Keith Ybanez – Andahuaylas, Peru
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
The truth and simplicity of Dr. King’s eloquent statement is hard to ignore. Dr. King wrote those words from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, but more than 50 years later and in the Andean region of Peru, they still resonate with me. In the last month, nearly on a daily basis, I have found myself wondering “Where is the Justice?” For the victims of domestic violence I have come across, that question has become a cry of despair.
Domestic violence is a serious, long-standing problem in most countries but Peru has one of the highest incidences of domestic violence in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly half the women living in Peru have been physically assaulted by their partners and in rural areas such as the Southern Highlands where I am currently situated; the percentage goes up to 61%. The situation here is exacerbated by the unique challenges of rural living including extreme poverty, isolation, and varying community and familial expectations. Access to justice through the formal legal system is also rendered difficult by geographical isolation, inclement weather, language and cultural barriers (between Spanish and Quechua), illiteracy, and the lack of adequate transport. Women are further deterred to seek justice because of a legal system that is plagued by inefficiency, corruption, and permeated by machismo and discrimination.
In some cases, machismo is so deeply-rooted that even women justify violence – if there is a “good reason” behind it. “The more he hits you, the more he loves you,” is a saying I have heard more than once since I arrived in Peru. It is also a widely held myth 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.
The organization I am working with, Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope), has been working tirelessly for years to provide legal/psychological aid to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, educating women and children about their basic fundamental rights, and operating a shelter for victims. In my visits to various towns in the mountains, I have found women to be open and honest about the existence of abuse in their lives. Their stories are grim and heartbreaking. For many women, it is apparent that there is a certain level of acceptance to the presence of violence in their lives. My feelings turn to frustration and anger when I hear how the women who are brave enough to file complaints and denounce their aggressors, are summarily dismissed or their cases ignored by local authorities.
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 domestic violence as a serious crime. Whether local authorities have simply been overwhelmed by heavy caseloads or the seeds of corruption have taught them to look the other way, the result is the same: an absence of justice that is inexcusable. There is hope that the implementation of a new Criminal Procedure system will help correct the injustice that has become far too ordinary. Although that hope is tempered by the reality of the past, I am encouraged and humbled by the work of organizations such as Paz y Esperanza and I feel privileged to work with individuals who are daily embodiments of the words in Micah 6:8 – “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”