A Wave of Women Just Swept Into Power in the 'Country of Rapists'

There is hope that the development could reduce gender-based violence and sexism in the South American nation.
December 10, 2020, 4:21pm
A woman protests in front of the prosecutor’s office in Lima, Peru against gender violence and femicides

LIMA, Peru — When Elvia Barrios was named the first woman to be Peru’s top judge this month, she wasted no time in highlighting the twin evils undermining the country’s legal system - sexism and corruption.

Noting the high number of magistrates convicted of graft, she added: “We live in a macho, patriarchal society, where everything is seen from the masculine perspective. We’re a society burdened with stereotypes and we judges are not immune.”

Yet Barrios is hardly the only woman in a position of power seeking to attack both the rampant graft and casual misogyny that are part of everyday life here. Peru’s recent political turmoil has resulted in a near clean sweep of women heading the branches of power and other key public institutions, to the point where the Andean nation may be setting a record for female leadership in government.

In addition to Barrios as president-elect of the judiciary, positions occupied by women in Peru now include speaker of Congress, president of the Constitutional Court (which is separate from the rest of the judiciary), chief prosecutor and defense minister.

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The only exception to the rule is the executive, with the new president, Francisco Sagasti, a man. However, he has appointed a woman, Violeta Bermúdez, as his prime minister, a job that involves much of the political heavy lifting normally associated with the presidency in other countries such as the United States.

What makes the situation particularly stunning — and also, perhaps, precarious — is it that it comes in one of Latin America’s most unequal societies, where sexual harassment and domestic violence are rampant and the news cycle is often dominated by gruesome femicides.

Pao Ugaz, a feminist journalist, welcomed the political breakthrough but warned that Peru still has a long way to go to eliminate inequality and misogyny.

“This is a happy coincidence, but it is also the result of great determination by these women,” Ugaz said. “Peru is a country where the burden on women, from when they are born, is so much greater than on men, whether it’s at home, studying or at work. Anywhere teenagers’ lives are ruined because they can’t get abortions for unwanted pregnancies, there is still a long way to go.”

Nearly one in three Peruvian women have suffered physical violence at the hands of their partners, according to Peru’s national statistics agency. More than 60 percent of women in provincial Peru have experienced sexual violence at least once, by far the highest rate of any of the dozens of countries surveyed in a United Nations study.  Meanwhile, men typically earn 29 percent more than women in Peru.

Earlier this year, Gloria Montenegro, at the time the minister for women, sparked a flood of outrage from conservatives after calling Peru a “country of rapists.” As the issue of sexual violence became the latest battle in the country’s culture wars, Congressman Salvador Heresi summed up the criticism by accusing Montenegro of the “criminalization of the masculine.”

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Yet entrenched views like that are being challenged as never before. Paula Narvaez, a government specialist with UN Women, an agency working to end gender discrimination and empower women, said that Peru’s big achievement was not the number of women in key leadership roles but the fact that they had a “clear, explicit gender agenda”.

Bermúdez, the prime minister, is a lawyer specializing in women’s issues and marginalized communities while Mirtha Vásquez, the speaker of Congress, is an environmental lawyer known for defending Maxima Acuña, a female subsistence farmer, in her bid to stop a multi-billion-dollar corporate goldmine on her remote Andean lands. 

And chief prosecutor Zoraida Ávalos greeted Barrios’ appointment by noting the importance of “parity” combined with “meritocracy” in public institutions. “It’s not about being in positions where important decisions are taken just because we are women,” she added.

“It is very important what is happening in Peru,” Narvaez said. “But it is not isolated. Political representation among women has been rising significantly across Latin America.”

Just 24 percent of lawmakers globally, either in a single-chamber system or in the lower house where countries also have a senate, were women in 2019, up from 11 percent in 1995, according to UN Women. But the region with the highest proportion was the Americas, with 31 percent, compared to 29 percent in Europe and 19 percent in Arab countries. Although that figure includes the U.S. and Canada, it would actually be higher without them; the U.S. has just 23 percent while Canada is at 29 percent.

The benefits of increased female participation in politics stretch far beyond gender issues. Higher numbers of female politicians can increase bipartisanship and stability, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

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It is also not a coincidence that Peru’s new generation of female leaders are all prominent corruption busters. Experts say women are no less prone than men to becoming corrupt. However, they are usually excluded from the male-dominated networks, where corruption breeds corruption, that traditionally have controlled power in many countries.

In a sign of how Barrios will have her work cut out to modernize the judiciary, one Peruvian court sparked outrage earlier this year when its three judges acquitted a rape defendant because his 20-year-old victim had used red underwear which the magistrates deemed provocative.

Barrios will be no pushover. She began her career in the 1980s, prosecuting human rights cases in Ayacucho, the epicenter of the Shining Path’s violence as the local population was caught in the crossfire between the Maoist extremists and the armed forces’ often indiscriminate response. 

Talking about her formation in the crucible of fire, when Shining Path frequently targeted judges and other public officials, she has spoken of how she was trained to use a revolver — and warned to always save the last bullet for herself, to avoid the horrific torture frequently meted out by the group. 

Now, as head of the judiciary, she is in a position not just to level the playing field for women judges, but also to push the courts to handle gender issues, from rape cases to workplace discrimination, more sensitively.