Meet Martha, the Venezuelan Refugee Advocating for Women in Peru

As the Venezuelan crisis shows no signs of abating, Peru has become the second largest destination for Venezuelans seeking asylum and escaping political and economic collapse at home. Among the more than 800,000 Venezuelans in Peru is Martha Fernandez, a woman who has risen against all odds to protect and empower other Venezuelan women in Peru.

Martha and her family left Venezuela in 2006, before the country’s crisis exploded, due to security concerns that threatened their lives. Upon her arrival to Peru, she quickly realized that creating a new life for herself was not going to be easy. Martha and her family fled Venezuela with their savings. But when they arrived in Peru, Martha said her family struggled to earn a living.  

“We did not have access to formal employment, [so] we spent all of our money. And although we had been in Peru before, we did not know anyone who would help us,” she explained.

The first few months in Peru were tough, but Martha soon earned refugee status.

“Having refugee status helped our situation because we could formally work. But then we faced other barriers like verifying our [professional] credentials…. I opted to open a small restaurant, which quickly became popular among Venezuelans in Peru.”

That’s when Martha really started to build a community of Venezuelans living in the country.

Life in Peru is difficult for Venezuelans. Many struggle to regularize their legal status and access work and basic services like healthcare. As time passed, more and more Venezuelans started to arrive in Peru, and Martha decided to take the matters in her own hands. In 2015, she co-founded her first NGO “Unión Venezolana” with former Venezuelan politician Oscar Perez. It was one of the very first NGOs to work with Venezuelans in Peru.

“We advocated for Venezuelans rights in Peru and helped in the development of the Temporary Permanence Permit (PTP),” she explained. The PTP granted Venezuelans regular entry in Peru, allowing them to stay and work in the country for up to two years, while also opening pathways to regularization.

Although the PTP helped regularize many Venezuelans’ status, several issues remained. For instance, Venezuelans in Peru struggled to access health services, and, in practice, most of them could not access formal jobs. This particularly affected Venezuelan women, who faced high levels of sexual harassment and exploitation.

“Peru has very high rates of femicide.… The high levels of violence against women in Peru disproportionally affect the Venezuelan women, who are more vulnerable [compared to Peruvian women].”

As the Peruvian government imposed new restrictions towards Venezuelans, Martha noticed increased risks for Venezuelan women in particular.

“Women are entering irregularly, which makes them vulnerable to human trafficking. As they do not have access to a formal job, their necessity sometimes pushes them to take any job, increasing their risk of exploitation, especially if they have children,” she said.

In December 2019, Martha decided to start the Association for the Protection of Vulnerable Populations (Asociacion Proteccion Poblacion Vulnerable or APPV) — a second NGO to help Venezuelan women in vulnerable conditions.

“I want to expand the work I’ve been doing in Union Venezolana with Venezuelan women. I want to help women because they believe they have no rights.”

As Martha expands her organization’s services for women, she says she has a message for the government of Peru.

“Closing the border is not the solution. We need organized migration,” she said. “Restrictions only push irregularity, bringing more problems, especially for women… The Peruvian government needs to review its own laws and update them under a human rights perspective. This goes not only for those laws that affect Venezuelans, but also laws that affect Peruvians.”

Martha firmly believes that Venezuelans and their generous host community can help each other and build a stronger community and more vibrant economy together. As the number of displaced Venezuelans is set to hit 7 million by the end of the year, these efforts are needed now more than ever.

This blog is part of the Expanding Labor Market Access (LMA) for Refugees and Forced Migrants initiative, run by the Center for Global Development and Refugees International. The initiative generates evidence on the economic, social, and protection effects of granting LMA; develops recommendations to maximize its benefits; and supports efforts to mobilize the private sector to make the business case.