For tourists and other visitors, Cuzco has a special fascination as the ancient capital of the Inca empire. But social scientists know it as one of the areas in the world with the highest rates of violence against women.
Ten years ago, a group of Cuzco women decided to take an organised stand against all forms of gender-based violence, focusing on encouraging other women to report their abuse and get help.
"We used to keep our heads down, but now we're doing something about it. It's never too late to start," Elsa Mamani, one of the activists, told IPS.
Mamani is a shy woman, has been all her life. So it's even more surprising that at 52 she would become the heart of CODECC (Coordinadora Departamental de Defensorías Comunitarias del Cusco), a vigorous organisation of women advocates formed to combat the widespread gender violence in their communities.
CODECC works in coordination with the justice system and state authorities, but its 500 members - mostly women - are volunteers from the communities themselves who are trained to help victims in the difficult step of reporting the abuse and supporting them through the whole legal process.
The organisation currently has a total of 65 defenders units operating in six provinces, with at least 25 percent male volunteers.
The community defenders units receive battered women and accompany them to the police and the courts to file complaints. The victims are better able to relate to these women defenders, who are not much different from themselves and speak the same language, and the advocates are in turn greatly empowered. "We're there for the entire process; we don't leave them on their own until they get justice," Mamani explained.
Drawing on a law that addresses family violence and the Children and Adolescent Code, the organisation also provides legal and psychological aid through an agreement with a local university and partner institutions.
Cuzco (which means 'centre of the world' in Quechua) was the heart of the Inca empire. Today, it gives its name to one of the 24 departments into which Peru is divided. The city itself was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983. The department, in southeastern Peru, also holds the ruins of the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu.
CODECC is an independent organisation with direct financing from international aid, although it forms part of a larger joint project implemented by the non-governmental Institute for Legal Counselling (IDL) and the Bartolomé de las Casas Centre.
"I used to be an ordinary housewife, afraid of my own shadow," said Mamani, who is now president of CODECC, before listing all the achievements of the organisation in a region where abuse of women is commonplace, especially in rural and marginalised indigenous areas.
World Bank studies reveal that Latin America has one of the world's highest rates of violence against women. And levels are particularly high in Cuzco, where two out of every three women have suffered some form of sexual or physical violence, according to a survey conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 10 countries.
Data from Peru's Ministry of Women and Social Development indicates that the main victims are girls and women between the ages of 12 and 59 who have little formal schooling.
From 2001 to 2005, over 14,000 reports of abuse against women were filed with the Cuzco police. But the real number of cases is much higher, as most victims never file a complaint and bear the situation in silence.
Extrapolating from the number of complaints, however, it is estimated that 70 percent of all women in the region have suffered physical abuse and nearly 47 percent have been victims of sexual violence.
From January to May 2009, the government-run Emergency Centres for Women - multidisciplinary facilities that provide free, specialised assistance, guidance and prevention services for victims of domestic and sexual violence - registered 1,269 cases of violence against women in the department of Cuzco, which has a population of 1.2 million, with almost a third living in the capital.
Estimates by this division of the Ministry of Women and Social Development place gender-based violence levels at 10 percentage points or more above the national average.
Stepping out of the shadows
Mamani was one of those women who didn't dare tell anybody about the hell she was living at home. Then one day she was invited to participate in a local mothers' committee organised under the Cup of Milk initiative, a nationwide government programme aimed at providing a nutritional supplement to children under six and pregnant women. "I started getting more and more involved, and eventually I became district coordinator," she said.
That was in 1999. That same year she was asked to participate in a workshop on women and violence, which became the seed that would give rise to the community defenders units, initially formed in slums around the capital.
CODECC's work is recognised and backed by the Ministry of Women and Social Development, and in its ten years of work it has successfully introduced several projects in the local participatory budgets of the provinces where it operates, in addition to implementing a departmental plan to improve skills and infrastructure in community defenders offices.
Through alliances with institutions and women's organisations, it has also been able to press the Cuzco departmental government into developing specific policies, including a regional strategy on the issue of violence against women.
In 2006, the organisation received the social innovation award by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which carries a 30,000-dollar prize, competing with 1,500 initiatives from the region. "The award was a great boost for us, and we owe it all to Martha Galarza, the key driving force behind CODECC and its president back then," Mamani said.
Two years later, CODECC obtained a 32,000-dollar grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) - a Washington D.C-based non-profit funded by the U.S. Congress - for a project to strengthen institutional capacity and effectively advocate for women's and children's rights. In 2009, NED again provided a similar grant.
"Now that they've expanded, they want to strengthen themselves and de-centralise. Their aim is to obtain support from Cuzco's local and departmental governments," Roxana Vergara, who works for IDL and the Bartolomé de las Casas Centre and provides technical assistance to CODECC, told IPS.
But progress has been far from smooth, and it hasn't been easy for the women volunteers to reconcile their family responsibilities with their advocacy work.
Nothing comes without effort
"My husband would push me to choose between 'my friends' and him, telling me not to bother to come home. We've achieved a lot, but for many of us the price has been very high, because it's cost us our jobs," Mamani recalled, describing her own case as one illustration.
Mamani admits she spends 80 percent of her time working at CODECC, but that she tries not to neglect her duties as wife, mother and grandmother.
"I'm probably better off than other women now, because I have my own business, which allows me to bring money home and I don't neglect my obligations. My husband understands now, and my in-laws give me a hand because they see how hard I work," she added.
But sacrificing family time is only one side of the difficulties these women defenders deal with. Mamani also says that helping victims of violence is hard in itself because they often face tragic situations.
"I remember one case: a young deaf woman who came to us all beat up and bloody. I couldn't find the way for her to tell me what had happened. I felt utterly helpless. That case has stayed with me," Mamani said.
"After I'd tried just about everything to communicate with her and find out what had happened, I burst into tears," she said. Finally with the help of a Catholic priest they were able to get through and help her.
In many cases, the defenders have also been "threatened by aggressors. The police are not very sympathetic, and they'll just write anything they want in the report. If a woman is beaten by her husband, they sometimes write up the report as if it were a case of mutual physical aggression," she said.
According to Vergara, two aspects need to be taken into account to understand the importance of CODECC's work: culture and gender.
"There are cultural aspects working against the defence of women's rights, and it's particularly hard for their rights to be accepted by the community and the state. Many people are not comfortable with women being treated as equals. It's ok for women to help out, but when they start to voice different opinions, then they become a problem," she said.
One of the challenges the organisation faces is in strengthening links with other justice system operators, like justices of the peace and prosecutors, in the areas it works in, towards incorporating an intercultural, civil rights and gender equity approach.
"CODECC offers us an opportunity to better ourselves, to open up new spaces, give our opinions and say what we feel. This helps us recover our self-esteem," Mamani concluded. For her, that's the only way that Cuzco women "will win the battle against violence that is as ancient as our culture."