The fight for women’s rights in Peru

In a very conservative Peru, where both the Catholic Church and growing Evangelical sects exert considerable influence, breaking the silence on sexual violence and abortion is a critical first step. Español Português

Shena Cavallo
20 January 2016

Women protesting in Lima, Peru. Image from IWHC´s blog.

In April 2016, the people of Peru will vote for a new president. The cast of characters is quite familiar—former presidents and the daughter of an ex-president who has run, unsuccessfully, for office before. All the leading candidates are conservative and talk about economic growth as being high on their agendas. In most respects, it doesn’t look so different from past elections. Something, however, is different this year. There is at least one issue where a more progressive outlook is starting to take root.

Recently, when a candidate declared that he opposed abortion, a journalist inquired, “But what about in the case of rape?” Such a question would have been inconceivable in past presidential campaigns, despite the fact that Peru has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the region. A shocking 1 in 5 women experience sexual violence before the age of 15, and 9 out of 10 pregnancies of girls under the age of 15 are the product of incest. Researchers estimate that 35,000 pregnancies occur every year in Peru as a result of rape.

The silence around sexual violence is partially explained by the country’s conservative leanings. A secular state, Peru is still a country where both the Catholic Church and growing Evangelical sects exert considerable influence on society (and on Congress). A conflict with the Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) that began in 1980 spanned 20 years. Though Sendero Luminso was eventually defeated, the conflict took a significant toll on progressive civil society, which was often caught in the crosshairs of the conflict. As a result, the political left was considerably weakened.  Consequently, there have been few champions for progressive issues and the political spectrum is dominated by conservative voices.

Since 2012, a group of committed feminists and activists, including IWHC’s long-time partner Promsex, have aimed to break this silence and get reproductive rights and sexual violence on the public agenda in Peru. They launched a campaign called Déjala Decidir (“Let her Decide”), seeking to collect 60,000 signatures in support of a proposal to decriminalize abortion in the case of rape. The campaign ultimately exceeded this goal and became the first citizens’ initiative of its kind in the region to tackle sexual and reproductive rights. In March 2014, the signatures were validated and resulted in a bill, which then went on for debate by two congressional commissions. The campaign then moved on to the second phase: drumming up support for the legislation.

The activists faced several challenges, including a counter-campaign led by the Catholic Church and anti-choice hardliners; they not only challenged efforts to expand access to abortion, but pushed for completely criminalizing abortion without exception. Recently, Promsex also faced an onslaught of attacks from anti-choice groups, emboldened by attacks on Planned Parenthood in the United States. This resulted in conservative members of Peru’s Congress creating a sub-committee to investigate Promsex and other organizations they alleged were “promoting” abortion in Peru.  Yet, our partners continued on, undeterred.

At one point it appeared as if the bill would receive a positive ruling, but members who opposed the bill physically departed the chamber  so there wouldn’t be a quorum. In November, the bill was debated by the Constitutional Commission and lost (4 votes in favor, 6 against) and was consequently archived. A few members of Congress have asked that the bill be reconsidered in 2016.

Although the Campaign did not achieve its primary aim—to decriminalize abortion in the case of rape—considerable gains were made. The campaign raised public opinion on two important issues: sexual violence and reproductive rights. The country’s largest union came out in support of the campaign and leading newspapers, including Diario 16, featured the symbol of the campaign on their cover pages for weeks. Everyone from telenovela stars to senators to the famous Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa came out in support of the proposal. Importantly, polls suggest that public opinion in favor of allowing abortion in the case of rape has increased.

This was a part of the activists’ strategy: Promsex and its allies realized that the bill was unlikely to pass but knew that breaking the silence on sexual violence and abortion was a critical first step. By raising awareness and educating decision-makers, our allies were laying the groundwork to eventually advance reproductive rights in Peru. And as the country prepares for elections, Promsex is committed to pushing candidates to discuss abortion. It’s hard to deny that change is brewing in Peru.

This article was previously published by International Women’s Health Coalition.

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