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The rites of the land

· The daily life of Andean women ·

This article was written for “Women Church World” by the team of catechists of the Parish of “San Francesco de Asis”, Ocopilla, Huancayo, Peru.

The extreme poverty in which the women who live in the Andes must provide for family needs also has as a consequence the difficulty of access to education and the lack of attention to physical and mental health.

Given the poverty of the rural zones – it reaches 66 per cent and extreme poverty 30 percent – women lack rights although they are protagonists in feeding the family: in fact, for thousands of years country women in the Andes have played an important role in the field of food security and sovereignty; they contribute to the exercise of people’s right to food and support proposals made to ensure that people decide on the type of production for their sustenance.

However, this role is neither recognized nor valued, by either their communities or the State: women are excluded from the owning land and from access to water, from decision making and from training in the technological field. From childhood they bear the burden of domestic work and the care of the family, even though this means neglecting themselves and their health and setting aside their aspirations.

Physical, psychological and sexual abuse and incest, very often following forced pregnancies for girls and adolescents, the slave trade for the purposes of sexual exploitation and femicide are some of the daily expressions of violence against women in the Andean countryside. Impunity for the perpetrators of such events is the norm, not only because of women’s ignorance of their rights and of the laws that protect them, but also because of a “macho” kind of society and the weak and ineffective presence and action of the State, which even goes so far as to deny victims the right to justice.

The right to a life free of violence is therefore far from being a concrete reality for Andean women in the countryside. The legislation in force, which corresponds to a Western, urban vision, has not included the intercultural perspective. To this may be added the lack of training and sensitization of the operators responsible for the prevention of and sanctions for acts of violence. It is a culture that considers discrimination and the abuse of children, adolescents, young people and adult women to be normal.

In spite of the law which prohibits it, still today women who decide to denounce their own partner, even in cases of sexual violence, are advised to seek reconciliation, and the penalty imposed on their aggressors is limited to fines or days of community work.

The civil status of Andean women is a problem: 78 per cent of mothers who gave birth in public hospitals and clinics in Peru between January and October 2013 had the civil status of “cohabitee”, only 9 per cent that of “spouse” (data of the Health Ministry). In the same period single women also gave birth (12.26 per cent), separated women (0.23 per cent), widows or divorcees (0.04 per cent), again on the basis of the figures provided by the Andean Agency.

The large number of women who give birth with the civil status of “cohabitee” reveals the frailty and vulnerability of families, but at the same time sheds light on the greater autonomy of women who today work more than they did in the past and are financially independent, also with regard to maternity. The problem is that if cohabitation is associated with poverty, the family is easily broken up and it is the women and children who pay the price.

Despite these obstacles, however, Andean women play an important role within the economy, since it is they who administer the family resources, and also more generally, in holding increasingly important positions in the business sector, in scientific and academic research, and even at the level of government administration.

According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informática [national institute of statistics and information technology] (INEI), every year 187,000 women enter the work market and represent 44.3 per cent of the country’s economically active population; 65.5 per cent of them work in the service and business sectors, while 14 per cent are dedicated to farming; 35.6 per cent of women are independent workers, while 36 per cent are salaried workers.

The Women’s Economic Opportunity Index, elaborated by The Economist Intelligence Unit — which evaluates the factors that condition women’s access to economic opportunities within the formal sector of every economy – puts Peru in the 56th place at the world level and in the 10th place at the level of the American continent.

The United Nations Organization, for gender equality and the emancipation of women puts Peru in the 49th place with regard to women’s participation in ministerial offices alongside Haiti, Italy, Romania and South Sudan) and in the 58th place as regards the number of women present in Parliament (28 women out of a total of 130 seats).

The participation of women has undoubtedly increased in recent years but there are still many open questions, such as, for example, that of access to higher education, which only 28 per cent of women achieve, and that of access to health-care insurance which must be guaranteed for a larger percentage than the current one which is only 67 per cent (SIS, Es Salud and others).

In a culture that sees the interweaving of traditional religious ceremonies and Christian liturgies transmitted by missionaries, women play a role that is far from secondary.

Religious life is articulated in two phases: one from April to August (the dry period, of harvests and good health), and the other from September to March (the rainy period, for sowing, illnesses and death). Between these two phases is a period of transition. These periods permeate the life of Andean women to the point that they determine the date of marriages, which are celebrated between April and August.

The liturgical calendars of the Andes follow the most important moments of the Catholic liturgical cycle which is reconciled with the phases of agricultural life: a first and important period of harvests-dry season, a second which is the season defined by rains-sowing period, and between the two a moment of separation and transition (the first period extends from April to June, then August comes, and then there is the second period, from September to March).

Once the harvest has been gathered in, after the storage of agricultural products and the counting of livestock, it is necessary to fertilize the land again and prepare it for a new period of “pregnancy”, with a propitiatory rite that takes place in the month of August as a devotion to the Pachamama. In the Central Andes great importance is given to this divinity, to its feminine and motherly fullness, which is both benevolent and demanding. The people link the devotion to the Pachamama with that to the Virgin Mary.

During the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, commonly called the “Virgin Carried Upwards and familiarly “Mamacha Carried Upwards” the “payment of the earth” is celebrated for the Pachamama. The feasts of Saints Dominic, Lawrence and Jerome, celebrated in August in many communities in the Andes, also coincide with this tribute.

The third period of the ritual calendar begins in the month of September with the situa, that is, sowing with irrigation; the soil is aired and opened and then the period of its fertilization begins. With this ritual the people seek to distance and ward off the diseases, pestilence and mishaps that occur when the period of drought ends and the rains begin. Indeed disease, and thus also death, are connected with the rains, because in this critical period purifying acts take place and an effort is made to distance ritually negative influences and evils. The women prepare the sango, a dough made of maize flour mixed with the warm blood of a lama that has just been sacrificed. The face is anointed with this yaguarsango in a ritual manner, as are the extremities of the body and doors, the inside of houses and even some stored provisions. Then part of the mixture is thrown into the rivers to purify the water. The sango is also eaten communally, for the purpose of renewing the pact between the indigenous and foreigners and as a propitiatory act for sowing.

In the villages these rites of purification take place with the arrival of the first rains, considered excellent for the beginning of the sowing. Offerings are made, and it is believed that the first rains wash away illnesses, evils and sins, carrying them far off.

The role of women is of course highlighted and enhanced in the devotion to the Pachamama, depicted smiling: a smile which is that special feature of the faces of Andean women.

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