Thanks to the invitation (via Facebook) made by a group of women dedicated to the empowerment of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 years old – that goes by the name Wiñay –, after almost 15 years I returned to the district where I studied Elementary School: San Juan de Lurigancho.
Out of the 9 million 752 thousand people who inhabit the city of Lima, more than a million live in the aforementioned district, which makes it the most populated one in the city. More than 50% of its population is younger than 29 years old, and the number of children and teenagers of school age ascends to approximately 300 thousand. That may give you an idea of how big, how populated and how young this district is; nonetheless, it is also a district with quite a high index of violence, crime, juvenile gangs, robberies and poverty (24% of its population).
When I lived there – back when I was 7 to 11 years old –, I thought it was a beautiful place, and my life never required me to go any further from home than to my school and the park that was located right across the street from my house. I had friends, cousins and aunts who would take care of me and keep me company everywhere. When I started attending my university, I went back to live there – since I was 18 until I turned 20 years old –, and I found myself in a remarkably different place: I had my backpack stolen once, my cell phone stolen twice (the second time I was pushed hard onto the asphalt so that I would let go of the phone, and I ended up scraping my knees), once a young man flashed his genitals to me and started masturbating when he caught me walking alone on the street at night, and I lost count of all those times I had to endure older men offering (in the most vulgar fashion) to walk me home as long as I gave them “a little kiss”. I often wondered if it was that the place had changed that much in barely 7 years, or if it had always been like that but I failed to notice it thanks to the protection given by the people around me. From time to time I returned briefly to that district, namely only because a cousin of mine was getting married, a nephew of mine was getting baptised, or to pay a visit to my grandmother; but usually I avoided setting foot there as much as I could. And finally, when all the relatives I had living there travelled abroad, and when my grandmother sold her house, I stopped going there altogether.
I am now 33 years old and I belong in the group Ekpapalek Mujeres, thanks to the invitation extended to me by my friend Clarissa; our objective is to empower girls and female teenagers, and to try and change the role models imposed on them by the predominantly chauvinist Peruvian society. Yes, we had a lot in common with this other group called Wiñay, but on the other hand, they had something we didn’t: a focalised group of girls who live in the district of San Juan de Lurigancho who are currently being taught and nurtured to become LEADERS. These girls had been given lectures about sexual education, puberty, STDs prevention, leadership, self-esteem, among other relevant subjects. These female LEADERS were in charge of other girls about the same age as them, and the former ones were entrusted with the mission of encouraging the latter ones to attend these lectures, something like “a friend who helps her other friends in their personal growth”. That’s when Wiñay invites Ekpapalek Mujeres to give lectures about specific subjects, and I was assigned to carry out the lecture/workshop concerning “Gender-based Violence Prevention”.
The day I was appointed to give my lecture, I realised that I was returning to San Juan de Lurigancho for the first time in ages. I saw different houses, new roads, a functioning metro! (which didn’t exist when I lived there during my childhood), huge malls and a lot of people. When I arrived to the place where I was summoned, I was greeted kindly by a woman named Karla, and I couldn’t fail to see excitement and enthusiasm in her eyes. And when I entered the classroom where I was supposed to make my exposition, I found 15 girls so enthusiast that I started feeling nervous.
The problem in San Juan de Lurigancho goes as this: adolescence, the need to be connected to social media, the need to be in cue with what’s fashionable, low self-esteem and poverty are certainly bad combinations. This girls entering their teens (some of them are barely 10 years old) let boys or older men to touch their private parts in exchange for money so that they can put some credit in their mobile phones; and some of them sometimes go the length of sending pictures of their nude bodies in exchange for a larger amount of money. And we’re talking about a district where the rate of teenage pregnancies is high, where the unemployment rate is higher among women than it is among men, where in the year 2009 the police stations got 5314 complaints of violence against women (a little over 10 complaints per day!), so it’s safe to assume that these girls don’t have many role models to emulate, role models who would inspire them to say “I want to get ahead like that woman!”
These women frequently live under a domineering and controlling environment: they see it in their families, with their boyfriends and when they get married, and eventually that not-normal situation gets “normalised” in their psyche, making them lose their autonomy over their own bodies little by little, and then lose their authority to decide or make people respect their rights. A little girl who grows up believing that she will not be able to get ahead by herself, believing that her partner is the only one equipped and entitled for the role of decision-maker and provider for the family, will end up growing up to be a woman who repeats the cycle, and ergo, the sad statistics.
That is the humble analysis I can make, derived from the studies I read and what I’ve experienced in my life. But since that doesn’t alter the objective, I dedicated myself for 3 hours to talk to them about gender-based violence. To let them know that gender-based violence is not limited to being hit by a man: it also encompasses when a man insults you, humiliates you, diminishes you, when he takes possession of your ideas and achievements, when he mocks you or your body, when he wants to touch you without your consent, when he yells obscenities at you when you’re walking in the street and he insists on you feeling flattered, when the teacher assumes you’re lousy at maths just because you’re a girl, when someone tries to coerce you into doing something you don’t want. Gender-based violence is there, everywhere, and we should learn how to identify it so that we can fight it and hope to eradicate it. Learn that our bodies are ours, no matter if we’re 2, 5 or 20 years old or whatever age, and they are beautiful just as they are. And most important of all, learn that the girl sitting next to you is your friend, your partner, and never your enemy.
The girls made a lot of questions during the lecture, and that reflected the reality in which they live:
“what can we do if someone touches us, we go to the police station and they don’t believe us?”, “what do I do if a guy hits me, I go to the authorities and they do not defend me?”, “why are we labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘insolent’ when we try to defend ourselves from street harassment?”, “how can I break up with a guy who tells me that he’ll kill himself if I ever leave him?”
It would have been puzzling enough to hear those questions being made by women in their thirties, but it was quite shocking to hear them coming from 11-year-old girls!
What are we doing for the girls of San Juan de Lurigancho and the rest of the Peruvian girls, so that a little 11-year-old girl would know that if she’s hit by a man, the police will not defend her?
So you’re crazy if you answer back trying to defend yourself from street catcalls, if you try to break up a relationship you get threatened by the guy, and if he hits you and you try to file a complaint, the police will not believe you. How is it that we ended up submerged in this sick cycle that’s already considered “natural” by girls younger than 15 years old?
The lecture, the workshop and the girls I had the opportunity to work with were spectacular, the experience was powerful and energetic, and made me realise how I love to do this kind of work.
But when I got home and started seeing the videos and pictures taken during that day, I felt incredibly small. My audience had been only 15 girls out of the populous, vast, huge and enormous district called San Juan de Lurigancho: FIFTEEN! If out of these 15 girls, only one of them applies in her life what had been taught to her that day, I hope the words of Dr. John Gang come true: “if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”. So that, in the future, neither in San Juan de Lurigancho nor anywhere else in Lima or Peru, a girl should have to ask: “what can I do if a man hits me?”
#LogOnRiseUp Girls and Women from LatinAmerica with WorldPulse, Wiñay and EkpapalekMujeres. Lets educate a Nation!
See one of the videos of Working with girls: "WHO LOVES ME?" - "I DO!"- "WHO BELONG THIS BOBY?" - "BELONGS TO ME!"