“We are deceived mothers” were the words of one of the 3 mothers that joined us during our last 5 day workshop with girls in Paoyan in mid July. “We did not know we could get pregnant.”
“This is why you have to study, so you don’t get pregnant so young,” another one of the mothers concluded in her language who was about to give birth to her sixth child. “I became pregnant when I was 14”, she told us. “After giving birth to my first child I had to stay home and was unable to pursue other dreams” she told us. “I became enslaved to house work and then my husband physically assaulted me”, she also told us.
I maintain the names of these mothers in anonymity for respect to those who shared their stories with such courage during the workshop. Stories that still carry the pain of what could have been another life. Stories that once shared, linger the ears of those new generations closely listening to their titas (mothers). Stories that express an urgent need to see in their daughters and other girls a different future.
According to the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP), each day 4 girls below the age of 15 register their newborns at said institution. This is an alarming statistic given that it does not take into account home births and/or those carried out by midwives in communities. The Shipibo live this reality very closely, which is why we decided to execute the workshop with special emphasis on comprehensive sexual education and the participation of women elders. We spoke about bodily changes during adolescence, sexual intercourse, contraceptive methods, and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), a process that, done together with the 3 mothers, challenged taboos and generated an intergenerational and intercultural confidential space. Moreover, we explored sexuality with a focus on bodily autonomy (“my body, my choice”), creating access to adequate information, so that they could make informed choices.
On the other hand, according to the National Youth Secretariat (SENAJU), 7 out of 10 women between the ages of 15-29 receive some form of violence on a national scale, and according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) Peru is the second country in the region to have the highest rate of femicide. This, on its own, is a chilling reality. It gave us the urge to create safe spaces in which we can strengthen each other as women and talk about daily instances of violence.
While talking about violence we learned to identify its different manifestations, ranging from physical, to psychological, to sexual. Through theater, we made sure to include situations that would depict its more subtle forms, such as street harassment, blackmail, and partner control. On the other hand, we also touched upon the issue of consent and agency, telling the girls that no one can force them into having sex, and that they should make sure they engage in safe sex. Obligation and forced submission are forms of violence, and this is why, as women, we need to foster the self-love and strength necessary to deal with mistreatment.
The workshop was very special because it was not only about bringing relevant information, but also generating important trust relationships so that they could feel safe when asking uncomfortable questions. Moreover, through music and play, we healed and forged love and compassion, fostering a culture of strength and mutual support. This allowed the girls to evolve from expressing shyness and lack of confidence, to expressing self-love, self-confidence, and the desire to be better.
This ongoing evolution (that of course does not start or end with the workshop) is crucial, since we know that only with a strengthened spirit is how women can exercise autonomy over their lives, their bodies, and put a stop to the violence that affects them. It was important to tell the girls that they are the only ones that can decide over the course of their lives, including their sexual initiation, maternity, their partners, and their future plans. They also recognized that they are the ones who must take charge and transform their own communities, regardless of the influence any foreigner might have. This is why we also explored the topic of cultural identity and the valuing of the ancestral knowledge that has been violently negated and minimized throughout centuries of oppression. We even talked about the “Rubber Boom”, which thanks to the mother’s testimonies, allowed the girls to learn about their own histories and understand that violence can manifest on a societal scale.
Towards the end of the workshop, the girls said goodbye with tears in their eyes. Tears that expressed the meaning that these 5 days had had in their lives, that served to recognize that sadness is not something that must be suppressed, and that invited us to support and hug each other, as well as share this experience with those who could not attend.
Continuing the work with Nomabaon Nete , specially in conjunction with the mothers (their presence was so crucial!) is something that must be done. Educating and strengthening each other as women is essential given the high rates of violence that we go through. Moreover, if a teenager becomes pregnant, she will lessen her ability to shape her life freely.
“We need more workshops”, was a message I read as we opened our “Secret Mail Box” during the last day of the workshop. With this message I remembered how one of the mothers told us that they saw a clear reduction in teen pregnancies with the girls who have come to the workshops. I also remembered how the mothers were enthusiastic about hosting their own workshops about sexual education with adults. Thus, we parted with the will to continue not only to do more workshops, but also with a longer term vision based on the exchange of knowledge, reciprocity, and the generation of a multiplier effect that will hopefully lead to communities running their own workshops. This includes initiatives to have older girls learn how to co-facilitate workshops for younger girls, empowering them to be self-starters.
May we continue to work in solidarity with indigenous women! Because when our sisters rise, we all rise.