Like many Venezuelan refugees, Lisbeth has experienced gender-based violence first hand.
“Everything short of femicide happened to me: verbal and psychological violence, rape, physical abuse, everything, everything, being trapped at home,” the 60-year-old lawyer told Amnesty International in an interview in Bogotá.
In Lisbeth’s case her then husband abused her before she left her country. But in many cases women fleeing the crisis in Venezuela face physical, sexual and emotional violence in their host countries. Now living in Colombia, Lisbeth spends her time helping other Venezuelan women and dreams of supporting survivors of gender-based violence.
Lisbeth worked in public administration in Venezuela for 12 years before moving to Bogotá and has a postgraduate degree in civil procedural law.
“What gave me the greatest sense of pride was seeing all my children crying at my graduation as a mature student, because I graduated in 2013. I’m the only one of my siblings with a university degree,” she said.
Her three children left Venezuela before her; one went to Chile and two to Colombia. They left one after the other because of the deteriorating standard of living in the country and the financial hardship that meant they could no longer work and get by. Lisbeth stayed but had to go to Bogotá in 2019 to help care for her great-granddaughter who had fallen ill and whose mother, who worked in a shop, couldn’t look after her.
Everything short of femicide happened to me: verbal and psychological violence, rape, physical abuse, everything, everything, being trapped at homeLisbeth
Lisbeth was only planning to stay for a couple of months, but then she got caught up in the pandemic and it became impossible for her return. Her mother passed away last year and she was unable to return to attend the vigil because of health restrictions in Venezuela.
“That affected me a lot, since then I’ve lived with a great sense of regret, of course. But now there is nothing for me to go back for.”
More than six million people have left Venezuela in recent years because of the humanitarian crisis in the country and the massive human rights violations committed by the authorities. Colombia is host to almost 1.84 million of them, more than any other receiving country, followed by Peru with 1.29 million.
For Lisbeth, leaving behind the life she had fought to build was hard. In Venezuela she had a home and a stable job, although she feared being persecuted or imprisoned if she opposed taking part in the mandatory activities organized by the regime, as happened to some of her colleagues. In Colombia she had to start again from scratch. But there is little point in going back to the financial hardships, the humanitarian crisis and the widespread human rights violations that have engulfed her home country. Her children have expressed fears for her safety and health if she were to return to Venezuela.
Lisbeth has a Special Residence Permit that allows her to live in Colombia and she is in the process of applying to be on the Integrated Register of Venezuelan Migrants, which would give her a document valid for 10 years that would help her access employment and health and education services. But even with the necessary documentation, finding a job is not easy for a Venezuelan refugee, let alone a woman of her age.
“I’ve gone looking for work here. When I say I’m Venezuelan, they say no. They tell me: ‘Because of your age, no. I’m looking for a young woman,’” Lisbeth explains.
She started caring for great-granddaughter all day while her granddaughter Magaly* worked as a sales assistant in a shop. Then she started looking after the son of one of her granddaughter’s workmates. Then her little cousin. And it went on that way. She prepares the children’s lunches and gives them supper. She plays with them and sometimes she teaches them.
Gradually, her reputation among the group of Venezuelan mothers living in her neighbourhood grew.
I’ve gone looking for work here. When I say I’m Venezuelan, they say no. They tell me: ‘Because of your age, no. I’m looking for a young woman,’Lisbeth
Having heard her great-granddaughter call her “grandma”, now everyone calls her that.
“Now that I’m taking care of these children I feel useful, first because I support other women and second because it pays reasonably well,” she says with pride. “I support them in the sense that they are working and can trust that I’m looking after their children well.”
However, Lisbeth has serious concerns for the safety of her granddaughter. Amnesty International has documented how the Colombian and Peruvian authorities are not fulfilling their obligation to protect Venezuelan women arriving in their countries from the high levels of violence and discrimination they face because of their gender and nationality, or to guarantee them access to justice.
According to official figures, gender-based violence against Venezuelan refugees in Colombia increased by 71% between 2018 and 2020. In the family, they face economic, patrimonial, physical and sexual violence, predominantly from their partners or former partners. And in the work environment, they experience various forms of violence and labour exploitation, including being co-opted for work for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
In the case of Magaly, when she left the father of her children in Venezuela, he began to look for and threaten her. “He lived near me and he would come there every day asking ‘when is Magaly coming?’” Lisbeth said. “I told him, ‘Magaly has been gone on leave for a few months.’ I had lent him my phone and on the phone he wrote messages threatening that if she did not come back he would kill me, that he had a gun and that when he saw me at a bus stop he was going to…”
Now that Lisbeth lives with Magaly in Bogotá, she fears that her ex will find them: “It’s like a latent fear, we don’t know when that guy might turn up.”
Lisbeth is also concerned about Magaly’s relationship with her current partner, who owns the place where she works. Lisbeth says that he is more than 20 years older than Magaly, does not give her holidays or the benefits she’s due, and every time they have problems in their relationship it affects her job security. According to Lisbeth, he often insults Magaly, resorts to economic and emotional blackmail and has kicked her out three times for personal issues unrelated to her work.
Each time, there’s been a reconciliation, but Magaly is now in a very vulnerable situation. If the relationship ends, she would not only lose her job, but also her home, since she and Lisbeth live in an apartment that they rent from him.
“If she stops working for him we have to move out, we’ll be out on the street again,” Lisbeth says. “So she’s going through the same things that happened to me. You keep putting up with it until there comes a time when you say I can’t.”
Lisbeth has long dreamed of opening a shelter for women and girl survivors of gender-based violence, so that no one is left on the streets. When she was studying law in Venezuela, she participated in a project to set up a shelter, but they were unable to complete it due to the situation in the country.
You keep putting up with it until there comes a time when you say I can’t.Lisbeth
“We left the door open so that another group could do it, because we did studies, we did surveys, we gave talks in schools, in the community, in community houses, in squares, where we told women, girls and adolescents that now there was a law that protected them,” she says.
Lisbeth has been living day to day because of everything that has happened since she arrived in Colombia, but now she wants to focus her energy on helping other women in Colombia who have lived the same kind of experiences as she and her granddaughter have.
“I would like to get a job commensurate with my studies. I’d like to be able to help other people, give them advice, support them, be able to tell them: ‘look, you have the support of this institution, of this foundation, don’t just put up with it’, I’d really like to be able to do that,” says Lisbeth.
“I have thought a lot about exercising my profession here or if I return to Venezuela to support women, women who are powerless, who have to depend on someone else, who live with a constant threat hanging over them, and to help them have place of refuge. So that women feel that there are people who support them, that they do have a future, that they do not have to continue to put up with their situation. I think a lot about how I’m going to get involved in this work.”
*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
Adeline Neau is a researcher at Amnesty International researcher. Amnesty International press office is the Americas media manager at Amnesty International.
This article was originally published in Rolling Stone Colombia.