When I met Virginia Ñuñonca, I realized why her story had inspired so many people.
Before I ever met Virginia Ñuñonca, I knew her face. In 2012, Oxfam connected Ñuñonca, a farmer from a tiny village in the mountains of Peru, with a photojournalist from El Comercio, one of the country’s largest newspapers. El Comercio featured her in its biennial photography exhibit, which focused on rights and inclusion.
Even as a visitor to Peru attending the exhibit, I knew how unusual it was to see photos of, and quotes from, someone like Ñuñonca—an indigenous woman from a rural Andean region—in an art gallery in downtown Lima. Her participation embodied Oxfam’s efforts to close the gap between what journalist Marie Arana called the “two Perus”: the thriving, bustling capital and the remote, poor villages of the countryside.
So it’s fitting that Ñuñonca’s photo is again helping to tell a story about Peru’s rural people, this time on the cover of our Winter 2014 issue of OXFAMCloseup magazine. When I visited Ñuñonca’s farm last October to profile her for the magazine, I realized why this warm, energetic woman had inspired so many. Three years after participating in an Oxfam-funded project designed to help Andean farmers adapt to climate change, Ñuñonca has expanded her irrigation system, tripled her pastureland, and purchased dairy cows. By selling their milk and cheese, she earns a steady income for the first time.
Becoming equals in rights
Ñuñonca, now 54, told me she also took part in workshops organized by the project on leadership, self-esteem, and gender equality. “Before [the workshops], I was afraid of men. I felt that men had more rights than I did,” she said. “But learning about gender, I learned we’re all equal—men and women both. … Now I’m not afraid. Now I respect the rights of others.”
Rural indigenous women are among the most marginalized groups in Peru, with fewer opportunities than men to get an education or earn a decent living. Because they are often the ones who care for their families and the land, their participation in the climate change adaptation project was essential.
“At first, only men wanted to be trained on the technologies [from the project]. They said women shouldn’t take part,” explained Eusebio Huaylla, project coordinator for Oxfam’s local partner Practical Action. “So we organized another workshop and asked women leaders to come. … Their assignment was to organize other women in their communities. They could talk to other women, gather their concerns, and share these in spaces of community coordination.”
Ñuñonca has passed on these teachings about leadership and gender equality to both women and men. “Sometimes I go to other communities, and when I get there I shared what I learned,” she said. “There are some that listen. … They say, ‘what you told me helped me.’”
Her calm conviction reminded me of my mom, who taught my sister and me to proudly call ourselves feminists. I asked Ñuñonca how she’d passed these beliefs on to her own four daughters and two sons.
“[I tell them] that it has to be the same work … the same rights, in the house, in the country, as professionals, for both men and women,” she said. “There shouldn’t be machismo. We should all be respected as equals in rights.”
Recently, Ñuñonca was elected as a representative of three communities for a district project on livestock, where she spoke about her experience raising dairy cows. As she becomes more well-known, her role as a leader and spokesperson continues to evolve.
“After the workshops I wanted to be president of my community, but I didn’t have enough time. I’m still thinking about it,” she said with a laugh. “Someday, maybe.”