Disaster can bring unexpected progress
It’s been nearly three years since an earthquake hit the area around Pisco in Peru, and a group of us who work for Oxfam visited a few of the communities affected by the disaster last week. Many people are still living in temporary shelters among the ruins of their homes. We visited on a rainy morning that later became a cool, cloudy day and the haze obscured the hills and blended together with the rubble in a tableau of gray. There were signs of reconstruction, though it is clearly a slow process. But despite the depressing winter weather, people are optimistic in Pisco.
We were looking at the role that women are playing in the recovery in Pisco. Oxfam has been working with the Women’s Association of Ica to help women create economic opportunities for themselves and their families, get involved in setting the agenda for rebuilding, and help reduce vulnerability to future disasters.
Oxfam and the Women’s Association of Ica have been training women to raise guinea pigs for sale and their own consumption (yes, people eat guinea pigs in Peru), and participate in the local civil defense program. The women we met with got training in how to raise guinea pigs and process them in ways that help them sell in the market place. And the women’s role as breadwinners and organizers is building a lot of pride and satisfaction.
We met one group of women in a small town called San Clemente. They told us that the earthquake brought some unexpected changes for them. Before, there were just 32 women in their group, the Women’s Federation of San Clemente. When the earthquake hit they organized community kitchens to feed the survivors. This brought some attention from the Women’s Association of Ica which provided leadership training, and taught women how to raise guinea pigs and produce jewelry and textiles.
“This has been a transformative experience for us,” says Cleotilde Palomino, one of the leaders of the local federation. She says Oxfam paid for her group to attain its legal papers so it can access government services and raise money, and it has grown to 500 members. She says women are now more involved in local political processes, like setting the municipal budget and deciding how funds are used for reconstruction in ways that will benefit women and children. “We are taking a new role, thanks to your support,” she says. “We have a new vision for what our community can do.”
At one point our group had a brief meeting with Marino Ucharima, the mayor of Independencia, a town badly affected by the quake. I frequently have to visit with local officials when I travel, both to do reporting and as a courtesy, and sometimes these meetings turn into political events. But our encounter in Independencia was a little different: although the media were there, the mayor really just seemed to want to thank Oxfam for the work it had made possible in his community. We asked him about how women had been involved in recovering from the earthquake .
“Most of the people we worked with from Oxfam were women,” he said, “so this set a good example for us,” specifically thanking Elizabeth Cano from our office in Lima. “We collaborated with the Women’s Association of Ica, and they helped us raise over a thousand guinea pigs, and we consider this very successful. And the people now most involved in civil defense are women, not men.”
Near the end of the meeting, he said, “Women play a very important role, and we recognize they work more than men…where would men be without women?”
The real question is really where will anyone of us be if we do not allow women an equal opportunity in society to make important decisions and set policies? Nevertheless, when you can hear a male politician in Latin America speak of the role of women in this positive way, it makes for a bright moment, even on a gray day.