Forty years is a long time to trek uphill, but Victoria Villanueva, the tireless leader of a campaign to raise the status of girls and women in Peru, remains undaunted. Now 83, she has been doing exactly this since 1978, the year she helped found Manuela Ramos, an organization that lobbies to reduce sexual violence and other abuses against women in Peru, a country of 31 million, and decriminalize abortion in the case of rape.
In a quick visit from Peru to New York City, Villanueva met on Sept. 13 with , a nonprofit group in Manhattan that supports Manuela Ramos and other women’s rights organizations globally. At the meeting, Villanueva spoke with PassBlue and others about her efforts as executive director of Manuela Ramos, which has 140 employees and seven offices nationwide. A warm, relaxed person, Villanueva also spoke, in English, about the bittersweet mix of hope and fear that is felt by some of Peru’s youngest and most vulnerable girls and women in their country. Progress against violence is being made but the “culture of shame,” Villanueva said, persists, adding, “It couldn’t disappear in a short time.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH
The interview, which was also done by email with PassBlue, has been edited and condensed.
Q. While reported rape statistics are measured differently in different countries, making comparisons difficult, Peru is said to have one of the highest rates in . According to the Peruvian Public Prosecutor’s Office, you say, three rapes occur each hour. The majority of the people who are affected by rape are between 10 and 17 years old. What is going on to enable so much sexual violence, especially among minors, in Peru?
A. Peru is a patriarchal society, where “machismo” was, and still is, accepted. The number of femicides, or murders based on gender, seems to be increasing each day. The latest data indicate that 11 cases of femicide take place each month. That means a woman is murdered every three days — 70 percent of them under age 34. Yet, as one example of how resistant Peruvian society is to change, the Ministry of Education is dealing with a conservative sector that intends to abolish a new curriculum that would introduce sexual education in schools and has the approval of a wide range of civic groups.
Q. What types of rape are being committed in Peru?
A. According to a Public Ministry report, 60 percent of these cases take place in the victim’s home. That means in most cases a man is raping someone he knows. Fathers and uncles are raping their daughters. Sometimes the mother discovers it but protects the man because she believes she will be more secure. Girls won’t talk about the incest but will say something afterwards — when they are pregnant. Street rape is a problem as well. It constitutes 40 percent of rape cases, most of them affecting girls between the ages of 10 and 17. There’s a problem with young girls going to university: they don’t have any security. Rape is a matter of power, it is not because of high desires.
Q. What is the Peruvian government doing to try to stop the epidemic of rape?
A. It has set aside the equivalent of about $81 million to curb sexual violence in general. Sexual and gender violence are now on the public agenda. We are more and more making it evident, it’s a public thing, a political thing. We have been asking for the Ministry of Women to have more influence, which can work very powerfully to have a voice with other ministries. Our minister has to deal with a lot of things but has no time for programs, for the long term. They [the government] send everything to the Ministry of Women. They should have gender mainstreaming.
Q. Yet a 2016 bill to fully decriminalize abortion in the case of rape or fatal fetal abnormality has stalled in Peru’s Congress. (Abortion is legal in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.) The bill would also introduce sex education and provide support for survivors of violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation. Why isn’t it moving forward?
A. It’s a difficult issue. The bill had the support of four other organizations as well as ours. And yet the justice system is not on our side. The Catholic church in Peru also insists on maintaining the status quo. At the same time, more young women have taken to the streets. We are seeing a surge of protest among adolescent girls and women in their 20s. This is a new development in Peru and is happening in all major urban centers. It marks a noteworthy change from the past. We find the streets everyday with protests. More and more people see that things must change.
To break the impasse in Congress, Manuela Ramos is urging the parliament to schedule a debate and vote on the bill before the end of the year. This is essential to protect and promote the rights of all women and girls in Peru and ensure justice for survivors of sexual violence.
Q. What is the leading cause of abortion-related deaths in Peru?
A. Bad surgery. We have information of women who have abortions but they are not legal, so they are in danger. Abortions are taking place all over the place. The morning-after pill is well known.
Q. In your region, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, was successful last year in legalizing aspects of abortion in her country despite the dominance of the Catholic church, although the new president, Sebastian Piñera, has rolled these rights back. Did Chile’s path under Bachelet help the cause of reproductive rights in Peru?
A. We don’t have a Michelle Bachelet. They have a long history of women in politics.
Q. Does the Peruvian women’s movement have a voice internationally?
A. No, we used to but not now. Some women from Central America have a voice.
Q. What other types of violence against women occur in Peru?
A. We have cases of gasoline being thrown at women, burning them; one one case gasoline was thrown at a woman on a bus and she died. The perpetrator had wanted her romantically [but she had rebuffed him]. He was arrested but we have no confidence [justice will happen]. Another gas attack happened outside of Lima. We now have three such cases; it’s a new problem. That’s why I say, ‘Do not kill us,’ but more people are aware of what is happening.
Q. How was the name of your group, Manuela Ramos, chosen?
A. Our organization takes its name from everywoman. It aims to help all women to know their rights. We focus on three things: public policies affecting women; sexual and reproductive rights; and economic rights and sustainable development for women. We also help provide legal assistance in cases of violence against women.
Q. Do people in the government know about Manuela Ramos? And people protesting in the streets know about it?
A. In the government, yes; in the streets, they think Manuela Ramos is me, they don’t see it as an institution.
Q. Do you get discouraged at times amid rising reports of sexual violence; how do you persevere?
A. It is indeed stressful, but it is also rewarding — I can see more and more women and also young men who are eager to know more, who are active in rallies and public events. Government is not always an ally, but after so many years we have women who joined us as students and have since found a place in government, as well as in journalism and academia. They are helping to get our issues before the public for debate— and hopefully for action and change.
Q. What is the future for Manuela Ramos?
A. We need to make a smaller but more powerful organization; we are working on too many issues so we cannot be good at everything. It’s difficult to keep people working with low wages.
Q. What would be the first thing you would do if you had a lot of money?
A. I would put it in media: it is everything, not only television, radio; and education. We need media experts because we have to work with social media, work on our website. Some volunteers work for us, but we need people to do video.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.