Rosa Pérez was brought to Lima, Peru, from the country’s Northern Sierra when she was a child to work as a domestic worker. As a young adult, she moved to the farming region of La Libertad to make her own way as an agricultural laborer. Thirty years, four children and five grandkids later, Perez has become a bold advocate for her co-workers. She encourages them to document and speak out about problems such as sexual harassment and inadequate safety and protection equipment and training.
Pérez, secretary of Women’s, Child and Adolescent Affairs of the Camposal Workers’ Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Camposal), is a leader in a Solidarity Center program to empower women farm workers in Peru. Since 2009, the program, which includes the National Federation of Farm Workers (Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Afines, FENTAGRO), has involved training and advocacy activities with unions representing workers in export-oriented agriculture.
The initiative gained momentum after Pérez traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, last year to participate in the Solidarity Center conference, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.” There, she addressed more than 100 women from around the world and described working conditions for women farm workers in Peru and the actions that her union and FENTAGRO are taking to build a better life for women like her daughter, who works alongside her.
Pérez took the strategies she learned from activists at the conference to the farm worker federation’s leadership Friday, the eve of International Women’s Day. Along with the Solidarity Center, Pérez is recommending that La Libertad’s three unions meet with regional government officials and possibly employers to advocate for literacy programs targeting working women. She also plans to propose an awareness-raising campaign for men and women about sharing domestic and family care. The Solidarity Center has also been working with unions to strengthen their arguments for collective bargaining with employers in support of maternity and breastfeeding benefits that are codified in Peruvian law but not generally enforced.
Following the Women’s Empowerment conference, Perez worked with the Solidarity Center to identify 12 dynamic women from three export-oriented agriculture farms to take part in a Solidarity Center training this year geared toward building women’s confidence and strengthening their leadership skills so they can effectively advocate for women workers’ issues within their unions, their workplaces and their communities.
One of the workers who joined the training, Apolonia, is an elected officer in the Union of Agrícola Viru Workers (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Sociedad Agrícola Virú, SITESAV). She grows and harvest fruits and vegetables as part of Peru’s export-agriculture industry, which, in 2013, generated $33 million in exports to the United States. She advises her fellow co-workers, especially young women, about how to stay healthy and build strong families while working between 12 hours and 14 hours a day and earning an average daily wage of $12.
Apolonia and other participants in the two-day training discussed how they can improve workplace safety and other issues and shared their dreams about bettering their workplaces, unions and households.
Two weeks after the leadership training, nearly all of the women who participated in the workshop, including Violeta and María Luna, who had been reluctant to speak in public, co-facilitated small workshops with groups of their peers using the new techniques they learned from the Solidarity Center training, including public speaking and one-on-one-contact to encourage self-confidence and participation.
The La Libertad network of women farm workers now has a compact disk with the stories of 32 Peruvian women leaders they can share in small study circles or at worker assemblies and when training other groups of women. It is the beginning of a much longer process that already has helped a group of powerful women to find their voice and begin to use it.