â€œThe day I remember most clearly was the day he caused this infectionâ€ Catalina Bailon explained in an interview about her experience with gender violence. She is referring to the mastitis inflammation in her breast that MEDLIFE is treating her for, caused by a violent beating she received from her husband. â€œIt was November 5 of last year,â€ she explained. â€œI remember the date because I remember seeing it and thinking â€˜what am I going to do?’â€ According to a United States Bureau of Democracy report on human rights practices, Catalina is one of around 25,000 women in Peru to be affected by gender violence every year. This is a number that has been growing at a worrying rate.
MEDLIFE are currently working with several women who have been victims of domestic abuse; both assisting with their physical recovery and helping to empower them psychologically. Catalina, 32, suffered in a violent relationship for nearly four years before finally standing up to her husband. â€œIt is hard because you’re not just thinking about your feelings and how it will affect you but you also have to think about your kids and the long term effects,â€ she said, explaining why she remained so long in an abusive relationship. â€œThe important thing is being able to call out abuse; we need support from the government to do this. If there is no support, there is nothing we can do.â€
In recent months, the Peruvian government has been under heavy criticism from women’s rights groups over its â€œincompetenceâ€ in bringing justice to women like Catalina who have suffered at the hands of abusive men. According to a US special report on Sexual Violence and Justice, Peru has the second highest number of cases of crimes against women in Latin America and these activist groups are arguing that the government is not doing enough to try to change these statistics.
On Saturday 13th August, hundreds of thousands of women and men gathered across Peru to march together in protest of the violent crimes committed against women on a daily basis. The march, described by Peru’s women’s minister Ana MarÃa Romero as a â€œcry against impunityâ€, follows growing protests and demonstrations by women’s groups across South America against governmental indifference to violent gender related crimes. Over the past year, the tide of unrest against judicial incompetence in female abuse cases has been rising with a strong social media following under the hashtag #NiUnaMenos. The hashtag refers to the words of Susana Chavez Castillo, a murdered Mexican poet and human rights activist who wrote of the crimes against women â€œNi una mujer menos, ni una muerte mÃ¡sâ€ (not one woman less, not one more death).
Catalina described how essential the march and the #NiUnaMenos campaign were, saying â€œI think it is very important to see so many women standing together to say â€˜no more.’â€ she also went on to explain why she thinks calling men out on their treatment of women can be hard. â€œAt the moment we often let it happen because we are thinking about our children and what calling it out might mean. We have no guarantee that we will get the justice we need and deserveâ€
This was essentially the message of the march on Saturday with 50,000 people turning up in Lima alone to show their support for the cause. Many were holding signs with either the â€˜Ni Una Menos’ slogan or â€œtocan a una, tocan a todosâ€ (touch one, touch all) written across them. Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was among those marching along with first lady Nancy Lange. In an interview with the media after the march, he stated that his government had plans to develop more facilities for women to denounce violence. â€œAbuse flourishes in an environment where complaints cannot be made,â€ Kuczynski said. â€œThe blows are absorbed in silence and this is not how it should beâ€.
This denouncing of gender violence was the focus of MEDLIFE’s educational talk at our clinic last week in Villa MarÃa del Triunfo. Women living in poverty are more likely to become victims of unreported gender violence as they are less educated about the implications of this violence and what they can do to stop it. The talk, given by MEDLIFE nurse Teresa Ascate and psychologist Alfredo Zarate, focused on informing the woman and men of the community of what domestic violence was and what steps could be taken to prevent it. Teresa explained how until 2015, violence against women had fallen into three categories; physical, psychological and sexual violence. The law was changed in 2015 to include economic dominance as a form of domestic control.
According to â€˜Brechas de Genero 2015: Avances hacia la igualdad de mujeres y hombres’ (Inei), 31.9% of women in Peru don’t have their own income compared to just 12.7% of men who don’t. In impoverished areas, the figure for women almost doubles with 47% having no income compared to only 13.6% of men who don’t. This makes the women of the communities that we work in especially vulnerable. Many of these women have only a very basic education and no job. The society they live in dictates that women are expected to stay at home all day to look after the children and clean the home while men go out to work. This patriarchal lifestyle leaves these women highly susceptible to controlling behavior from a man, who uses the female’s lack of money and inability to earn to take away her independence.
Catalina said how glad she was to hear that this law against economic oppression had been passed. â€œWhen I worked, I didn’t see my money as it went to my husband and my children,â€ she said. â€œ My husband was in charge of the money. I have two children and therefore it was my view that their father should look after them and me. It is his responsibility as a man. This change in the law will mean we won’t need to rely on men to look after us anymore, they can’t use money against us.â€
This opinion seemed to be shared by the community our staff were talking to. Both the men and women were listening attentively to what was being said and afterwards they explained how important it was for their community to have the chance to be given information like this. One community member, Sara Julios, described how she felt about the talk, â€œthis is a topic that is very important for us. Too often, violence of this kind turns to murder and it is important for us to hear about it as a community so we can look out for each other.â€ MEDLIFE staff also informed the community about a helpline that has recently been set up in San Juan de Miraflores to provide a platform for women to talk confidently about abuse and seek advice and support about how to go forward. Sara said how important it was for the community to be informed of the helpline that can be used to denounce this violence â€œI didn’t know about it before and I don’t think anyone else here really did. It is so important to know that there are support networks we can look to for help.â€
At the talk, Teresa also told the women about the march taking place the next day. Many had not heard about it before but seemed determined to attend once they knew what was going on. Another community member, MarÃa said how grateful she was that MEDLIFE had come to tell them about the march; â€œwe don’t have access to a lot of communication networks where we live. We couldn’t hear about the march on the internet or the news and so we easily would have missed it. Thanks to you we now know that this important event is happening and many of us will be able to attend.â€
Catalina said she felt the biggest issue facing Peruvian women and causing such widespread domestic violence was a male abuse of power. She said â€œwhen he was in there, in that moment, he felt powerfulâ€¦ I was just a little thing and that was how I felt, like that and nothing more. At the time I felt there was nothing to be done. There are many things that I didn’t understand until long afterwards. For women, in the moment, they don’t think because they can’t process what is going on in their home. I had to think about my children, not about me. Because of this I focused on moving forward and this was why he could push me and strike me and I would do nothing.â€ It is this feeling of helplessness that means crimes of this sort can thrive.
This is what women’s rights groups across South America are so determined to change. Last month, the media focused on three high profile cases that were widely considered to have given lenient sentences to perpetrators. They used these cases to highlight the inequality in the justice system when it comes to crimes against women. The major point of the campaign was that, without the support of the law and the government guaranteeing justice and safety, it is almost impossible for women to denounce the crimes committed against them.
The focus on these cases gave impetus to Saturday’s march with many holding up signs with pictures of Marielena Chumbimune, Arlette Contreras and Lady GulliÃ©n, the three women the media focused on in the months before. Many MEDLIFE staff also went to the march and described how important it was for Peruvians to see so many men and women marching together for their country. Cristina Negron described how â€œit was amazing to see everyone united towards the cause because everyone knew someone that was a victim of gender violence.â€
The World Health Organisation recently released a statistic showing that around 69% of women in Peru today have experienced some form of gender abuse. This is a statistic that is too big to ignore. It is so important to see such momentous steps being taken to change the attitude of this country. Catalina finished off by telling me how she viewed the #NiUnaMenos campaign as being more important today than ever before, â€œEveryday we work on this campaign we are improving. It is so important to talk about these issues and show that it is not OK. I hope that this will mean everyone will be able to see eye to eye and we will be able to provide a better, safer future for our children.â€
Luckily Catalina is well on the way to recovery now. On Thursday 18th August, MEDLIFE nurse Carmen accompanied her to the hospital where she was having her final operation, funded by MEDLIFE, to cure the mastitis. The operation went well and Catalina is now planning to start looking for a new job so she can continue to support her children. Catalina expressed how glad she was that this chapter in her life is over and said what advice she would give to other women in her position. â€œI would say that now, I am fine. It is a good thing to seperate, to have some distance so that there is no violence in front of the kids and so that I don’t feel in danger.â€ Catalina suffered for four years until she felt she was in a position where she had to stand up against her husband who had caused her serious physical and psychological damage. Women should not have to suffer in silence for so long, it is so important that they feel supported and able to denounce gender violence and we can only hope that the new government under Kuczynski will at last act to prevent women in Peru from having to live in fear. Catalina is now able to look towards a new future where she and her children can live comfortably and happily.