Poor Women in Peru: Reproducers of Poverty and Poverty Relievers

By Boesten, Jelke | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Poor Women in Peru: Reproducers of Poverty and Poverty Relievers


Boesten, Jelke, Women's Studies Quarterly


Between 1990 and 2000 in Peru, the Fujimori government justified governmental social programs directed at poor women with discourses regarding both the development and emancipation of women. In presenting these social programs, the government combined internationally promoted discourses of integration and equity in development practices with traditional notions of womanhood. On the one hand, the government saw women as being responsible for the biological reproduction of a social reality; they were mothers of the poor. On the other hand, the government represented women as guardians of the survival of the family and the community alike.1 The state used these popular images of what a woman is to treat poor, mainly indigenous or mestiza women both as reproducers of poverty in population programs and as poverty relievers in food distribution programs. By examining a minute book of a grassroots women's organization in Ayacucho, a region in the southern Andes and one of the poorest in Peru, I will show in this article how poverty relief programs were implemented and how women used their roles as mothers to expand their agency in a society in which social relations are over-proportionally built on divisions of gender, ethnicity, and class.

When examining the relation between developmental and emancipatory discourses in the promotion of social programs directed at women during the Fujimori administration, we will see that a modern rhetoric of equity was used for developmental purposes. The scholar Naila Kabeer argues that women's empowerment to achieve gender equality as an end in itself has politically weak winners and powerful losers. As such, developmentalist arguments for gender equality "would offer policy makers the possibility of achieving familiar and approved goals albeit by unfamiliar means."2 In Kabeer's argument, gender equality and development are equally important and equally pursued within the policy arena, although under a developmentalist discourse. However, as I will argue in the first part of this article, the Peruvian state has pursued developmental goals under the disguise of women's emancipation, instead of the other way around, as Kabeer proposes.

In the second part of this article, I will show what the role of targeted women was in the construction of womanhood in government policies and how women and the state used these constructions in practice. Women were not just "victims" of the government's developmental interests, but negotiated with local authorities over resources and the power to control those resources. Possibilities for agency did often depend on the agency of others-such as governmental institutions or the municipality-and their deployment of power. Women's agency is analyzed within its context, on the assumption that agency does not exist outside of existing social realities and hierarchies, but is shaped by them.3

As a number of scholars have pointed out, neoliberal governments, supported by World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, devolved many social responsibilities to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).4 In the case of many so-called Third World countries, this did not solve social problems, as NGOs do not have the capacity to reform or structurally carry out state responsibilities such as health care, education, or justice. Nor can they enforce the law.5 Still, neoliberalism contributed to the "NGOization" of civil movements, such as feminist organizations, and also of grassroots women's movements that took over social responsibilities of the state.6 In a sense, the alliance between NGOs and grassroots women's movements reproduced old hierarchies and inequalities between groups of people, as differences in class, education, and ethnicity were at the heart of those alliances. However, as I will show, the NGOs were and are also an alternative source for information, training, resources, and even justice.7

To highlight the character of the policies of the Fujimori administration, I will first examine how and why the government targeted women. …

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