The case of Peru can be viewed as a laboratory for addressing a series of questions and debates on the growing participation of women in political and economic decision-making process. Over the last decade, under the undemocratic regime of President Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000), a large number of women served in senior positions—as executives, technocrats, members of Parliament and advisors. Women’s presence in these important public leadership positions contributed to a fine-tuning of legislation on domestic violence; promulgation of the electoral quotas law designed to ensure women’s participation as political candidates; development of reproductive health programmes; and promotion of credit, training and employment programmes for women from low-income sectors. Despite the prevailing authoritarianism, by the end of the twentieth century Peruvian women seemed finally to have secured their status as full citizens.
Fujimori’s official line was that under his government women would “be able to determine their own destinies”. However, these assertions have not been borne out by reality. Illiteracy, primarily a problem for women and the indigenous population, affects more than 25 per cent of rural women; adolescent pregnancy and alcoholism among young people have increased due to the lack of educational and employment opportunities; the high dropout rate in schools and the poor quality of education continue to be serious problems. A significant portion of future generations will lack knowledge of computers or of the Internet, with many unable to perform even simple arithmetic. The manipulation of statistics by a government intent on total control and on retaining power indefinitely concealed from Peruvian society, and from the world, the lack of development and persistent poverty of a major segment of women in the country.
The persistence of inequality between different groups of women in Peru suggests two main sets of questions regarding the importance and nature of women’s political participation.
- Is the emergence of women in public life effective in promoting the rights of women and in making gender issues part of the national political agenda? To what extent is such pro-motion determined by the type of political regime and by society’s level of institutional development? In other words, is the mere presence of women desirable, even when they are primarily responding to the interests of an authoritarian, personalistic regime?
- Do women constitute a discrete social group that can be represented as such? To what extent can “women’s interests” supersede ethnic, political, economic and social differences?
This paper examines both sets of questions, exploring the ways in which women from different social and political groups entered the public scene during the last decade of the twentieth century, and coalesced as major social and political players in the Fujimori dictatorship.
Throughout the decade, a particular scenario developed in Peru—one in which the political interests and will of the president, in whom power was concentrated, came into contact with a wide range of professional women and social leaders who, no longer afraid of power, learned to operate within those confines and, indeed, became part of the authoritarian regime. The interests of the president overlapped with those of major segments of Peruvian women. In a political context characterized by disorder and weak institutions, these women became important players. Their conduct in government, however, was far from democratic, honest and transparent.
In addition to the women leaders, hundreds of thousands of women from the poorest sectors were also willing to support the president as long as they were given assurances on specific issues, such as food aid, clothing and schools, and as long as more general concerns about authority, order and the stability of the country were addressed—issues highlighted in the propaganda of the Ministry of the Presidency (“Peru—country with a future”) as vital to their children’s future.