Cusco community defenders: planting hope to root out violence

By Annie Thériault—

Where is the justice? In Peru, a nation still struggling to recover from a sordid 20-year cycle of terror, political uncertainty and corruption, this simple yet poignant question has become an almost daily litany. And for victims of intra-familiar or domestic violence – or every third woman in Peru – it has become a cry of despair. There are countless numbers who continue to be failed by a legal system plagued by inefficiency and delay, and permeated by machismo and discrimination.

 But twelve years ago, citizens from Cusco’s overcrowded outskirts and rural highland communities, men and women alike, decided to fuel their indignation into action by taking an organized stand against violence. Trained and empowered as Community Defenders (CD) by the Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL) and the Bartolomé de las Casas Andean Studies Center (CBC), they have learned how to help victims of domestic violence by providing non-judgmental emotional support, as well as court orientation and accompaniment.

“Violence is violence, whether it occurs in the home, or not. And it is never excusable. I’ve learned that, and now my responsibility is to share this knowledge with my community,” said Guadalupe Cuba, a CD in her fifties who lives in the Viva el Perú shantytown, near the Andean city of Cusco.

Today, more than 450 CDs, working on a voluntary, unpaid basis, have become organized, proactive and internationally recognized grassroots advocates of democracy, non-violence and change.

Planting seeds of change

Cusco, the heart of the ancient Inca empire and the gateway to Machu Picchu, draws millions of fascinated visitors. But most travelers are blind to the poverty and violence that lie beneath the Andean city’s capital-of-culture beauty mask.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a staggering 69 percent of women in Cusco, a region where poverty and extreme poverty continue to undermine health, education and development, have suffered physical or sexual violence – or both. And 23 percent of adolescents aged 15 or less have suffered sexual violence.

It was in response to these deplorable statistics, and because Cusco’s rural and indigenous communities are widely un(der)served by Peru’s formal justice system, that IDL chose to implement its CD project in the region. In 1999, the first cohort of CDs successfully completed its training, and dozens of communal leaders, justice operators and other public officials attended workshops designed to foster dialogue and generate support for the initiative.                                   

“After attending a series of group sessions, we got together, drafted a code of conduct and made a list of our goals, designated a team leader and then started looking for a workspace. It was exhilarating,” said Gladys Allasí, a CD based in the city of Cusco.

The project, which aims to halt the intergenerational reproduction of violence, operates with an innovative, yet simple, methodology: working from the community, for the community. Because they are directly involved and concerned, community members have become active participants and stakeholders in their future, rather than passive beneficiaries.

“I feel respected and empowered to make a difference. For the first time in my life, I have felt like a protagonist, like an agent of change,” said Guadalupe Cuba.

Since 1999, CD teams, or units, have grown from eight to 65, and the number of CDs from 40 to 450. Trained to understand the cycle of domestic abuse, these volunteers have offered guidance, respect, support, orientation and/or accompaniment to more than 36,000 victims of domestic violence; mainly impoverished, Quechua-speaking girls and women aged 12 to 59, with little or no schooling.

In 2002, the region’s CD units regrouped to create a regional coordinating body, CODECC. The organization, now a policy-making reference in its own right, allows for Cusco’s CDs to discuss case-handling, ensure ongoing training, promote solidarity, and to resolve difficulties or challenges as a group. And, most importantly, CODECC constitutes an environment in which CDs can safely express their feelings about the violence they see, and hear about, on a daily basis.

Bottlenecked justice

“I carry every victim’s story in my heart and soul. I remember every detail, ever tear, every bruise. I know what violence feels like, and how it hurts. Sometimes, because of all the legal and financial obstacles, because of corruption and the outright impunity many offenders enjoy, I feel like taking justice into my own hands,” said Gladys Allasí.

Peru’s justice system lags far behind other social institutions in correcting its deep sexist, cultural and racist biases. It is not uncommon for judges to resist qualifying intrafamiliar violence as a serious crime, and the way a woman dresses, for example, is still routinely cited as an incitement to rape.

“The majority of police officers are not trained in gender issues, and don’t really know how to handle cases of intrafamiliar violence. And because most of them regard this type of violence as a domestic and private matter, they tend to interrogate and verbally abuse victims, justifying the physical or sexual aggression. Questions such as: ‘What did you do to provoke him?’ and ‘What were you wearing?’ are far from uncommon,” said Claudia Rosas, a lawyer with the non-governmental organization Manuela Ramos (MMR).

“I’d say about five to ten percent of justice operators, including police officers and medical examiners, understand what gender discrimination means. Cusco’s former regional president, Hugo Gonzáles Sayán, once told me that he believes ‘women are useful only when they’re in a horizontal position.’In other words: in bed. If the region’s highest authority says such things, what can we expect?” said anthropologist Andrea Roca.

Access to justice through the formal legal system is also rendered difficult by geographical isolation, inclement weather, language and cultural barriers, illiteracy, and the lack of adequate transport, especially in Peru’s Andean highlands and the jungle.

“Why do you think women come to us for help? Because we listen attentively, and understand the word ‘compassion’ means ‘to suffer with’. And because we speak Quechua, our community’s language, we open hearts and inspire confidence,” said Cuba.

“We also work with gender-sensitive male CDs and allies. Sometimes it’s easier for men to talk to other men about violence. They’re part of the problem, but also part of the solution,” she added.

Lengthy, costly and complicated legal procedures, corruption, gender insensitive judicial decisions, and inconsiderate treatment from justice sector institutions, police and local authorities are additional deterrents that discourage women from accessing the justice system.

According to a World Bank study, more than half of domestic justice cases never reach a judgment, while many more do not even reach the courts.

As such, in the face of the state’s shortcomings, many rural and peri-urban communities have relied on community-based dispute-resolution institutions, such as rondas campesinas (peasant patrols) or justices of the peace. Compared to the often hostile, time-consuming and ineffective official justice system, these institutions are considered easily accessible, hasty, and efficient. But the rondas, despite their innovation, tend to perpetuate old practices: because they are based on customary and/or ancestral law, they tend to push for conciliation and the restoration of community relations at the expense of more vulnerable groups, such as women.

“Excessive emphasis on conciliation and the settlement of disputes precludes judges or other administrators of justice from adequately punishing perpetrators and women from achieving effective protection against future domestic violence offenses,” said David Lovatón, a lawyer with IDL.

In some cases, machismo is so deeply-rooted that even women justify violence – if there is a ‘good reason’ behind it: adultery, disobedience or… lateness in preparing meals. “The more he hits you, the more he loves you,” is a popular saying in Peru. And it is also a widely held myth that women cannot be raped by their husbands or partners.

“Many victims don’t come forward, out of fear, or shame. Some machista values are so entrenched that they keep women from challenging practices perceived as the norm,” said Guadalupe Cuba.

“People’s decisions are still led by fear, by the ever-present thought: ‘what will people think’? And by poverty. That’s why some aggressors convince parents to hush abuse, including rape. They offer money, livestock or even marriage,” said Allasí.

 Here to stay

Cusco’s CDs play a – sometimes difficult – citizen oversight role of police, other public officials, judicial and cultural practices, proving that women in rural communities can also play a role outside the home. By doing so, they challenge the established social order, often triggering adverse reactions.

“Local authorities would sometimes snicker at us: what do these campesinas think they’re going to achieve?” said CD Gregoria Guzmán.

“I have been insulted, received threats, and have dealt with my fair share of insensitive police officers”, added Allasí.

As for reconciling unpaid advocacy work with family responsibilities, it is definitely not an easy task. But the CDs have succeeded in doing so because they are motivated by conviction, solidarity and empathy rather than monetary or material reasons.

“Being a CD has been a reparative experience. I lost my sister to intrafamiliar violence. And although I can never forget or forgive what happened, I find solace in the possibility of helping others,” said Cuba.

“I’ve grown, significantly. I understand my rights, and know that I deserve to live a life free from violence. My husband, who has physically abused me in the past, has also changed. We’ve opened a new chapter in our lives, and knowing that change is possible motivates me immensely,” said Allasí.

Aimed toward sustainability, CODECC has put into motion an innovative training program so that accumulated knowledge and experience can be passed on to younger generations. And because 2011 marks the end of IDL-CBC’s financial assistance to the project, due to the withdrawal of certain aid agencies from Peru, the internationally-recognized organization has turned to small-scale fund-raising and has presented its projects to Cusco’s Participatory Budget Unit. Though CDs are volunteers, costs are generated from accompaniment, transport and case follow-up.

“It’s unfair and a mistake to place the issue of financial and economical sustainability on CODECC’s shoulders. Women and men, traditionally neglected and forgotten by the state, have voluntarily taken a stand against violence in their communities. Their actions have enabled the formal justice system to operate in areas otherwise beyond its reach. But this in no way relieves the State from its obligation to guarantee democracy and fundamental human rights. Financial recognition of CODECC’s contribution is imperative. To think otherwise is to perceive CDs as simple providers of services to second-rate citizen,” said Christine Benoît, a lawyer and CUSO-VSO volunteer who has lead IDL-CBC’s CD project for the past six years. “Such an attitude puts sustainability at stake”.

According to Benoît, CDs are not an end, but a means or a strategy by which women and victims of violence or discrimination can access justice. And success should not be measured only in quantitative terms, but rather perceived as the capacity to bring about lasting and positive change, from a community viewpoint.

“I’ve been a CD for over 10 years, and it hasn’t always been easy. But I won’t quit. As I’ve told my son: ‘I am planting seeds of change and, someday, you’ll reap what I have sown,’” said Cuba.

Published with permission by the author. First published by IPS/Revista Ideele.

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