Civil Society and Democratic Governability in the Andes and the Southern Cone Project

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Feminism and the State in Peru in the 1990s

Maruja Barrig

Civil Society and Democratic Governance in the Andes and the Southern Cone

Comparative Regional Project

Ford Foundation - Department of Social Sciences PUCP
November, 1999


Peruvian feminism, along with the Brazilian and Mexican feminist movements, was one of the most visible women's movements in the region over the past decades. A unique combination of activists, women from nongovernmental organizations, and feminist researchers joined forces with militants from leftist parties and women's grassroots organizations for livelihood in fields of action and experience feedback, not always free to tensions.

The years of the 1990s reshaped the scenario in which feminists carried out their activities. For example, processes of consolidation of democracy in Latin America as well as international conferences and world summits organized by the United Nations involved feminists in a search for ways to have a political impact on official delegations and programs of action. The strategies employed made clear that activists had changed their perceptions of states and, just as importantly, that they had modified their confrontational styles vis á vis governments. At the same time, as a product of the processes of modernization of states and increased visibility and lobbying by the women's movement, the governments of various Latin American countries began to work on issues related to 'the woman,' implementing specialized policies or creating institutions for this purpose. As some researchers observe, feminist strategies began to be more and more state-centered and what was known as The Movement turned into a discourse more than a fusion of collective wills.
This is the general conception for this essay which describes the experiences of the Mesa Tripartita established in 1997 in Lima with the purpose of monitoring the Peruvian government's compliance with the Action Program approved at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, Cairo 1994). The Mesa brought together government officials, the United Nations Population Fund and other agencies, and 'civil society' organizations and universities. The limitations of the latter organizations in the search for agreements between civil society and the state emerged when information began to come to light regarding human rights violations against women in public family planning services and made it evident that feminists were vulnerable and disarticulated.


Peruvian feminist activists, whose movement was once one of the tributaries of social movements at the end of the decade of the 1970s, now almost thirty years later, appear to be honoring a painting by Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory with its clocks melting in time in the midst of an arid landscape, quieted effervescences, empty streets instead of demonstrations and collective projects. Where is The Movement?, ask the authors of recent articles and studies who still remember the lilac seas of people and white flowers of March 8 and November 25 celebrations. The Movement is no longer the aggregation of groups and individuals, answers one North American feminist, it is only a discourse. Still, in many different ways, feminists continue to stubbornly stick to their original commitments.
And where did all the others go?, we could also ask ourselves. The waters of the union movement are also still and peasant marches, sporadic. We are disconcerted by what the 90s brought us: the virtual disintegration of political parties, the illusion of individual success, a still wider gap in the distribution of resources and income, a political system that has cracked. Yet, on the international level, there has been enormous development in the world of communications and there is increasing agreement on the rights of women which are on the verge of becoming universal and recognized as such in the last world conferences organized by the United Nations, inspiring hope for increased respect for human rights in the future.
Peruvian and Latin American feminists are not isolated from this deluge of transformations on the national and international levels as various recent studies demonstrate.2 There is, in fact, a process of reforming states in the region (called 'modernization' by some) which has led to the establishment of institutions specialized in the design and implementation of policies directed at women. Departments have even been set up in government institutions dedicated to other purposes in order to deal with what is confusingly brought together under the umbrella of 'gender issues.' Less controversial than the word 'feminism,' the concept of gender was kneaded until it became a technical resource that fit in well with the discourse of the United Nations' conferences,3 with governmental requirements for consultantships and specialized human resources that feminists had to fulfill, and the ever higher professional qualifications of activists from women's NGOs who offered their services. The relationship between states, in Peru and in other countries in the region, was distorted. In many cases, it became privatized as a contractual/commercial relationship and, analysts note, became de-politicized as a result.
Feminist politics slowly was transferred from the barrios to the hallways of ministries and the congress. As has been noted elsewhere,4 the ten years of the Fujimori administration have been marked by systematic assaults on democratic institutionality but, curiously, also have been prolific in their favorable discourses about and (formal) opening to women's issues: a Ministry of Women was created; quotas for women were established in lists of candidates for municipal government and congress; sexual education programs were set up in schools; some laws and procedures regarding rape were up-dated; family planning services were established in public health centers (including the so-called Voluntary Surgical Contraception [VSC] -- blocking fallopian tubes and vasectomies). These developments were perhaps partially promoted by feminist strategies that were ever more state-centered, based on the notion that it was more productive to try to exercise influence in a friendly way rather than through political action, especially when faced with a government that was not very open to dialogue but grateful when it received approval from others.
Just as the cloud of dust of a street demonstration dissolves, the traces of the compañeras have disappeared. If feminism is no longer a typical social movement, it is, according to Sonia Alvarez,5 expansive, heterogeneous, polycentric, multifaceted, and a polyphonic discursive field. Thus, the efforts of those who call themselves feminists are scattered among the ministries, the offices of congresspersons, international cooperating agencies, nongovernmental organizations but also in the barrios and plazas, though less than before. Interests have diversified, strategies are fragmented and display considerable nuances -- from the lilac radicalism of the 1970s to the easy idleness of the 1990s -- but all the voices persist in the memory of what feminism constructed in Peru. This explosion of different ways of being feminist and living feminism is not only local. In other countries in the region that have also experienced changes in social and political organization and in the economic sphere, social organizations such as feminism have looked for ways to reorient themselves to new circumstances, some returning to drink at the waters of Paradise Lost while others appear wearing the mantel of professional objectivity and political pragmatism. The axis that unites them is the promotion of the rights of women; however, apparently paths divide when it comes to how this should be done.
The interpretation presented above is intended to provide the general context for a brief case study6 of the Mesa Tripartita de Seguimiento a la Conferencia Internacional sobre Población y Desarrollo (MT). The MT was established in Peru in August 1997 as part of a regional project of the Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe (RSMLAC) sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund. In addition to Peru, the project also includes Brazil, Nicaragua, Chile, and Colombia. Based on chapter 15 of the Action Program of Cairo, one of whose articles recommends the effective development of agreements among all levels of government and nongovernmental organizations, the MT brings together nongovernmental organizations, universities, government officials, and international cooperating agencies.7 Its goal is to promote and monitor the implementation of the Action Program of Cairo by facilitating the interchange of information among its members, identifying implementation problems and proposing strategies to apply to the program, and developing indicators to measure and evaluate its progress.8
In the following pages, I analyze the MT from the point of view of the relationship between feminist NGOs and the state, whose precariousness -- and the signs of the times described above -- became apparent as there were more and more denunciations about the existence of obligatory quotas for VSC at public health centers, pressures and intimidation against an unknown number of women to force them to submit to surgical sterilization, practices limiting informed consent, and other violations of women's rights, directed principally but not only against poor women and women in rural areas.
The situation that developed was like a rapid free fall from a loose tight wire without a safety net: a principled discourse in defense of women's human rights principles was almost immediately mimicked by the more conservative voices of the Catholic Church; the heterogeneity of positions among the 'representatives' of civil society in the MT led to a mutual lack of confidence; there was confusion among feminists about their identity vis à vis the state as a client and the state as a political interlocutor and, as a result, the diminishment of possibilities of forming alliances and designing joint strategies from a feminist point of view in the face of evidence of the contemptible treatment of women; and the relative powerlessness of mid level government officials who serve as intermediaries in the political system which is the result of the centralization of power in the president. In sum, we contend that feminist discourse, when it was able to emerge, oscillated between Escila and Caribdis, the great reef and turbulent waters between the Catholic Church and the Fujimori government.

Since the end of the 1960s, the Women's Health Collective of Boston put together notes and educational modules that it had used to raise consciousness and inform from a feminist perspective about how the body works and the sexual rights of women. Published in 1971, the book Our Bodies, Ourselves not only became a classic reference book but also served as a model for activism on women's health issues and sexuality. Beginning at the end of the 1960s, the feminine body was converted into the epicenter of Latin American feminist activism, from the initial protests about its commercial use in advertising to demands for the control of fertility through decisions taken by women themselves.

In effect, since 1973, the collective Acción para la Liberación de la Mujer Peruana (ALIMUPER) organized a march protesting the use of the feminine body in beauty contests (which was reported in a local newspaper under the title "The Rebellion of the Witches"), the nascent Peruvian feminist movement carried out a campaign intended to link the commercialization of the body and maternity with women's reproductive rights. In 1979, a ALIMUPER manifesto called for a feminist demonstration with three major goals: the legalization of abortion, ample access by women to birth control, and opposition to forced sterilization. "These three issues," says the manifesto, "can only be dealt with together: all have to do with alienation of our bodies."9 The context in which the proclamation was issued should not lead us to lose sight of the avant-guard nature of its proposals. As one of the feminists who marched through the streets recalls: "[...] 50 women came to the march and we ended up with 25; we suffered brutal aggression on the streets [...] The march ended at the [office] of the railroad workers union with a small discussion among the 25 women who were left about possible strategies."10
In 1980, the Comité de Coordinación de Organizaciones Feministas (Manuela Ramos, Flora Tristán, ALIMUPER, Mujeres en Lucha, and the Frente Socialista de Mujeres), attempted to define the autonomy of the growing movement from the political parties to which many of its members belonged. At the same that it defined three principal areas in its agenda of demands and activities. These included "the right to work and job stability for women" and the "recognition of detained women militants as political prisoners," however, the first line of action was: "the right of women to control their reproduction: sexual education, access to contraceptives, and legalized and free abortion."11
Feminists within political parties also were able to incorporate the theme of sexual and reproductive rights into party programs. For example, the Unidad Democrático-Popular (UDP), a coalition of leftist parties, included in its platform the demand for "respect for the right of women to voluntary maternity and the legalization of abortion" (UDP platform, April 14, 1980). This was described in more detail one year later in one of the 17 points of the "Revolutionary Platform for UDP Women": "For the right of the woman to decide about her body: free and voluntary maternity; legalization of abortion."12
From the beginning of the 1980s, what was generically known as The Movement [feminist] was articulated through thematic collectives; one of the most visible was that dealing with reproductive and sexual rights. The Movement brought together 18 women's collectives, only seven of which had been institutionalized as NGOs, and 50 independent activists. In 1987, The Movement spoke out against the attempt by the Chamber of Deputies to modify abortion legislation by increasing legal sanctions and asked instead for: "the decriminalization of abortion in order to put an end to its clandestine character [...] so that women have free access to different, efficient and safe contraceptive methods within the health system."13 A similar battle was waged between 1990 and 1991 when the Commission for the Revision of the Penal Code was established. Feminists decided to adopt multifaceted positions: while one group put more emphasis on the legalization of abortion, others pressured for its decriminalization for "economic and social reasons" or when the pregnancy was the result of rape. Apparently, there was no disagreement among the collectives. On the contrary, a strategy deliberately adopted by activists through consensus to pursue various roads to success.14
Feminist emphasis on issues of sexual and reproductive rights was maintained for a few years more. In conjunction with the second visit of Pope John Paul II to Peru, on May 14, 1988, activist groups made public a letter to the Pope which stated that:
[...] to label the woman who wants to free herself from the oppression of forced maternity as egotistical and licentious, as ecclesiastical authorities allege when they oppose voluntary sterilization, is unjust [...] To deny access to effective contraceptive methods and, at the same time, condemn the woman who turns to abortion as her only recourse is irrational. (emphasis is ours)
In 1986, The Movement [feminist] adopted a formal structure for the first time. While previously it had functioned as an assembly, now a Coordinating Committee was established. In June 1991, however, the Coordinating Committee decided to dissolve itself. Although various reasons can be hypothesized for this decision (and for some, its evaluation is a historical imperative), the truth is that at the end of this decade autonomous collectives has been weakened because of the improvement in the human and economic resources in feminist NGOs. Furthermore, these institutions had began to undertake initiatives for the development inter-institutional consensus in which there was little room for polymorphous groups of uninstitutionalized feminist volunteers. As Alvarez (1998) argues, the "NGOization" of feminism in Latin America gradually professionalized the work of activists, creating networks, concentrating resources, and accentuating their specialized character in various ways, including by sectors. It is also possible, we might add, that along the way, the political influence the 'classical' Movement began to its lose profile or perhaps, found other channels. One of the new themes emphasized by feminist NGOs (staffed by women or mixed gender) were women's health issues, including a large number of activities, ranging from the consolidation of networks of activists working in barrios, research about reproductive heath to consciousness-raising among government officials. They were preparing for the battle of Cairo.
With very few exceptions, the Action Program of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) was considered a success by women’s health activists. Open recognition of the inequalities between men and women, the reproductive rights of women, of abortion as a public health issue, and the participation of civil society in national population and other policies were among the accomplishments of the feminist militants that made up official delegations and the NGO Forum, carrying out lobbying and uniting the efforts of feminists from the North and South.
Nevertheless, perspectives had become ever more specialized and older demands had to be substantiated with statistics and objectivity. In Peru, the voices that had demanded the decriminalization or even legalization of abortion were silenced in the wake of a new emphasis on other types of issues such as, for example, the quality of health services which, in service of the dignity of users and their rights as citizens, required the elaboration of measurement instruments. The realm of the emotional was left behind in order to advance on the terrain of the possible.15 Thayer,16 in her analysis of the history of a Brazilian feminist (NGO) specialized in women's health, demonstrates how in this institution the emphasis on 'women' in the 1970s gave way to an emphasis on 'gender relations' as the conceptual framework of the institution. The 'body' as a political referent was replaced by 'citizenship' and the feminist practice of gynecological self-examination was relegated and replaced by negotiation with the state on issues regarding women's health rights. According to Thayer, Latin American activists indigenized imported feminist cultural products and linked them to their realities and national attitudes. Feminist theories travel leaving their sediments in the places where they developed or through which they passed. The fact that the assimilation was pushed along by diverse actors -- the feminist transnational, international cooperating agencies, grassroots organizations, and governments -- sometimes resulted in dynamics of difficult assimilation. In any case, in Peru the transition was similar: the emphasis on rights (in a country lagging in this sphere) may have led to activism on the terrain where these are formulated: the state.
The possibly arbitrary and incomplete set of feminist demands regarding sexual and reproductive health formulated in Peru explains what happened at the Fourth International World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) when Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who was the only head of state to speak at the conference, assured those present that he was not a traditional president but one who wore blue jeans and athletic shoes and said he was acting against the advice of his advisors in taking part in a meeting of 'women'. He explained,

I think that this is not a simple meeting of women but a great forum of women who fight [luchadoras] who deserve the respect and complete attention of states and governments [...] my government has decided to implement, as part of its social development policy and struggle against poverty, an integral strategy of family planning that faces up to -- openly and for the first time in the history of our nation -- the serious lack of information and services in this area, so that women can decide, with complete autonomy and freedom, about their own lives [...] unfortunately in Peru, while among the people and especially poor women,17 there is receptivity, in the Catholic hierarchy there is resistance that from my point of view is disproportionate to the issue involved.

[An effort is underway] to impede at all costs that the Peruvian government carry out a modern and rational family planning policy. We have been accused of trying, after the recent law that permits vasectomies and blocking fallopian tubes as part of a set of contraceptive measures, to impose 'mutilations' and wanting to 'kill the poor' [...]. For giving information to the poorest population, the hierarchy of the Peruvian Catholic Church has called our government's actions an expression of the 'power of the darkness' [...] Peruvian women will not continue to be fenced in or bent to the will of others because of the intransigence of ultraconservative mentalities that want to convert into an article of faith the incapacity to accept social change [...] Family planning methods in my country are now legally available to women, men and families of all social classes so that they can use them, I emphasize, freely and responsibly. (emphasis ours)
According to Rosa María Alfaro, it was after this speech (which received an ovation at the conference) that a "certain type of alliance," implicit rather than a formal agreement, developed between the government and civil society organizations. Feminists regrouped around Fujimori and tilted the balance in his favor in the debate between Fujimori and the Catholic Church about family planning. The coincidences with feminists, which -- as can be noted in the quote cited above were many -- led various women from NGOs to give him "emotional applause"18 and, in some way, a kind of pact was made. A law that was passed a short time before the conference opening up the possibility of public services offering VSC was recognized by health activists as a step forward and the openly anti-clerical declarations of President Fujimori in China tended to cover-up the implicit purpose of the family planning policy which was to covert it into a key part of the antipoverty program of the government, already partially implemented in the clientalistic distribution of food to Mothers Clubs and in emergency social programs such as FONCODES.
The implicit alliance to which Alfaro refers, continued to exist in the background when the MT was established in 1997 and generated a certain amount of division of loyalties when the first denunciations of violations of human rights in health services of women who were invited to block their fallopian tubes. As one of the persons interviewed for this study states: "[In the MT] the majority of people did not have a clear idea of their role as 'civil society', on the contrary, they had the idea that 'we are all part of the Family Planning Program' and therefore, the enemies of the Program are our enemies."19

Decades before, Peruvian feminists saw their existence negated by government institutions. Like other social movements, they were trapped in inflamed discourse and in public plazas. The conditions for dialogue about demands did not exist and these only began to come into existence, as noted above, as a result of changes on the national and international levels at the beginning of the 1990s.

"To dialogue is not to make a pact," a Peruvian politician pointed out years ago in an effort to distinguish the differing degrees of commitment that dialogue can imply. Perhaps the staff of the Centro Flora Tristán and the Movimiento Manuela Ramos (the two most important feminist NGOs) had the same idea when they accepted the decision of RSMLAC activists to establish an entity that united international cooperating agencies, private institutions and the government (the MT) under the auspices of the United Nations Population Fund, in order to interchange information and monitor the implementation of the Action Program of the Cairo meeting.
In the case of the government, it was clear which institutions should take part (the ministries of women, health, education, and foreign relations) and the same was true of international cooperating agencies (AID and OPS together with the United Nations Population Fund had mandates that clearly include reproductive health). However, when it came to 'civil society', the panorama was not so clear. As already indicated, dozens of NGOs in Lima and the provinces work on this issue and could and, in fact, did demand to be members of the MT but "in the case of civil society, a combination of three types of institutions was desired: academic -- and that's why the universities are there --, those working on the rights of women or were feminist, and more technical [ones], like APROPO."20
With these criteria, institutions were invited individually to participate directly in an experience which was, despite the affirmations of some internal documents that allude to the 'representation' of civil society in this tripartite space, not 'representative' in the full sense of the word:

[...] the inclusion of universities and NGOs as

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