Indigenous Women and the Fight for Economic Inclusion in Peru

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Last October U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Peru. Clinton’s Peru trip barely made the headlines, but her remarks deserve attention and continue to ring true worldwide, especially in Latin America.

On her agenda: discussing bilateral and regional cooperation and delivering a keynote on women’s financial inclusion. In her remarks, she emphasized that economic strength is derived from social inclusion, and “at the heart of social inclusion [is] a commitment to women and girls.” But unfortunately the world’s attention was elsewhere, caught up in controversy over Libya and other regional priorities.

Even with a global economic downturn, between 2000 and 2010 economic growth in Latin America remained strong and inequality decreased. One major contributor to this trend was greater women’s participation in the workforce. During this period women’s labor participation increased 15 percent. Without this increase, the World Bank estimated that by 2010 extreme poverty in the region would have been 30 percent higher.

Despite these achievements, greater social and economic inclusion does not extend to all women, and weak institutions and a lack of legal education and secure property rights continue to disadvantage many. This is particularly true for indigenous women. For example in Peru, according to a recent study by ILD, indigenous women are among the most socially and economically excluded groups: in rural areas, 67 percent of women do not have an income, compared to only 5 percent of men.

To address these issues, CIPE partnered with the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) to support indigenous women’s entrepreneurial and advocacy capacity, with a focus on supporting women’s business associations. With a clear need for economic and social empowerment, emerging indigenous women’s organizations provide an important avenue for reaching the most women and supporting their ability to organize around policy priorities.

Working to empower indigenous women and to build the capacity of women’s organizations, over the last few months ILD and CIPE held two training workshops, one in the Amazonian region in Iquitos, and one in the Andes in Cuzco. Using a new manual developed by ILD, the workshops provided participants with the legal and economic tools to recognize themselves as entrepreneurs, to identify the rights that they have, and to press for the removing of the obstacles that affect their economic development.

In the Amazon, the main economic opportunities for the 43 women who attended the workshop — one traveling for 4 days to reach Iquitos — are arts, crafts, and agriculture. Most of these are informal businesses, making it extremely difficult for the women to access capital or credit, and next to impossible to scale-up their businesses. The workshop provided them with the opportunity to network with other women and to learn about their legal and property rights. For many, this was the first time they had become aware that they have the same right as men in their community to own land and participate in community affairs.

At the Cuzco workshop, the economic livelihoods of the 45 women from the Andes region were mainly handicrafts and raising guinea pigs (a local delicacy). Like their Amazonian counterparts, many of the participants were unaware that they had the same rights as men to participate in politics and own land. After two days of intensive training, they went back to their communities quite clear that legally they have equal rights, and with simple tools for how to protect these rights.

Broadly, participants at both workshops did not identify themselves as entrepreneurs or as members of the private sector. While labels may seem cosmetic, identifying with both of these groups is important for any business in terms of advocating for policy change and organizing for greater business benefits.

As a result of the workshops, ILD and CIPE hope that women in rural and native communities will be more conscious regarding the importance of being active agents of their development and become autonomous and self-reliant decision-makers and economic agents.

In Peru and beyond, it is impossible to build a truly inclusive democracy without including women, a group that extends from metropolitan elites to students to indigenous businesswomen. As Clinton put it, committing to women and girls in a community is at the heart of social and economic inclusion, and is also at the heart of economic and social prosperity for all.

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