s work. For instance, UN Women spearheads the preparations of the UN Secretary General’s yearly report on the WPS Agenda and facilitates the participation of civil society representatives in thematic and country-specific meetings at the Council. Additionally, from 2016 onward, the IEG has provided a space for experts to engage in consultations on country-specific situations as it pertains to women, peace, and security (UN Women, 2021a).

In 2020, the WPS Agenda was reassessed in light of its 20th anniversary. According to the Security Council Report (2020), at this pivotal moment, the WPS Agenda has been regressing and progressing at the same time. The Security Council Report found that depending on the Council’s members’ approaches to the WPS Agenda, the inclusion of gendered approaches in its decision-making varies. While on the one hand, members such as Sweden (2017-2018), that declared a feminist foreign policy trajectory during its sitting time, have supported the WPS Agenda, other members, such as the US, for example, have pushed back against aspects of the Agenda – often against language previously adopted by consensus (i.e. language on sexual and reproductive health rights). Furthermore, what can be conceived of as ‘hard-to-negotiate’ resolutions sometimes divide the Council on the WPS Agenda, particularly in situations such as the one in Venezuela (Security Council Report, 2020, pp. 3-5).

Besides these procedural assessments, OutRight International (2020) has highlighted challenges of the Agenda in regards to its conceptualizations of gender. OutRight International notes that while the WPS Agenda is important and has powerful potential, it falls short in its framing of gender. According to the organization, WPS resolutions define gender in a binary sense, “ignoring the vulnerability of trans and gender non-conforming people and individuals of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and sex characteristics” (OutRight International, 2020, p. 2 / see also: Davis & Stern, 2019; Hagan, 2016; Sjoberg, 2014).

Yet, the Council has made considerable strides in more egalitarian representation of civil society as it pertains to discussions on the WPS Agenda. The numbers of civil society female briefers have steadily increased: in 2017, ten out of the Council’s 14 civil society briefers were female; in 2018, the number was 24 out of 30, and in 2019, there were 42 female civil society briefers of the 53 overall (Security Council Report, 2020, p.6). Additionally, the newly formed WPS-HA Compact connects issues relating to women, peace, and security (broadly conceived) to the humanitarian sector and presents a critical step for what has been unfolding in Venezuela.

While much is still evolving around the WPS-HA Compact, a Concept Note from June 2020 provides some insights into the objectives, scope, and trajectory of the measure (Generation Equality, 2020a). The rationale for the Compact is premised on various aspects of the WPS Agenda and humanitarian action (HA) strategies. More concretely, the Compact harnesses existing frameworks and accompanies institutional mechanisms to address conflict and humanitarian situations. This is to be done through voluntary multi-stakeholder monitoring and accountability processes that engage key global, regional, and national stakeholders. Indeed, the Compact aims to drive the focus of WPS-HA commitments beyond the Council and to leverage opportunities for collective action at the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the Peacebuilding Commission, and in regional institutions and bodies.

It is in this context of ongoing multi-stakeholder engagements within the WPS framework that civil society efforts in the Venezuelan situation can be facilitated and supported. In the following, we spotlight efforts by the NGOWGWPS and the WILPF, specifically the PeaceWomen Project. Both organizations have played a key role in advancing the WPS Agenda from a bottom-up approach and provide platforms to connect civil society efforts in Venezuela and abroad with the UN.

Civil Society Efforts in Women, Peace, and Security:

Since 2000, the NGOWGWPS has amplified women’s voices and experiences at the Council by means of monitoring, analyzing, and advocating in regards to peace processes, peace-building, and peace-keeping. The NGOWGWPS consists of eighteen members, including organizations that address the humanitarian-migration nexus. The Working Group facilitates the implementation of the WPS Agenda through several core concepts: recognizing that every conflict or crisis has specific gendered dimensions, acknowledging that gender equality and human rights are legal obligations in conflict affected situations, understanding that sustainable peace is not possible without full, equal, multilateral, and meaningful participation and leadership of diverse women, ensuring that civil society is included, and using an intersectional approach (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, 2021a)

A recent example that demonstrates these core concepts in relation to engagement with civil society organizations can be found in the collective open letter to Permanent Representatives to the UN on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325. We – the Center for Migration, Gender, and Justice – co-signed this letter which acknowledges that although there has been some progress made in terms of the foundational principles of the WPS Agenda, formal peace processes have systematically failed to include women, and in doing so, “have replicated the inequality and discrimination that caused conflict and violence in the first place” (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, 2020). The letter further emphasizes that “participation without the ability to influence the outcome is not participation, it is observation” and that ensuring meaningful participation “requires dismantling systemic gender inequality and discrimination” (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, 2020).

The second effort to be highlighted in the context of multi-stakeholder engagements in the WPS Agenda is the PeaceWomen project. PeaceWomen is a project of the WILPF which has been working towards ‘feminist peace’ since 1915. PeaceWomen seeks to achieve feminist peace through three main ways: strengthening women’s meaningful participation, transforming gendered power, and bridging local gender conflict analysis with global efforts to implement the WPS Agenda. All three mechanisms directly involve the Council and operate as platforms to disseminate information as well as to provide resources regarding the implementation of the WPS Agenda. The project’s resource page is categorized by themes, including gender equity, for instance (Peace Women, 2021a).

PeaceWomen is also actively engaged in advocacy at the Council as a means to strengthen conflict prevention and the implementation of the WPS Agenda. In this regard, political opportunities and global advocacy networks are created and pursued. More concretely, PeaceWomen facilitates engagement of grassroots activists with high-level representatives through direct and regular recommendations to the Council, the IEG, and other key stakeholders (PeaceWomen, 2021b).

The NGOWGWPS, the WILPF, and the PeaceWomen project present important platforms to engage civil society efforts in the Venezuelan situation at the UN. In connecting stakeholders across institutional levels and within the WPS Agenda, gender dimensions of the Venezuelan situation can be addressed, including the challenges and needs of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants discussed below.

Women, Peace, and Security at the Humanitarian-Migration Nexus – the case of Venezuela

There are over 650,000 Venezuelan asylum-seekers worldwide and there has been an 8,000 per cent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status globally since 2014 (UNHCR and IOM, 2020). Many Venezuelans who would meet the criteria for refugee status, however, are not registering as such and are instead opting for alternative regular forms of stay in order to obtain access to work, education, and social services more readily. Still, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain without any documentation or permission to stay regularly in host countries and therefore lack access to basic rights. This makes them particularly vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, trafficking, violence, discrimination, and xenophobia (UNHCR, 2020).

The vast majority of Venezuelan migrants, currently estimated at over five million, have stayed within the region. Colombia hosts the largest number of Venezuelan migrants (1.8 million), followed by Peru (861,000), Chile (455,500), Ecuador (366,600) and Brazil (253,500) (UNHCR, 2020). Approximately eight out of every ten Venezuelan migrants stay in Latin America and the Caribbean, while others have been resettled to North America (USA ~ 350,000 and Canada ~21 000) and Southern Europe (Spain ~ 208 000, Italy ~50 000, and Portugal ~ 25 000) (RMRP, 2020).

With regards to gendered dynamics in these migratory movements, it is estimated that at least 40 percent of the over five million Venzuelans that have left the country are women (Urwicz & Salgado, 2019). As the humanitarian crisis has deepened, the demographics of Venezuelan migrants has shifted, with more women and families of lower socioeconomic status leaving (Amnesty International, 2019). Also, indigenous women have increasingly been forced to leave their ancestral territories in Venezuela because of hunger, disease, violence, and threats related to the exploitation of their habitat and resources (Velandia, 2018). According to Save the Children (2000), nearly 300,000 children have fled Venezuela, often alone or separated from their families. There remains a significant lack in data and information about LGBTQIA+ and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants; nevertheless, community and grassroots efforts have been imperative in sustaining livelihoods of these migrants (Cone & Teff, 2019).

While research on the specific needs and challenges of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants is still emerging, we have identified four key areas of concern that must be addressed immediately in order to ensure that livelihoods of Venezuelan migrants are sustained. These key areas involve the prevention of GBV, access to health resources and services, formal labor market participation, and regularization of migration status (Center for Migration, Gender, and Justice, 2020).

According to Care International (2021), Venezuelan migrant women have become increasingly at risk of sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. The Trafficking in Persons Report (US Department of State, 2019), for instance, noted that although the Colombian government currently meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it has neither provided services to all identified survivors nor has it adequately funded civil society organizations and actors to combat trafficking. These dynamics are particularly pressing in border areas as Calderón-Jaramillo et al. (2020) found in a study focused on GBV at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Although 18 out of 21 organizations interviewed as part of the study claimed that they provide information, education, and communication mechanisms for Venezuelan migrants, only 12 organizations offered clinical support regarding sexual violence and only 8 shared which services are available to migrants.

In terms of health, the United Nations Population Fund (2020) reported that Venezuelan migrant women lack hygiene products and have experienced infections due to unsuitable supplies. Many women also do not receive reproductive health care, including maternal health care, contraceptives, and other services that are crucial for well-being (Kohan & Rendon, 2020). In a study conducted by Isaza-Arias et al. (2020) on maternal health care, for instance, interviewed women shared that they have trouble accessing necessary health resources and services; some shared that they have been required to obtain letters from local officials to request care, and even with a letter, there is no guarantee that adequate resources and services will be provided.

In the context of formal labor market participation, Amnesty International (2019) found that many Venezuelan migrant women only have experience in domestic work or low-income occupations and need to recur to the informal labor market to sustain their livelihoods. Lack of regular migration status (including being or becoming undocumented) is a critical factor in this labor precarity which corresponds with higher risks of exploitation. Additionally, the Migración y Refugio 2020 report shows that there has been a significant emigration pattern of qualified Venezuelan personnel in the medical field, which can be traced to the lack of structured health care and lack of funding to maintain health care infrastructures in Venezuela (Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, 2020).

In and by itself, lack of regular migration status is another critical area of concern that we have identified. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, over 37% of Venezuelan migrant women have reportedly experienced some form of violence, with many fearful of reporting incidents because of the potential negative repercussions for their migration status (Kohan & Rendon, 2020). Care International’s 2020 Rapid Gender Analysis also found that the potential for exploitation of Venezuelan migrant women has increased by the lack of documentation and limited awareness about rights (Murfet & Baron, 2020). This has led some women to turn to sex work or transactional sex as a survival mechanism (Washington Post, 2020 / Battistessa, 2021).

In situating these challenges and needs of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants within broader discussions about the Venezuelan situation, it is evident that gendered approaches towards advocacy in international decision-making are imperative. We contend that decision-making processes in the Venezuelan situation must involve gender bodies at the UN and in civil society, and suggest that the WPS Agenda provides an important framework in identifying alternative solutions through bottom-up, civil society-led efforts.

Moving Forward – Civil Society and the role of the UN in the Venezuelan Situation:

In centering civil society efforts and in envisioning the role of the UN in the Venezuelan situation through a gendered approach that operates within the WPS framework and that addresses the specific needs and challenges of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants, we offer four concrete recommendations.

Our first recommendation concerns the involvement of the IEG in the Venezuelan situation. The IEG provides a space for systematic discussions of country-specific situations at the Council. This includes discussions between senior UN representatives from the field, Council members’ country experts, as well as WPS experts (Security Council Report, 2020, p. 3). We contend that the space provided by the IEG, especially the inclusion of WPS experts from civil society, lends itself to highlight the needs and challenges of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants and to facilitate necessary action around it.

The practice of having female members of civil society brief the Council appears well-established and there seems to be general consensus among Council members to continue the practice. As mentioned, the proportion of female civil society briefers has grown steadily. In this context, it is important to note that in his 2019 annual report on WPS, the UN Secretary-General encouraged Council members to consider options for following up on briefings made by civil society representatives. This can be facilitated in closed consultations or in bilateral conversations with UN officials or representatives of the country concerned, including taking them up in Council negotiations as appropriate (Security Council Report, 2020, p.6). We find that along with the noted opportunities presented by the IEG, the suggestion for follow-ups on civil society briefings and additional consultations form an important element of the envisioned role of the UN in the Venezuelan situation.

Our second and third recommendations speak to the efforts made by the NGOWGWPS, the WILPF, and the PeaceWomen project in multi-stakeholder engagements in the WPS Agenda. Given the working mechanisms of the NGOWGWPS, we recommend incorporating the Venezuelan situation into the organization’s monitoring and analysis efforts. Because of the Working Group’s esteemed membership and close relationship with the Council, centering the Venezuelan situation as part of the organization’s work might prompt much-needed action to address the needs and challenges of women*, girl, LGBTQIA+, and gender diverse Venezuelan migrants.

We suggest that this can be done by including the experiences of Venezuelan migrants into already existing WPS frameworks, such as that of neighboring Colombia, and/or to highlight the Venezulan situation in the organization’s Monthly Action Points (MAPs). MAPs draw attention to specific areas and themes that warrant increased attention within the WPS Agenda. The geographic and thematic focus of the MAPs, and the NGOWGWPS as a whole, are closely aligned with the overall Council Agenda. The situation in Venezuela has yet to be included in the MAPs and hence forms an important recommendation in centering civil society efforts and in envisioning the role of the UN in the Venezuelan situation (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, 2021b).

Our recommendation for the inclusion of the Venezuelan situation in the work of the NGOWGWPS also applies to the WILPF and the PeaceWomen project. Within its trajectories of the WPS Agenda, PeaceWomen explicitly mentions how it seeks to “bridge local gender conflict analysis with global efforts to implement a holistic WPS Agenda” (Peace Women, 2021a). We find that in the context of the Venezuelan situation, this may be achieved by using WILPF’s (PeaceWomen’s umbrella organization) toolkit for the development of National Action Plans (NAPs) on WPS.

NAPs are national-level strategy documents that outline a course of action on the WPS Agenda. These documents outline objectives and activities that countries can take to secure the human rights of women and girls in conflict settings, to prevent armed conflict and violence, and to ensure the meaningful participation of women in peace and security. Often, NAPs are aligned with regional and national development agendas, gender equality policies, and other relevant areas within domestic and foreign policy. NAPs are regularly monitored and reviewed at the international level, specifically by the UN. The establishment of NAPs not only shows a commitment by countries to implement the WPS Agenda, but also provides monitoring, reporting, and accountability mechanisms for civil society organizations. At the point of writing, 95 countries have adopted a NAP, including Venezuela’s neighbor Brazil (WILPF, 2021).

In 2013, WILPF developed a toolkit with recommendations for developing NAPs. The toolkit outlines specific ways to operationalize NAPs (timeline, specific roles, coordination, budget) and identifies good practices in addressing the WPS Agenda (WILPF, 2013). We find that this toolkit is imperative to our recommendation for NAP establishment in Venezuela and in host countries to Venezuelan migrants. We contend that mobilization around the development of NAPs presents a critical step in centering bottom-up approaches while at the same time creating a framework for advocacy and accountability in which the UN plays an essential role.

Our fourth recommendation involves the engagement with the newly established WPS-HA Compact. The Compact is convened under UN Women, with the support of the whole UN System, and serves as a secretariat to guide and to co-design the monitoring and oversight of actions at the intersection of women, peace, and security and humanitarianism (Generation Equality Forum, 2021a). The Compact is led by a Board and receives ongoing support and guidance from a group of Catalytic Members; Board and Catalytic members represent Member States, regional organizations, the UN system, civil society, academia, and the private sector. The provisional timeline (2021-2025) for Compact implementation includes annual high-level meetings of Compact Members on the margins of the General Assembly, annual reporting on the margins of the WPS Open Debate in October and/or at the Commission on the Status of Women, a 2023 Financing Forum to track financing commitments, and a 2025 Global Commitments Forum (Generation Equality Forum, 2020b).

We find that the WPS-HA Compact not only provides for an important space for civil society organizations to discuss the Venezuelan situation within the broader UN system, but also that the provisional timeline presents important check-in points for the years to come in which civil society efforts are centered and supported. In becoming Board and/or Catalytic members of the Compact, civil society organizations in Venezuela and abroad working at the humanitarian-migration nexus can form collective action and mobilization while also operating in and directly engaging with the UN in important ways (even beyond the Council).


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