Indigenous Women in Peru: Challenges and Hopes

By Jessica Jiang, Grace Zhang, and Liana Shi

“If you could be reborn, would you want to be a woman again?” A world-renowned survey agency, Ipsos, asked this question in Peru, and nearly 1/3 of the women in Southeastern Peru answered “No”.

Located in the Southeastern Peru is the high Andes and jungles of the Peruvian Amazon, where the indigenous people live. The Indigenous peoples of Peru, also known as Native Peruvians, include Achuar, Aguaruna, Asháninka, Shipibo, Huambisa, Quechua, and Aymara, constituting 45% of the Peruvian population (World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, 2020). Currently, about 56% of indigenous communities in Peru live in rural areas, half of which are women.

Gender inequality is a major issue across Peru. Women and girls in Peru remain at high risk of gender-based violence (World Report, 2017). According to the UN Women database, in 2016, 31.2% of Peruvian women suffered from lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, and 21.5% of Peruvian girls were forced into child marriage. This issue is even more pronounced among the indigenous peoples – nearly 44% of Quechua women have experienced rape (Boggiano, 2020). From 1996 to 2000, approximately 300,000 indigenous people experienced forced sterilization as an attempt to alleviate poverty by reducing reproduction, violating their basic reproductive rights (IWHC, 2016).

 The challenges facing indigenous women are intersectional, involving their ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors. According to Marisol de la Cadena’s “Las Mujeres son más Indias” (1991), an observation of women’s status in Cusco showed that “within communities, the social hierarchy has to be understood based on ethnic and gender differentiation.” In these largely agricultural areas, many women face higher rates of poverty and have fewer economic opportunities. As a result, they are less likely to be financially independent. While it is common in many developing countries for women to engage in a lot more unpaid domestic work than men, it is even more so the case for indigenous women compared to non-indigenous women in Peru, according to the World Bank (2015). In addition, as many indigenous people speak Quechua or Aymara instead Spanish, the official language in Peru, their access to quality education, healthcare, and employment opportunities are limited.

Apart from gender-based violence, financial vulnerability, and limited access to social services, climate change is another major challenge for indigenous women. Indigenous women in the Laramate district, Lucanas Province have increasingly witnessed their crops wither in drought and rotten in irregular rains, for example. In recent years, excessive deforestation and oil extraction continue to expand and threaten indigenous peoples’ livelihoods. As a result, the quantity and quality of agricultural production have been unpredictable and children face higher risks of malnutrition, increasing the vulnerability of local communities.

Active participation and engagement of indigenous women in various political agendas and committees have played a vital role in mitigating risks related to climate change. A case in point is that The National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Women of Peru, an organization aimed to promote the collective rights of women and people and advocates ancestral knowledge and practices, has been working on promoting indigenous women’s social status through Indigenous Climate Platforms, reducing carbon emission caused by deforestation and forest degradation, and ensuring legal mechanism of protection of lands and territories are implemented. Moreover, an intercultural and multilingual participation approach is also mainstreamed.

On the other hand, high illiteracy rates and the lack of knowledge in political participation among the indigenous women are hindering them from full participation and leadership in a wide range of agendas and committees. The unstable financial resources and obscured leadership in sub-national authorities have also added to the challenges.

The struggles and inequality have drawn domestic and international attention. DEMUS, for example, is an organization that promotes sexual freedom and autonomy of women in Peru by fighting against different forms of violence faced by women in Peru. The UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People was signed in 2007, confirming the purposes and principles of the legal protection of indigenous people’s rights and guaranteeing the empowerment and civilization of indigenous people. According to the declaration, indigenous people share the rights to determine their political, economic, and cultural status, and are free from all forms of discrimination. In addition to Alternative Peru paving the way for the eradication of discrimination of people, various social organizations, both profit and non-profit, go a long way toward fighting against violence and achieving ethnic equality.

There have also been attempts to tackle the challenges facing indigenous women using business solutions. Alternative Peru, a social enterprise focusing on responsible tourism, is one of them. Different from traditional tourism, the tours offered by Alternative Peru minimize negative environmental and social impacts, protect local natural and cultural heritage, and improve the economic situation of indigenous people, as they hire drivers, cooks, and guides locally and offer fair wages to them.

Tourist and Indigenous Women
Photo by Alternative Peru

The positive impact is not only on a community level, but also in a personal and mutually-empowering way. During the interview, Natalie Lefevre, the founder of Alternative Peru, shared a story of an indigenous women named Eveli, a local guide of Alternative Peru’s Lima tours. At the age of 7, she started working as a domestic worker. Years later, she became the coordinator of the organization Jugando Aprendo, supporting kids who work as domestic workers by organizing homework support sessions for them, and helping these young women to be aware of their rights. During the pandemic, Eveli has been visiting these kids’ families with a truck full of food on a regular basis for a year and a half, helping the poorest families in Lima get through the crisis. “Eveli is such a strong woman and her whole life is about helping other people, especially the poor families in Lima, organizing very basic needs like providing foods and also mental supports. When we walk around there, everybody knows her, everybody loves her.” Natalie said firmly and respectfully.

Located near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain range, Cusco is a popular tourist destination in southeastern Peru. However, the indigenous people in Cusco have failed to benefit fairly from traditional tourism – they are treated as ancient people frozen in the past without being shown the respect that they deserve (Jaynah Ross, 2016), not to mention oftentimes they are not paid fairly. In response, Alternative Peru cooperates with indigenous women in the “Cusco Women: Reality and Hope” tour, where tourists can visit Casa Mantay, a local NGO that supports teenage mothers and their children by providing shelter, food, education, and apprenticeships at workshops. The workshops enable the young mothers to acquire the skills for a job that can support themselves and their children. During the full-day tour of Casa Mantay, tourists will be able to visit the workshops where the women produce leather products and learn about the history and organization of the Mantay House, bringing income and beneficial cultural exposure to those who work there.

Cusco Women in Casa Mantay
Photo by Alternative Peru

In this tour, some Cusco women would also demonstrate the local weaving process. Weaving is an important cultural tradition in Peru. The weaving skills have been passed down through generations. The design and color of textiles vary from region to region, and they play an important role in defining community identity and inheriting community culture. Many of the symbols depicted on the weavings are visual metaphors, representing the relationship between the indigenous people and the surrounding physical and spiritual world. The tourists can purchase the weavings made by the Cusco women, such as sweaters and embroideries.

This project not only provides Cusco women with additional income but also increasing their pride in their community and culture. A large number of indigenous children tend to resettle in Lima, an area with abundance of educational and medical resources. “Once they settle down in Lima, they will never come back, leaving the elderly in their indigenous communities, and as a result, their communities and cultures are dying”, said Natalie. Nevertheless, Alternative Peru is committed to enhance indigenous people’s cultural confidences and self-identity as a part of indigenous communities by means of tourism. Local women felt the interest and attention of people from all over the world, and the admiration of tourists also made more women willing to participate in cultural protection projects. “These women in Cusco are really, really special.” Alfredo Bendezu who works at Alternative Peru said sincerely and proudly.

Alternative Peru also attaches great importance to environmental protection. 20% of Peru’s national GDP comes from mining (Swenson, 2011), and the damages they have been causing to the environment are non-neglectable. Alternative Peru’s goal is to provide an alternative livelihood activity for indigenous people.

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the daily business operations of Alternative Peru. According to Natalie, in 2019, the organization host three or four groups of visitors per week. At the beginning of the pandemic, no visitors went to Peru for entertainment for at least six months, and as the target market of Alternative Peru is middle-class foreign tourists, they have barely hosted any tours. While the tourists have started coming to Peru in recent months, the staff also have concerns about the potential risks brought to the communities as most of them are not yet vaccinated.

Alfredo told us in the interview that an indigenous woman created a social project to provide children with free breakfast. At five or six o’clock in the morning, orphans or children who can’t afford breakfast will come to her house, and she will give them breakfast. Indigenous women are an indispensable part of the Peruvian community, and women’s empowerment is important to society. “There are so many women who have decided to help out there community instead of focusing on themselves or their families to move away from the poverty, they decided to stay there to help the community,” said Natalie. We need to acknowledge the contribution made by indigenous women, and help them to live the life they deserve, without any form of gender discrimination.


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