What I Learned Marching for International Women’s Day in Peru

Silent language: it is what the disenfranchised share.

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Crowds gather for International Women's Day in Lima, Peru.

A few months ago, while talking with an American friend of mine who founded a Peru-based nonprofit, I decided to make my first trip to South America. The three-week adventure was a mixture of volunteer work, travel and encountering a new and textured culture. When I realized that I’d be in Peru during International Women’s Day, I knew I wanted to attend the march in Lima. Upon my arrival at Peru’s International Airport, a Peruvian friend of mine almost immediately asked if I’d be interested in attending the march. I could barely contain my thrill. A mere hours after getting off the plane, I got into an old van with eight other people and made my way from the dusty, mountainous desert, where I was staying, to the city.

The energy at the march was potent, with women yelling in the streets and beating drums. There was such power in their voices, and that strength permeated the air, leaving me invigorated, energized and ready to link arms and demand clear steps toward equality.

The women (and some men) marched throughout the paved streets of Lima and convened in the Plaza San Martin. The plaza was full of life; in the voices of those who came, you could feel the fire of change pouring from their lips. In one section, women were chanting and playing traditional Peruvian drums in a circle; in another, people held banners high in the air; in yet another, there was a stage where a woman gave an impassioned speech about what this day meant to her. My friend, who was translating for me, leaned over and told me that the women had just said: “Today is not a day of celebration. Today is a day of work. Today is a day of pain.”

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My friend (the perfect person to attend this march with) also told me about the present and historical meaning of different signs and chants. One that hit me, in particular, read: “You didn’t sterilize my mom.” I later learned that between 1996 and 2000, while Alberto Fujimori was president of Peru, hundreds of thousands of men and women were involuntarily sterilized as part of a government program related to reproductive health.

Women's Day
International Women’s Day in Peru

The majority of these people were from impoverished, rural areas and belonged to Peru’s indigenous population. Many people didn’t speak enough Spanish to know fully what they agreed to. In some cases, consent was not even sought by practitioners. People died from complications, and many still suffer from related health conditions. Public prosecutors did not try the former president for crimes against humanity. Though he did serve some jail time for other severe crimes committed during his presidency, Fujimori was pardoned by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in December 2017.

Many Peruvian people view Fujimori’s pardon by PPK as a result of a deal struck by both parties. PPK was facing impeachment for his own alleged crimes and needed some of Fujimori’s allies to keep him in office. With aid from Fujimori’s politically active son, Kenji, ten people abstained from voting to impeach PPK, keeping him in office. In March 2018, PPK resigned amidst impending impeachment. For many Peruvian people, this transaction between two former presidents meant justice was not fully served. So the people of Peru march for it. Throughout the night, with voices full of strength, women called out: “We are the daughters of the indigenous women you couldn’t sterilize.”

Indifference is lethal to justice.

I’d never heard of this happening in Peru, and it made me realize, even more, how imperative it is that we learn of struggles that happen globally. This is something that International Women’s Day can highlight. We need to show up for each other. That’s what this day, marching in Peru, instilled in me more deeply.

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When the police showed up at the march, the impact of their presence was tangible. A few people were standing on a fountain, holding a red banner that read, Mientras La Burguesía Explota La Mujer Proletaria Se Emancipa: “While the bourgeoisie exploits, the proletarian woman emancipates.” The police came and ripped the sign from the hands of protestors, claiming this public space where marchers had convened. While they tore the sign away from those people, others yelled out, in Spanish: “Look, what cowards! Against their brothers! Look, what cowards! Against their sisters! Look, what cowards! Against their people! They show bravery against us, but not against thieves and killers.”

That night I learned about struggles I’d never heard of, but I also could see strands of similarity at this march in Peru that I’ve felt at home, too. One of the chants that could be heard that night was this: “Sir, Ma’am, don’t be indifferent.” Over and over again, those words were spoken in different contexts. “Don’t be indifferent.” This is a plea too often spoken by the disenfranchised. “Please see our pain.” “Bear witness to our treatment.” “Do something.” That’s what I hear when those words are spoken.

It cannot be denied that indifference is lethal to justice. The stoic faces of the police, amidst the emotional pleas of the people, was difficult to comprehend. My friend told me that PPK, the former president who pardoned Fujimori, made many promises to the women of Peru throughout his campaign. PPK claimed that they would receive rights, that life would be different. As part of his campaign, he slept in a humble home to prove his dedication to improving lives. But, like many politicians after they’ve won elections, the promises made during his campaign never came to fruition. My friend said PPK used the people for his own interests, and didn’t have a concern for the interests of Peru. These global marches are a stark reminder of the levels of injustice people from every region of this world face. Sometimes it seems people can get caught up in the issues that only concern them, but injustice should, and does, affect all of us.

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As police began to file into Plaza San Martin, I was trying to make out some words in Spanish when I saw some familiar words. A Peruvian woman was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. This is what I mean: we need to show up for each other. It struck me at that moment how impactful these global marches have the potential to be. They can connect our struggles. Being at the rally in Peru, I was able to gain a small glimpse into a few of the injustices in this region of the world, and though I struggled to read the signs and understand the chants, I couldn’t help but feel an element of familiarity.

Different marches for varying issues, across multiple continents and within many countries, all happened at the same time, and we spoke a universal language. International Women’s Day is not purely a day of celebration. It is a reminder of that common language that we speak; of the language that demands universal human rights. A language born of the aches and pains of generations of injustice; of the long and hard road of confronting treatment that cannot claim to be equal; a language arising from need but stemming from our ability to persist, to persevere, to live, all while changing the global conversation about what it means to be human.

The more I heard the voices of those who gathered that day, calling out together, the more the atmosphere changed. Language is powerful; it doesn’t always have to translate for us to understand each other or to have compassion for issues we have never experienced.

Silent language: it is what the disenfranchised share. I don’t mean to diminish the distinct forms of inhumanity that people endure, and the struggles people face are deep-rooted and varied. But experiencing International Women’s Day in Peru reminded me that unity and support for one another is not only necessary — it’s revolutionary. We can understand each other across cultures and continents because at our core is the heartbeat of this silent language that compels us to become allies, to seek justice for ourselves. It is this silent language that propels the global movement towards equality forward.