The Power of Indigenous Women in Peru

Most things are forgotten over time, but for Mujeres de Antaa collective group of Quechua Indigenous women and AJWS’s partner in Cusco, Peru—no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things they can never assign to oblivion; memories they cannot rub away.

The members of Mujeres de Anta live in Anta, Cusco, where they cultivate corn, potatoes and wheat. In the late 1990’s, at least 3,000 men and women in Cusco and surrounding areas were forcefully sterilized under the government of President Alberto Fujimori. They were the poorest indigenous women. The state decided on their behalf; they were not asked or informed. Health officials in Anta lied, tricked or simply forced the women to go to the clinic. “They took me like an animal to the operating room,” revealed Yoni, ex-president and member of Mujeres de Anta. It took time for the victims to realize what kind of procedures had been performed on them. The sterilizations were done under dangerous conditions. The women were resistant and opposed to the operation, and were subjected to insults as a result. The state clearly only targeted the poorest indigenous women. The World Bank, the UN and USAID played a key role in upholding sterilization as an instrument in the fight against poverty, even at the expense of women’s rights.

Once the procedures were done and they and their families realized what had really happened, their voices spread quickly among indigenous communities. Since many traditional indigenous communities still value a woman only for her reproduction, women who were sterilized were rejected not only by men but also by women. Many of them were blamed by their own husbands; some were even left by their husbands. The operations that were imposed on them disrupted their lives.

Many years have passed, but Mujeres de Anta is stronger than ever. The women are committed to finding justice, and they are committed to challenging patriarchal and colonial values that undermine their right to make their own decisions because they are indigenous, poor and women. A couple of months ago they carried out one of the best health campaigns in Peru targeting indigenous women, to prevent uterine and ovarian cancer in Anta. However, the legal battle [over the forced sterilizations] is still pending. Despite their advocacy efforts and social mobilization, the Peruvian government shelved the investigation to bring those responsible to justice. But nothing has hindered the courage and determination of Mujeres de Anta. The last words [they said to me during my site visit] resounded with certainty in the Anta Mountains: “Now we are taking the case to international justice; they need to listen to us.”

As we were walking through their crops, Aurelia, the new president of Mujeres de Anta, handed me a bunch of flowers picked from the grasses and said, “They must listen to us because our bodies do not forget.”

Note: As Mujeres de Anta’s first donor, AJWS has supported them to build their collective voice and to challenge social and political structures that have tried to silence them for decades.

Angela Martinez is an AJWS Program Officer for the Americas.