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How grassroots women are raising awareness and enlisting authorities against growing violence in Peru

Elizabeth L. Sweet talks to three grassroots leaders in Lima who explain how violence against women is on the rise in Peru, and the techniques they use to address it, from mock funeral processions to raise awareness to safety walks conducted alongside local officials.

Cities: Lima

Topics: Walking and cycling, Participatory governance, Crime and security, Community organisation, Gender

A mock funeral procession known as a cortejo funebre passes through the streets of Lima to raise awareness of violence against women. Photo: GROOTS Peru
Grassroots women completing their observations made during a caminata or safety walk through streets in Lima. Photo: GROOTS Peru
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A throng of women dressed in black and a number of police officers walked through the city carrying caskets. They had flowers, rosaries and sad looks on their faces. Every so often they stopped and recited the story of a woman, giving details of her everyday life. For example: Maria, mother of three, owner of a small business, killed by her partner. They call this a cortejo funebre; it is a mock funeral procession and one of the many strategies used by the women of the grassroots network GROOTS Peru to bring attention to the safety issues women face in their city and country.

Growing sources of violence

Three leaders, Carmen Sanchez, Lucy Mej√≠a and Castorina Villegas Lopez talk about the emerging issues in Peru and their strategies for ending violence, particularly against women and girls. While safety and domestic violence have been long standing issues for women in Peru, Lucy explained that there is a new hostility by men toward women, especially in public spaces. Carmen described several new sources of violence that women and girls are facing: rapid kidnapping, unkempt public spaces, and gang violence. During a rapid kidnapping a woman is kidnapped for a short period of time. Often she is taken to an ATM, made to take out money, and sexually assaulted. These attacks frequently happen in taxies, by gang members, or drug users.

They do one walk in the day and one at night to see how conditions change. They take photos of broken streetlights. They note where signage is missing on streets. Carmen recounted how there have been cases of women who have been raped but because there were no street signs they could not tell authorities where they were raped.

Deteriorating conditions in public spaces also contribute to increasing insecurity. Carmen described how streetlights were being destroyed in order to make conditions easier for criminals to do their "work". She talked about parks that look lovely and green with trees in the day but by night become unsafe places where the shadows provide cover for rape and robbery. The large piles of rubble around the city also provide opportunities for assault. Castorina said that while Lima's broad avenues are sufficiently protected by the authorities, it is in the small streets and barrios where protection is absent. These conditions have an easy fix if there is will among policymakers. Carmen, Castorina and Lucy all highlighted the importance of influencing policymakers at different levels and local community groups so that they see the importance of the built environment and its complicity in violence.

Increases in gang violence have also added to the problem of gender violence in Peru. There are individuals directly targeted by gangs but also people who just get caught in the middle of gang rivalries. Lucy described a woman who sold juice from a cart in front of her house. Two gangs were fighting while she was selling juice; she suffered a severe head injury that has put her in a vegetative state, unable to support her small children. Lucy asked me: who is going to feed her children now, and who is going to take care of her?

More recently women have started to become gang members. GROOTS Peru is developing strategies to intervene with women in gangs, including a pilot programme where psychologists, social workers, doctors and attorneys form a support team to work with women ex-gang members instead of sending them to jail.

Women are experiencing more limitations on their freedom and mobility. Lucy gave the example of her sending her granddaughter to the store for a bottle of soda. She said her granddaughter returned shortly without the soda explaining that there were a group of drunken men hanging out on the street, taunting her until she was too afraid to continue. This is typical, Lucy explained: men in the streets yell obscenities at women and try to touch them. "I as a grandmother get a little more respect but still there is a lot of hostility toward women on the street." Castorina said that many people make their daughters and other women relatives return home before dark so they are not targets of public violence. They feel their freedoms are being restricted.

All of these restrictions, though, do not prevent interpersonal violence, which is also on the rise. Castorina reported that femicide is a growing problem and that suicide as a result of bullying is a new phenomenon they have to deal with. 139 women were killed in Lima last year by their partners and there has been a disturbing increase of younger women in abusive relationships. Lucy said that alcoholism and machismo combine to exacerbate the problem. Women are very scared to talk about intimate partner violence and report it. Carmen recounted the numerous times she sat in meetings with black-eyed and bruised women who said they fell down or ran into a door rather than admit that they were suffering violence in their home.

Raising awareness of violence

More recently women have started to become gang members. GROOTS Peru is developing strategies to intervene with women in gangs, including a pilot programme where psychologists, social workers, doctors and attorneys form a support team to work with women ex-gang members instead of sending them to jail.

These women's meetings exemplify sensibilizacion ("consciousness-raising"), one of two main strategies GROOTS Peru uses to help end violence against women. One of the big obstacles Castorina, Carmen and Lucy talked about was the lack of information about rights and services available for women. Many women are unaware of their right to live without violence and that it is the responsibility of the municipal and other government entities to provide services and ensure safety for women.

To fill the gap, the women of GROOTS Peru have developed different activities to bring these issues to the public, such as the cortejo funebre described earlier. They manage a promotora (community health worker) programme which grew out of the concerns of women whose neighbours were suffering violence. They hold screenings of films and do critical analysis of them with women to deconstruct the roles women play in the films. They produce public announcements that play in streets, markets and other public venues that ask questions such as: "did you know that your husband has no right to hit you?" They promote public dialogues about violence against women and do street theatre dramatisations about common situations women might face. The idea is to get information into the hands of women and make sure women start talking about violence and their right to live without it.

Walking hand-in-hand with officials

Their second strategy centres on influencing public officials. The fluidity between the public and private spaces where violence takes place, along with the importance of the built environment in enabling or preventing violence, lead to the recognition that both bottom-up community-based and top-down government initiatives must be implemented simultaneously. Accordingly they have several activities that motivate officials to first recognise the problems and then develop policies and provide funding to remediate them.

One strategy that started with groups in Canada is the caminata or safety walk, also known as a safety audit. These walks involve eight to ten women and two or three public officials. Armed with maps, surveys and cameras, they walk together through different communities that have been identified as dangerous for women. They do one walk in the day and one at night to see how conditions change. They take photos of broken streetlights. They note where signage is missing on streets. Carmen recounted how there have been cases of women who have been raped but because there were no street signs they could not tell authorities where they were raped. They document where there are open sewers or streams carrying untreated waste and where people gather to use drugs. Once they have completed their walk, they return and do an analysis of the data and develop a process for remediation that includes a budget. The women present their analysis to public officials and push for action and funding.

The walks attract the curiosity of residents. Castorina says that the curiosity gives them a chance to explain what they are doing to community members and gets them engaged in the process. It often becomes an exchange: they provide information about rights and services to locals while getting valuable insider information about the neighbourhood.

The group has also developed other types of activities that provide opportunities for exchange. They have micro-lending and workforce development programmes where they provide paths to economic sustainability. Carmen said that they see many cases of women returning to their abuser because they have no independent source of income and that many women are abandoned by their partners or are without the means to support their children. These types of programmes are very practical and provide meaningful services, but the trainings and workshops also integrate consciousness-raising and information about other types of services that are available. Currently they offer catering, pastry-making, baking, sewing and cosmetology training. These multipurpose approaches combining pragmatic training, larger contextual analysis and more critical thinking activities are very effective and facilitate a process that leads to autonomy.

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