CUZCO, Peru, Jun 8, 2011 (IPS) - Where is the justice? In Peru, a nation still struggling to recover from a sordid 20-year cycle of terror and political uncertainty, this simple yet poignant question has become an almost daily litany.
And for victims of intra-familiar violence - or every third woman in Peru - it has translated into a cry of despair. Countless are those who continue to be failed by a legal system plagued by inefficiency and delay, and permeated by machismo and discrimination.
But twelve years ago, dozens of women from Cuzco's overcrowded outskirts and rural highland communities decided to turn their indignation into action. Trained and empowered as Community Defenders (CD) by the Legal Defence Institute (IDL), they have learned how to help victims of intra-familiar violence by providing non-judgmental emotional support, as well as court orientation and accompaniment.
Planting seeds of change
Cuzco, the heart of the ancient Inca empire and the gateway to Machu Picchu, draws in millions of fascinated visitors. But most travellers are blind to the poverty and violence that lie beneath the Andean city's capital-of-culture mask.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a staggering 69 percent of women in Cuzco, a region where poverty and extreme poverty continue to undermine health, education and development, have suffered physical or sexual violence, or both. And 23 percent of adolescent girls 15 or younger have suffered sexual violence.
The IDL project, which aims to halt the intergenerational reproduction of violence, operates with an innovative and simple methodology: working from the community, for the community. Because they are directly involved and concerned, community members have become active participants and stakeholders in their future, rather than passive beneficiaries.
"I feel respected and empowered to make a difference. For the first time in my life, I have felt like a protagonist, like an agent of change," said Guadalupe Cuba, a CD who is in her fifties.
Since 1999, CD teams, or units, have grown from eight to 65, and the number of CDs from 40 to 450. Trained to understand the cycle of domestic abuse, these volunteers have offered orientation and/or accompaniment to more than 36,000 victims of intra-familiar violence; mainly impoverished, Quechua-speaking girls and women aged 12 to 59, with little or no schooling.
"I carry every victim's story in my heart and soul. I remember every detail, ever tear, every bruise. I know what violence feels like, and how it hurts. And sometimes, because of all the corruption and impunity, I feel like taking justice into my own hands," said CD Gladys Allasi.
Peru's justice system lags far behind other social institutions in correcting its deep sexist, cultural and racist biases. It is not uncommon for judges to resist qualifying intra-familiar violence as a serious crime, and the way a woman dresses, for example, is still routinely cited as an incitement to rape.
"The majority of police officers still regard intra-familiar violence as a domestic and private matter. They tend to interrogate and verbally abuse victims, justifying the physical or sexual aggression. Questions such as: 'What did you do to provoke him?' and 'What were you wearing?' are far from uncommon," said Claudia Rosas, a lawyer with the NGO Manuela Ramos.
Access to justice through the formal legal system is also rendered difficult by the cost of legal representation, geographical isolation, inclement weather, language and cultural barriers, illiteracy, corruption, and the lack of adequate transport, especially in Peru's Andean highlands and jungles.
According to a World Bank study, more than half of intra-familiar justice cases never reach a judgment, while many more do not even make it to court.
In the face of the state's shortcomings, many rural and peri-urban communities have relied on community-based dispute-resolution institutions, such as rondas campesinas ("peasant patrols") or justices of the peace.
Compared to the often hostile, time-consuming and ineffective official justice system, these institutions are considered easily accessible, fast-moving and efficient. But the rondas, because they are based on customary and/or ancestral law, tend to push for reconciliation and the restoration of community relations at the expense of more vulnerable groups, such as women.
In some cases, machismo is so deeply-rooted that even women justify violence. "The more he hits you, the more he loves you", is a popular saying in Peru. And it is also widely believed that women cannot be raped by their husbands or partners.
"Many victims don't come forward, out of fear, or shame. Some machista values are so entrenched that they keep women from challenging practices perceived as the norm," said Cuba.
Here to stay
Cuzco's CDs take on a sometimes difficult task of oversight of police and other public officials, proving that women in rural communities can also play a role outside the home. By doing so, they challenge the established social order, often triggering adverse reactions.
"Local authorities sometimes snicker at us: what do these campesinas (mainly indigenous peasant women) think they're going to achieve?" said CD Gregoria Guzmán.
As for reconciling unpaid advocacy work with family responsibilities, it is definitely not an easy task. But the CDs have succeeded in doing so because they are motivated by conviction, solidarity and empathy rather than monetary or material reasons.
"Being a CD has been a healing experience. I lost my sister to intra-familiar violence. And although I can never forget or forgive what happened, I find solace in the possibility of helping others," said Cuba.
With a focus on becoming self-sustainable, the Cuzco community defenders coordinating committee, CODECC, has put into motion an innovative training programme so the accumulated knowledge and experience can be passed on to younger generations.
And because 2011 marks the end of IDL's financial assistance for the project, due to the withdrawal of certain aid agencies from Peru, the internationally-recognised organisation has turned to small-scale fund-raising and has presented its projects to Cuzco's Participatory Budget Unit.
"I've been a CD for over 10 years, and it hasn't always been easy. But I won't quit. As I've told my son: 'I am planting seeds of change and, someday, you'll reap what I have sown'," said Cuba.