In the shanty towns of Peru women must do what they can to make ends meet. For the women in ‘Luz y Esperanza’ the normal ‘double day’ has become a ‘triple day’. To the demands of family and work they’ve added the fight to improve their spartan communities. Virginia Smith reports. Maria’s working day begins at 3.30 am, when she boards the bus for the hour-long ride to downtown Lima from its northern outskirts; one of the many slum districts of the Peruvian capital. She supports herself and her family by hawking fish in one of the city’s central markets, purchasing them and setting up shop while potential customers are still sleeping. Every day she spends about $15 for fish and for her spot in the market. Today her total profit was little more than a dollar. Some days when fish is unavailable she earns nothing. When she returns to her community at one or two in the afternoon she readies herself for her second workday, caring for her husband and her five children. ‘There is always a mountain of clothing to wash,’ Maria says matter of factly. Despite an exhausting schedule, she looks ready for the late afternoon meeting of her Christian women’s group ‘Luz y Esperanza’ - Light and Hope.
The other women sitting around the table share her problems and her vigour. Two members of the group, Julia and Leonore, have also worked as ‘ambulantes’, travelling saleswomen who set up shop where they can, selling fruit, candies, combs, or whatever commodity is available. ‘The business of ambulantes is touch and go,’ complains Julia. ‘There are many days when we earn almost nothing.’ They, like other women in their neighbourhood, worry constantly about their youngest children when they leave the house to work. There are no day-care centres in the area and babysitting is too costly to consider. ‘Many women have to lock their children in their houses while they work, and there’s always a danger of fire,’ says Julia. The risks are high and the returns usually low when these women work outside the home. But they have few other options. Most, like Maria, have large families, and their husbands are also continually scrambling to earn a few dollars. The husband of one woman works as a night watchman in downtown Lima. But for most regular work is a rarity.
The members of Luz y Esperanza are acutely aware that they ‘must do double work,’ as Leonore puts it. Because they have banded together to deal with common problems, they really face a triple work load. The group meets once a week and sometimes more often when there is an especially pressing issue. ‘Some of us go to four or five meetings a week,’ says Julia. ‘Our faith, and necessity, and hunger, give us so much energy.’ Hilda, who works as a domestic servant, adds, ‘there’s simply no time to be sick or to die.’
Their slum neighbourhoods are officially known as ‘pueblos jovenes’ - young towns. About 27 per cent of Lima’s four million people are crowded into these settlements that have spontaneously mushroomed as Peruvians have emigrated from the countryside.
The name pueblos jovenes selected by the Peruvian government implies they are hopeful adolescents, suffering a few growing pains as they develop toward healthy adulthood. But as the years roll on the women of Luz y Esperanza realize they are suffering the pain of permanent deprivation. Over half of Lima’s population lives without electricity, public sewage or water systems. The women of the group five in neighbourhoods that with few exceptions lack any of these basic necessities.
Education and medical care are also luxuries for the families in Lima’s northern sector. ‘Some children never go to school at all,’ according to Hilda, because their parents simply can’t afford the $70 they need to cover costs for each child - a sum slightly less than the legal monthly minimum wage in early 1980.
Lack of water is perhaps the most difficult and dangerous hardship facing these women and their families. They buy water in small cylinders from truck-driving small businessmen, who are often shockingly careless about the quality of their product. ‘The water is contaminated, and so there is a lot of sickness,’ says Hilda. Typhoid and parasites are common in their neighbourhoods. ‘We can’t cure these sicknesses. because we don’t have the money to pay a doctor.’
The group has a 10-year history of contending with these and many other problems. The original inspiration for Luz y Esperanza was the local Sunday Mass where every member of the congregation is invited to speak. Some women wanted to continue discussions initiated at Mass outside the church. The members of the group were and still are conscious of the fact that they meet together as women. ‘We wanted to liberate ourselves a little from our husbands remembers Maria. As housewives, they feel they often have a more intimate knowledge of neighbourhood issues than their husbands. ‘The men are many times in Lima and so don’t know the problems of the pueblo jovene. The women have more responsibility in the fight for fight and electricity,’ says Leonore. But they have not split women’s issues from men’s issues and are convinced that in the long run they and their husbands are engaged in the same struggle for liberation.
Together they have moved from what they describe as ‘conscientization’ - development of a collective consciousness of their problems - to ‘politicization’. They began with neighbourhood issues, but have also developed an interest in trade unions and other less local concerns. ‘We have discovered in our studies who is the enemy and the enemy is the same,’ says Hilda. ‘We are involved when the miners or the fishermen - people we don’t even know - are on strike.’
Members have also started to attend union meetings in Lima and involved themselves in recent trade union struggles. ‘Some women went every day to the marches for the Cromotex workers,’ remembers Leonore. The Cromotex case developed as a major focus of popular resistance to government repression after three employees were killed when police stormed the worker-occupied textile factory early in 1979.
The development of their political consciousness is closely intertwined with their Christian faith. Regular bible studies have strengthened the group’s belief in Christ the Liberator’. ‘’Christ struggled for the equality of us all and gave us an example to continue the struggle.’ The women also firmly believe that Christ is the source of the energy they need to persevere.
Through its action and study, Luz y Esperanza has grown steadily stronger through the last decade. ‘We have learned how to conduct ourselves as a group, how to talk and listen, and appreciate each other. It doesn’t matter if one member has more knowledge than another.’ They also feel they know and are better able to defend their rights, a useful lesson in a society where the odds are doubly stacked if you’re poor and a woman.