Cover image for Intersecting Inequalities: Women and Social Policy in Peru, 1990–2000 By Jelke Boesten

Intersecting Inequalities

Women and Social Policy in Peru, 1990–2000

Jelke Boesten


$66.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03670-0

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03671-7

192 pages
6" × 9"
2 b&w illustrations

Intersecting Inequalities

Women and Social Policy in Peru, 1990–2000

Jelke Boesten

Intersecting Inequalities is an innovative, nuanced exploration of women’s organizations and state policy frameworks in contemporary Peru. By using the lens of intersectionality to frame her study, Boesten provides us with a remarkable account of how gender, race, ethnicity, and class intersect to (re)produce marginality in the lives of indigenous and mestiza women as they interact with public institutions, NGOs, and even feminists. Her interdisciplinary approach challenges the very foundations of traditional social science fields and begs us to ask pressing questions about how neocolonial societal institutions and neoliberal policy processes continue to stratify Latin American societies and create irreconcilable differences among women—the supposed beneficiaries of modern feminism.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
As the only male head of state to address the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Alberto Fujimori projected an image as a promoter of progressive policies to improve the condition of women, especially the poor, in society. And indeed, during his tenure, the Peruvian government did pursue such policies in several areas, including poverty relief, population control, and domestic violence. In Intersecting Inequalities, Jelke Boesten uses these policies as case studies, examining the relationship between gender/race/class/ethnic divisions and the state in its project of nation-building. Her investigation reveals that policies meant to further women’s development and emancipation often reproduced the marginality they were supposed to fight. She also explores the strategies women developed to negotiate with and challenge the state.
Intersecting Inequalities is an innovative, nuanced exploration of women’s organizations and state policy frameworks in contemporary Peru. By using the lens of intersectionality to frame her study, Boesten provides us with a remarkable account of how gender, race, ethnicity, and class intersect to (re)produce marginality in the lives of indigenous and mestiza women as they interact with public institutions, NGOs, and even feminists. Her interdisciplinary approach challenges the very foundations of traditional social science fields and begs us to ask pressing questions about how neocolonial societal institutions and neoliberal policy processes continue to stratify Latin American societies and create irreconcilable differences among women—the supposed beneficiaries of modern feminism.”
“In this provocative study of poor women’s organizations in Peru in the 1990s, Jelke Boesten raises most of the fundamental issues of transnational feminism and development facing the world today. Focusing on reproductive rights, domestic violence, and poverty relief, Intersecting Inequalities examines some of the ways in which women’s local organizations in the global South, particularly in Peru, have wrestled with authoritarian and violent governments, tangled with women’s national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and faced down mates and other family members who wanted to maintain existing social relations. Avoiding easy answers, Boesten points to some of the successes and pitfalls in seeking health care, freedom from violence, and adequate food supplies to show how women’s groups can promote either progressive or right-wing political policies. This gripping book is a must-read for historians of transnational feminism, policy makers, leaders of NGOs, and others hoping to create new institutions to solidify social citizenship and justice for women around the world.”
“An engaging bottom-up account of how social policies are understood by rural and urban poor women in Peru.”
“[Intersecting Inequalities] contribute[s] to our understanding of the relationship between women and the state in Latin America, and [is a] stimulating [addition] to our knowledge of comparative gender politics, expressed in [a] compelling [narrative] that force[s] us to abandon stereotypes and recognize the importance of history and institutions.”
“Methodologically rigorous and insightful, especially the use of audiodiagnosticos (life stories). Outstanding book, highly recommended for students of Latin American and women’s studies.”
“This is perceptive, admirably balanced, and a welcome counterpoint to much that has been written on the Fujimori years, which has focused—perhaps excessively—on the decline of social movements and of civil society more generally, the demise of established political parties, and the disintegration of the political fabric. It is also a virtue that Boesten branches out from the much-studied capital of Lima to include not one, but two, case studies from the Peruvian highlands.”

Jelke Boesten is Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.


List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations


1. Introduction: Intersecting Inequalities

2. The Peruvian State and (Poor) Women

3. Food Aid, Motherhood, and Women’s Work

4. Population Policies, Poverty, and Women’s Bodies

5. Violence, Democracy, and Resistance

6. Revisiting Women



Intersecting Inequalities

In December 2002, I approached the Comisaría de la Mujer, a special police station for women in the Andean city of Ayacucho. The officer in charge that day was willing to talk about the problems of women who came to the Comisaría, and the problems he had in finding solutions. At first, my impression was that the officer was a dedicated man who believed in the rights of women. The police station, which had opened in 1999 and was a huge success if measured by the number of women who came to report aggressions, was filled with women sitting on the two benches placed against the walls. Although the facilities were poor and the police officers could barely deal with the number of women they encountered on a daily basis, the women patiently waited their turn. I had come with Kelly, a Quechua-speaking anthropology student at the local university. Because many women in Ayacucho speak Quechua, and I do not, Kelly’s help was vital. In general, it seemed, these women had come to seek compensation in the form of a divorce, maintenance allowance, and money to pay the hospital bills that they had incurred as a result of the beatings that they had suffered. Some women sought protection. One of them was Dori. Her left eye was bandaged and she sat on one buttock, as the other was too painful to put weight on. Dori had a baby on her back, and she was pregnant with the next. The local governor of her district, also present at the scene, had taken her to the police station because, he said, Dori could not take care of herself or her children any longer; she lived on the donations of her neighbors while the father of her children did nothing to help out. Kelly approached her to ask if she wanted to talk to us. Before she had the chance to answer, the police officer in charge intervened. He started to speak to her in Spanish with a raised voice so that everyone in the office—and probably anyone outside the office, where the aggressor was waiting—could hear that Dori had been beaten up by her husband for many years very severely and that she had come to the police station only because the local governor had brought her. We all learned that Dori had been stupid enough to have stayed with this abusive man and that he made her pregnant all the time but never helped out financially. We also learned that the husband was not her husband, as he had a legal family with someone else. Dori, who could not defend herself in Spanish against the officer, sobbed quietly in her corner. When Kelly and I went out of the office in the hope that the public humiliation of Dori would then stop, the policeman drew up Dori’s accusations in Quechua and proceeded to talk to the aggressor, who was waiting outside. The man bribed the police officer so that he would not be charged.

Personal history and circumstance notwithstanding, the intersection of gender, race, and class contributed to this woman’s marginalization, and not only in relation to the elites in Lima: she was an outcast in her own town, her neighborhood, and even her own home. How was it possible that a special police office for women could treat Dori like this? Knowing the racism and sexism of police officers, what did she expect from her denunciation? Would she have come if the local governor had not brought her? Why did the policeman not speak Quechua to this woman, if Quechua was also his first language? How could he be bribed over such a sad case? What are people’s stakes or benefits in humiliating this woman? Why did Dori not run away from her partner? This book examines such questions by focusing on the intersecting inequalities of race, gender, and class in the constitution, reproduction, and maintenance of marginality in Peru. My main argument is that despite efforts to improve the position of women through prodevelopment and emancipation policies that directly target poor women, these policies are often severely obstructed by existing inequalities. I concentrate mainly on the 1990s, when the government of Alberto Fujimori implemented a series of projects directed at poverty alleviation and gender equity in an international context of neoliberal restructuring and UN conferences and treaties that sought to address women’s rights. The national context of violent authoritarianism and inequality, however, seriously hampered attempts to transform society and improve the social and economic position of marginalized groups, in particular poor women.

To examine the workings of intersecting inequalities and governmental projects of emancipation and development, I study three policies in detail—poverty relief, population programs, and policies against domestic violence. These case studies unveil some of the tensions inherent in the juxtaposition of development and emancipation during the 1990s, and show how, in the design and implementation of social policy, existing hegemonic inequalities based on race, gender, and class are both challenged and reproduced. The examination of the three cases of social policy also focuses our attention on the role of grassroots women’s organizations and their middle-class allies such as feminist organizations and NGOs in challenging the prevailing racism and sexism in Peru’s institutions. I first look at food distribution to women’s organizations such as comedores populares (communal kitchens), vaso de leche committees (glass-of-milk committees), and clubes de madres (mothers’ clubs), practices that started as soon as urban women organized themselves in the 1960s, expanded rapidly during the 1980s, and became institutionalized—and supported by legislation—during the 1990s. Such large-scale and institutionalized food distribution appealed directly to women’s roles as carers in the community and not to women’s actual capabilities as independent and productive citizens. In addition, the political interests attached to food aid, on both the international and national levels, often hamper actual poverty reduction. A look at the experiences of women’s organizations in poor neighborhoods in Lima and in highland Ayacucho, the center of violence during the war between Shining Path and the counterinsurgency of the Peruvian armed forces, shows how women negotiate their roles as mothers and caregivers, their struggles for survival, and the discrimination and abuse they encounter.

In a second case study, I examine population policies that were uncovered as highly damaging and discriminative. Internationally, population control was an important and long-standing concern dominated by Malthusian notions that emphasized a strong correlation between social, economic, and environmental problems and the number of children women have. In Peru, from the 1960 until the 1980s, population policies received considerable opposition from both the Christian Right and the anti-imperialist Left. One of the consequences of this opposition was an increase in the gap between middle-class women, who had access to contraceptive methods (albeit a limited number) and reproductive health services, and poor women, who had little or no access. During the 1990s, poor women were targeted through an aggressive national “family planning” program. In 1997, allegations of coercive sterilization methods in rural and poor urban areas were proven (CLADEM 1998, CLADEM 1999, Defensoria del Pueblo n.d). These policies reveal the tension between instrumental uses of women’s bodies as a mechanism of poverty reduction and the necessity to improve access to reproductive health care among poor and rural people. A study of women’s experiences of reproductive health in rural communities in the Andean province of Huancavelica adds to understanding of the sterilization program by showing how existing inequalities made abuse in health services possible.

In a third case study, I explore attempts to combat violence against women through support programs for battered women. The high prevalence of domestic violence in Peru suggests that authoritarian forms of patriarchy are fostered in and reproduced by the family, making this more than metaphorically the “breeding place” of a nation trapped in racialized and gendered inequalities. During the 1990s, much-awaited legislation against domestic violence was adopted and programs to support abused women were set up. However, as we will see, the design and implementation of the policies were at best halfhearted, and show how everyday violence finds resonance in Peru’s institutions. Racist and sexist notions of citizenship and rights are articulated not only in the slow process of developing legislation and measures against domestic violence, but in the response of the professionals who are subsequently supposed to enforce such measures. What happened to Dori at the police station in Ayacucho will be further analyzed, as will the personal experiences of other women in urban and rural Ayacucho. These women’s own interpretation of everyday violence and their struggles to stop it will be central to this chapter.

By focusing my study on the design and implementation of three social policies directed at poor Peruvian women, I expose mechanisms with which inequality based on gender, race, and class is, on a daily basis, maintained, reproduced, and, although often less visibly, challenged. These mechanisms are not only available to and used by authoritarian leaders such as Fujimori, but embedded in society and mimicked at all institutional levels, creating a myriad of hierarchies sustained through daily forms of violence and humiliation. Not only is racism institutionalized in Peru (Drinot 2006), but so is sexism. As a result, class relations are gendered as well as racialized, for example through domestic service. These parameters of hierarchy—race, class, and gender—intersect, especially in the lives of poor women.

The idea that categories of differentiation overlap and intertwine, that racial differentiation influences gender and vice versa, that class positions are often racialized, and that gendered discrimination differs according to class positions became a political and analytical topic among feminists after bell hooks criticized the idea of a “global sisterhood” in Ain’t I a Woman (1981). Since the 1980s, the fragmentation of the “category woman” and the relationship between social divisions have been extensively debated in feminist forums in the United States and beyond (Brah and Phoenix 2004; Phoenix and Pattynama 2006; Yuval-Davis 2006). These debates have led to increased awareness of the particularities of forms of discrimination, and the fluidity and historicity of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and other social divisions. The term “intersectionality,” introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, serves to help us understand the dynamics and productivity of such overlapping and mutually constitutive divisions and “aims to make visible the multiple positioning that constitutes everyday life and the power relations that are central to it” (Phoenix and Pattynama 2006, 187). These (hierarchical) power relations are hegemonic and normalized in daily life, and, as Yuval-Davis observes (2006, 198), “they are expressed in specific institutions and organizations, such as state laws and state agencies, trade unions, voluntary organizations and the family. In addition, they involve specific power and affective relationships between actual people, acting informally and/or in their roles as agents of specific social institutions and organizations.” The need to study women’s positions from an intersectional perspective is therefore evident if we are to understand both women’s position in society and their relationship with the state.

To analyze women’s position in society and their relationship with the state, we need to look at the ways in which citizenship is differentiated. Maxine Molyneux argues that citizenship provides the framework for “problematizing the changing relations between state and society” (2000b, 35). The study of citizenship has been dominated by the influential work of T. H. Marshall, who viewed citizenship as entailing “membership of and participation in the community” (Marshall 1973, cited in Held 1989, 190). Debate around Marshall’s theory of citizenship highlighted the necessity for looking beyond class in order to include race, ethnicity, and gender as differentiating categories in state-society relations (Held 1989; Pateman 1988; Yuval-Davis 1997; Squires 1999). Bryan Turner’s argument that the “evolution of citizenship was a contingent and variable process . . . in constant flux” (Molyneux 2000b, 35) showed that citizenship and the civil, political, and social rights associated with it are not self-evident and that citizenship is not a stable status that one acquires only once. In Latin America, as Abel and Lewis observe (2002, 9), “social citizenship is deferred as the substance of social rights is acted upon unequally or is denied, rights are subverted by fraud, and regimes play lip service to forms of citizenship for the sake of international recognition, aid or loans.” As such, Abel and Lewis continue, there is a “yawning gap” between rights-in-principle and rights-in-practice, perpetuated by the use of many Latin American governments of social rights to maintain a network of clients. Citizenship, and levels of inclusion and exclusion, are mediated through political choices and public policy and are, of course, highly gendered (Dietz 1998, 378–400; I. Young 2001, 401–29; Squires 1999). Policy is not a technical instrument that solves problems, but is embedded in and a reflection of the state-society relationship and the changes politicians and policy makers pursue in that relationship (Shore and Wright 1997, 5). At the same time, policy is often deployed as if it were solely a technical instrument and consequently often collides with the nontechnicality and nonrationality of the problems it intends to solve. Studies in the state-society relationship in Latin America show that expanding citizenship by liberalizing policy and legislation in relation to gender often runs up against existing social inequalities (Molyneux 2000b, 40). In exploring the particularities of the evolution of gendered citizenship in Peru, this book contributes to the literature on gender and the state. In particular, it links up to the literature that examines Latin American processes that expand women’s citizenship while remaining enmeshed in often conservative racist and sexist social and political structures (Lievesley and Rai 1996; Waylen 1998; Jaquette and Wolchik 1998; Craske 1998, 1999; Matear 1999; Dore and Molyneux 2000; Schild 2000; Craske and Molyneux 2002).

Recently, the study of gender and the state in Latin America has received increasing scholarly attention. Hidden Histories of Gender and the State (2000), edited by Elizabeth Dore and Maxine Molyneux, looks at two centuries of independent history and takes a comparative perspective, with chapters on Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, and Chile. Hidden Histories is a landmark in the study of state-society relations and the gendered nature of state formation. Since its publication, several in-depth country studies of gendered state-society relations in Latin America have addressed how women’s organizations formulate demands and negotiate a space within an often deficient and prejudiced state and its institutions; the nature of the relationship between feminist activism and grassroots activism; and how different ethnic and class positions influence the relation between women and the state and between each other. Such questions are addressed in, for example, the works of, Patricia Richards (2004) on Chile, Amy Lind (2005) on Ecuador, Fiona Macaulay (2006) on Brazil and Chile, and, with an emphasis on social movement theory, Carol Ann Drogus and Hannah Stewart-Gambino (2005) on antimilitary and religiously influenced activism in Brazil and Chile. These studies show how grassroots activism is often intertwined with the activities of NGOs and feminist organizations, while at the same time being in constant negotiation in order to maintain a minimum of autonomy. These studies also highlight how governments, especially during the 1990s, have not necessarily resisted widening women’s participation and, under the influence of global political trends such as neoliberalism and the formulation of universal women’s rights, are often keen to address women’s issues both in legislation and policy. However, these efforts are often constrained by existing inequalities and prejudices. Peru is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, but during the last decades of the twentieth century it followed the international trend in which women’s issues and gender equity were increasingly addressed using legislation and policy. Therefore, this country study will contribute to our understanding of state-society relations and gender in Latin America by offering valuable case studies that enrich comparative perspectives on these processes.

The study of state-society relations in Peru has long focused on class (Cotler 1992; Stokes 1995; Graham 1991), or on particular regimes (Collier 1976; Stepan 1978; McClintock and Lowenthal 1983; Kruijt 1994; Crabtree 1992; Crabtree and Thomas 1999; Carrión 2006; Degregori 2000). In an important 1998 paper, Jeanine Anderson discussed the contemporary history of the relationship between the state and Peruvian women. Anderson concluded that women were never really approached as citizens in their own right, with legitimate claims on the state; rather, Peruvian women “possess entitlements but they cannot be sure of being able to exercise them” (Anderson 1998, 94). Anderson did not look at how race, class, and gender intersected in women’s differentiated marginalization, but she recognized that political alliances between “disenfranchised groups” might be a way forward (ibid.). Anderson’s paper was written perhaps too early for a critical reflection on the gender politics of the Fujimori regime, but since then several scholars have evaluated the 1990s in this respect (Blondet 1999, 2002; Schmidt 2006). Both Schmidt and Blondet emphasize that political interests and personalized politics underpinned gender policies, creating an often contradictory and always ambiguous meaning embedded in Fujimori’s gender politics. Recently, Stephanie Rousseau (2006) has unpacked how these politics of gender have impacted on women’s citizenship, while Christine Ewig (2006a, 2006b) has looked at health sector reform during the same period. Both Rousseau and Ewig emphasize the neoliberal and increasingly authoritarian context (neopopulist, in Rousseau’s words) in which reforms have taken place. Maria Elena García takes a long-term view to examine the evolution of indigenous citizenship in Peru (2005), and in doing so, links up to the study of the dynamics of racial and class identities in a fragmented nation, as suggested by Marisol de la Cadena (2000). By examining intersecting inequalities, I intend to draw together the notions of race, class, and gender and show how these social divisions are intertwined in the exercise of citizenship. Although my case studies focus largely on the Fujimori period and a couple of years beyond, I trace the development of the policies directed at poor women to existing tensions between discourses and practices with regard to (economic) development on the one hand, and emancipation on the other. In doing so, I intend to highlight the deeper structures of inequality that highly influence not only the formulation of policy, but also the implementation, and thus the outcomes, of the discussed policies.

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