Check-ups and rights awareness for women at Venezuelan border

News Stories, 31 March 2004

© UNHCR/A.Simancas
Lining up for medical check-ups on Women's Health Day in Santa Barbara, Venezuela.

SANTA BARBARA, Venezuela (UNHCR) More than 100 women, many of them victims of the Colombian conflict, recently received health care and related courses on Women's Health Day in the refugee-hosting community of Santa Barbara in Zulia state, north-western Venezuela.

Organised by the UN refugee agency and the Venezuelan Red Cross, the March 17 event provided gynaecological care as well as courses on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention to the border community. Given that approximately 60 percent of the population in this area is of special concern to UNHCR, the agency also spoke to the participants about refugee rights and Venezuela's asylum application procedure.

"In the last few years, the area south of Lake Maracaibo has received large numbers of Colombians fleeing the armed conflict in their homeland. To avoid attracting attention to themselves, these people keep out of sight and thus have little access to information about their right to seek refugee status in Venezuela," explained Vemund Olsen, UNHCR field officer in Machiques, Zulia state. "This type of event is very important because it brings information about UNHCR and its mission to those people who may need our help."

Explaining that this was an opportunity they did not want to miss, the women waited patiently for their check-up in the heavy afternoon heat. "Doctors who came before never remembered us, women. Imagine how costly and yet how important this is for us," said 38-year-old Alejandra as her name was called.

As the day went on, more and more women arrived, many with their families. "I have three children and since giving birth to my five-year-old, I have not been back to see this type of doctor," said Maria, 35. "And explaining to us about AIDS, that's also much needed because no one talks to us about these things."

The day-long event took place in the headquarters of the Santa Barbara Fire Department and counted on the support of the local Mayor's Office in the Municipality of Colon.

"The collaboration of all of these organisations has been very important because, although we do not share the same mission, we do have the same vision, which is to help those who are most in need," said Carlos Montiel, who heads the Venezuelan Red Cross in Zulia state. "Working with UNHCR has enabled us to expand our efforts in border communities and together, we have organised a number of medical assistance days over the last two years."

The three UNHCR field offices in the Venezuelan border states of Apure, Táchira and Zulia are working closely with implementing partners to provide protection and assistance to victims of the Colombian conflict. The recent Women's Health Day was just one of over 76 health, education and community development projects carried out by UNHCR in refugee-hosting communities along the Venezuelan border. In 2003, the projects benefited a total of 26,324 individuals, more than half of them women.