Peru’s Manuela Ramos Movement celebrates 30th anniversary

~ By Annie Thériault ~
Growing from a small urban grassroots organization to a regional leader in promoting women’s rights, the Lima-based Manuela Ramos Movement or MMR celebrated its 30-year anniversary this week.

“We never thought, or at least I never thought, that we would be celebrating our 30th anniversary,” Alicia Villanueva, a founding member of the MMR, told the Peruvian Times. “How wonderful! Let us hope for 30 more and that by then things will have changed considerably.”

Manuela Ramos focuses on promoting women’s rights, fostering democratic values and diversity, and encouraging female political and community leadership. To do so, it carries out programs in the areas of health, domestic violence, sexual and reproductive rights, economic rights, access to justice, and political and citizen participation.

For Brisaida Rafael, a 40 year-old mother of two from Lima’s Independencia district — where domestic violence and gangs are rampant — working with Manuela as a legal adviser to women in her community has been a “wonderful experience.”

“What we do is give these women attention. We listen to them. We listen because nobody else listens. And then they decide. We tell them what they can do, what their rights are and what they can improve. And the rest is up to them,” she said.

Planting the seeds of change

It all started 30 years ago, in May 1978, as Peru’s decade-long military dictatorship was coming to an end and democracy was taking hold. Enthused by the promise of elections for the first time in more than a dozen years and the rise of dynamic social movements, a group of seven women — in their twenties, thirties and forties — decided to get together every Tuesday afternoon to discuss their personal lives, dissatisfactions, hopes and ideals.

“We were a bit concerned. We realized that now that we were married and mothers, our lives were very different from what they used to be. We no longer were active in trade unions, and instead we took care of our kids, went to work and then came home to take care of our kids,” explained Villanueva, who used to host the weekly meetings in her mother’s garage.

As more and more Tuesdays went by and as the women developed a keen sense of self-awareness, their desire to reach out to other women grew stronger.

“There came a moment in which we decided we would do more than just talk about ourselves,” said Villanueva.

In 1980, backed by an international aid agency, the group formed a nongovernmental organization called the Manuela Ramos Movement.

The word “movement” was key, Villanueva said, because we wanted to symbolize our ability to change things, to move forward and to bring women together.

And Manuela Ramos, “because we didn’t feel that one woman could accurately represent all of us,” Villanueva added. “There were excellent women who had worked in trade unions, but we were housewives. So, we decided to invent something.”

And so, as homage to all the anonymous women who each day struggle but go unrecognized, the group opted for Manuela Ramos, comparable to “Jane Doe” in the United States.

The early years

As early as 1980, as Peru’s external debt spiraled out of control and inflation sky-rocketed, the MMR decided to reach out to women from Lima’s poorest districts who were then, more than ever, coping with the reduction of public services.

Many rural poor, confronted by Peru’s deepening economic crisis, migrated towards the cities, giving birth to Pueblos Jóvenes, “young towns” or shantytowns.

In these slums, the MMR challenged the state’s dated vision of sexual and reproductive health care — population programs designed by the Peruvian government in the late 1960s and 1970s centered their intervention on contraceptive services — and began to set up clinics that offered counseling, training and Pap smears. They also began to advocate for the decriminalization of therapeutic abortion.

Abortion is a touchy issue in Peru, where more than two-thirds of the population is devoutly Catholic and where the Church adamantly maintains that women’s sexuality should be limited to reproduction.

But it wasn’t until 1983, when several women attended the first Latin American and Caribbean feminist meeting in Lima, that the Manuelas were able to put a word to what they were doing.

“We used to say we were a feminine women’s movement,” said Villanueva. “And it wasn’t until then that we realized, when we saw what these other women were also doing, that we were feminists.”

By the late 1980s, the Manuelas were at the forefront of Peru’s women’s rights movement.

They published magazines, organized conferences, attended congressional sessions, backed political candidates, created a nationwide network of women’s organizations and made TV and radio appearances to actively promote women’s rights as well as quality sexual and reproductive health care.

Peru’s armed conflict: militarization, terrorism and little room for activism

In 1980, the Communist Party of Peru or Shining Path refused to take part in the elections and launched a guerrilla war against the government. By 1982, its armed wing, the People’s Guerrilla Army, was formed and active.

One of the Shining Path’s strategies to gain popular support was to enter Lima’s shantytowns and provide basic but vital services to act as a de facto government.

But where communities were already well organized – usually by women soup kitchen leaders – feminist activists, many of whom had been involved in Manuela Ramos’ early workshops, became a nuisance for the Shining Path.

In 1992, Maria Elena Moyano, a community leader in Villa El Salvador, was machine-gunned to death and her corpse blown up with dynamite during a fund-raising event after she condemned the terrorist group’s actions.

Shining Path selectively killed many community leaders and by the mid-1990s, the terrorist group had opened an attack on women activists in Lima.

For the Manuelas, who received numerous death threats, it was a difficult and daunting time.

“It was very difficult. Of course, when someone is living it, it’s very different than seeing it from the outside. We told the women that if they thought that they shouldn’t continue working with us, that we weren’t going to oblige them. You can go back to your homes, we said. But they told us they wanted to continue working, even after they bombed one of our centers in Villa El Salvador,” said Villanueva.

In the big leagues: dealing with the broad policy arena

One of Manuela Ramos’ first experiences in the broad policy arena came in 1995 when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded the NGO a large contract. The ReproSalud project — to promote sexual and reproductive health — allowed the MMR to expand its activities nationwide and reach more than 250,000 women and 120,000 men.

But, the contract came with a set of imposed conditions.

“USAID did impose some limitations. The contract impeded us from getting publicly involved in certain types of campaigning to promote the decriminalization of abortion in Peru. It was a hard time for Manuela because it did cut back our autonomy and especially our ability to work on a key issue,” said Rocio Gutiérrez, coordinator of Manuela’s sexual and reproductive rights focus area.

Today, the Manuelas face yet another challenge: diminishing aid granted by international agencies.

“It’s hard because the official indicators say, oh, the region is doing fine, America is developing economically, it doesn’t need help, let’s go to poorer regions,” said Patricia Zanabria, coordinator of Manuela’s legal promotion and defense area.

In Peru, though some indicators point to healthy economic growth, the poverty rate still stands at 40 percent and grotesque inequalities are flagrant as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

After 30 years of dedication, we hope for 30 more

“I truly hope that there will be no more injustices and that women are no longer excluded, mistreated, or killed. Then Manuela would no longer exist. Manuela exists now because it is necessary that women’s voices be heard. But hopefully Manuela will be able to rest someday because women will be recognized, appreciated, treated fairly and equitably and their rights will be respected. This is our dream,” said Zanabria.

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