12:00PM — Boa Vista, Brazil
In Brazil, Flavia is focused on creating safe spaces for migrant Venezuelan refugees
Building Safe Spaces for Venezuelans in Brazil
What makes a place “safe”? Is it the sturdiness of the walls? The quality of the lock? The height of the fence?
In my experience, these things help — and are in fact necessary — but there’s often much more required to make a space feel truly secure, or even comfortable. Especially for women who have suffered trauma, who have suffered chronic insecurity and violence, who have grown accustomed to the sharp pangs of hunger and fear. Women who have traveled long distances, with young children and sick family members — who have trekked through towns and across borders in failing health or wavering strength towards an uncertain future. Women who have camped in unfriendly fields, or under busy highways, or at overcrowded train stations. Who have been surrounded by unknown faces. Who have been made to flee their homes.
As UN Women’s Women Empowerment Hub Coordinator in Boa Vista, Brazil, I am charged with the complicated task of creating and sustaining safe environments for the scores of Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who cross the border and enter shelters every day. Just over 200km from the Venezuela-Brazil country line, this capital city of Boa Vista in the Roraima region has seen a steady-growing surge of migrant Venezuelans over the past several years.
In 2017, 17,900 asylum claims were submitted by Venezuelans in Brazil, and in 2018, that number jumped to 61,600. Since 2014, there has been an increase of 8,000 percent in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide. To date, over 4 million Venezuelans have left their country and are living abroad — the majority in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many people have fled to escape violence, insecurity and threats, as well as lack of food, medicine and essential services.
Here at the shelters in Boa Vista, I’ve seen firsthand the struggles faced by these Venezuelan women. I’ve seen firsthand their scars — both physical and emotional. Those that will heal and those that will not. I’ve heard firsthand their stories of courage and despair and cautious hope. I’ve felt the warm wash of relief, but also felt the cool, lingering anxiety and uncertainty that weighs down on them.
As people arrive in the shelters, there are many factors and circumstances to be considered. While all types of people take refuge at the Boa Vista center, most commonly we are receiving women, families, elderly and disabled individuals who were at particular risk at home in Venezuela. Women represent 45% of the total Venezuelan population that crosses the border with Brazil. For this reason, in 2018, UN Women received a donation from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to focus on women in particular.
Starting the project, we thought, what better way to think about projects for women than asking the women themselves what they want, asking what they need? Speaking to the women, we heard many stories, much gratitude, and a few requests — they asked for coexistence and community within the shelter, the opportunity to earn professional qualifications in order to have a job or start a small business, and a sense of unity among women. Through this program, we have been able to provide psychophysical support, offer emergency financial assistance and create projects for women in safe spaces.
In this short period, the response and the results have been incredible. So far, 609 women have received psychosocial support, 443 women have received emergency cash assistance, and 1,150 women have attended activities and courses at UN Women’s Women Empowerment Hub.
When we give women the opportunity to meet and talk, it’s amazing the kind of thing that happens. There’s a transformation that occurs. Once unfamiliar faces in an unfamiliar terrain, they become mothers talking to mothers. Wives talking to wives. Women talking to women.
It might sound simple, less essential than a high wall or a dead-bolted door, but I have no doubt that this simple exchange saves lives. I’ve seen it happen myself so many times.
Creating a safe space is much more than erecting a shelter, building a room with four walls and a roof. You save lives when you give information. You save lives when you give opportunities. You save lives when you create a support network.
You save lives when you empower women.