By Ángel Pineda
The bicentennial of Peru sees a new president after an eventful electoral contest in which we chose among 18 candidates, a large number of contenders compared to the little that most of them could offer to the citizenry regarding proposals on human rights issues.
Thus, the second round of the presidential elections left us with two options with opposing positions on fundamental issues: Pedro Castillo, the radical left candidate, who affirmed in an interview that the focus on gender in the school curriculum would not be a priority in his government; and on the other hand, we had Keiko Fujimori, the candidate of the conservative ultra-right, investigated for alleged money laundering and leader of the parliamentary bench, who despite having had a majority in the previous Congress and the opportunity to generate momentous reforms in different matters, was with her party completely obstructive of the focus on gender and public policies on sexual and reproductive rights.
This situation kept organizations that defend human rights, women’s rights, and LGBTI rights in Peru worried, since both Castillo and Fujimori have stated in interviews and rallies their position against the implementation of the focus on gender in the government and the total decriminalization of abortion and equal marriage, just to mention some of the pending issues of the progressive agenda.
Who is Pedro Castillo
Pedro Castillo Terrones is 51 years old and is a primary school teacher, farmer, and militia member. He studied education and obtained a master’s degree in Educational Psychology from the Universidad César Vallejo. He gained public notoriety after leading the teachers’ strike in 2017 and 2018 which stopped classes for months with the demand for salary improvements and the elimination of teacher evaluation. He was active in Perú Posible, the party of former president Alejandro Toledo, and was a member of the Cajamarca committee from 2005 until 2017, when the grouping lost its registration.
Castillo’s reaching the second round surprised the Lima electorate, who were completely unaware of the Perú Libre candidate whom they were able to hear only after the presidential debate organized by the National Jury of Elections a month before the vote. However, for the rural voter, Castillo’s sudden rise in the last weeks was not surprising: it was the result of a campaign focused on visiting the remote areas of the country and the promise of a change under the leadership of a peasant, teacher, and provincial candidate.
With a radical leftist and socially conservative stance, the Perú Libre party proposes a strong, decentralized, and “anti-imperialist” state which would put an end to business monopolies and labor exploitation. They seek the formation of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, propose a new economic regime (called Popular Economy With Markets), free state school and university education, and access to universal, free, and quality public health care.
However, his proposals on education and health seemed to maintain a conservative essence, since neither the right to abortion nor the focus on gender were addressed, as he stated in a declaration to local media: “The focus on gender is not our priority. It has to be submitted, in any case, to the National Constituent Assembly so that it can be debated”.
Furthermore, Castillo has stated on previous occasions that the legalization of abortion could be debated in a Constituent Assembly he plans to establish, despite the fact that 2020 polls show a 48% support for and a 40% rejection of decriminalization. But he warns: “Personally, I do not agree”. And about equal rights to marriage, he states: “Even worse – first the family”.
Much orthodox left and very few women
Pedro Castillo began his government with a speech whose first part was in favor of the native peoples of the country. The second part announced a series of measures to be taken during his administration, such as the project to reform the constitution. However, little or nothing was said about key issues such as the focus on gender, the right to abortion, and the rights of the LGBTI community and other dissidents.
The controversial and harshly criticized appointments, such as that of Premier Guido Bellido for his homophobic comments, place Castillo closer to the radical and orthodox left that the Perú Libre party champions than to the moderation he exhibited in the electoral campaign. His team is more confrontational than conciliatory. The appointment of Bellido had other effects, besides the criticisms of the democratic left that supported Castillo in the second round or the many shrieks of the extreme right.
Pedro Francke, the economist who had been translating Castillo’s message on economic policies to calm down the citizenry — overwhelmed with disinformation propelled by the traditional Peruvian media in the last stretch of the elections– refused to assume the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF), as it was expected after he joined the transitional team of the new president. Sources close to Perú Libre suggest that the swearing in of Pedro Castillo’s first cabinet was delayed because of an altercation between Bellido and Francke, as the economist refused to be sworn before speaking directly with the President and left the Gran Teatro Nacional where the ceremony was being broadcast.
The anxiety this created dissipated when, after meeting with President Pedro Castillo, Francke changed his mind and decided to become the Minister of Economy. Hours before the ceremony, Bellido posted on his Twitter account the following message: “Eco. Pedro Francke has our full support for the implementation of the economic policy of stability expressed in the bicentennial plan without corruption in the country. We will work together and unity for the homeland”.
Pedro Francke’s swearing-in was highly symbolic, because he included in his speech the various topics that had been absent from Castillo’s presidential message and also from Bellido’s attempts to disassociate himself from his homophobic past. Francke’s address mentioned LGBTIQ+ rights and used gender inclusive language: “For a sustained move towards the good living (el buen vivir), with equal opportunities and no distinctions of gender, ethnic identity or sexual orientation. For democracy and national consensus”.
Having said, that, there are only two women ministers in the cabinet, so Peru ranked last among 19 nations in the region in the percentage of women officials for these high positions, in contrast to previous administrations. This reveals that the gender glass ceiling, which seemed to be broken, has been rebuilt. The only two women in Castillo’s first cabinet are sociologist Anahí Durand in the Ministry of Women and lawyer Dina Boluarte in the Ministry of Inclusion and Vulnerable Populations.
The limited presence of women in the current cabinet is not only worrying because of the quantity but also because of the placements. They reinforce care roles traditionally associated with the gender at a time when there is no justification for not expanding and seeking parity in the workplace, especially in the Peruvian state. With this new cabinet formation, we regress to 2001, when the government of former president Alejandro Toledo appointed a cabinet with only 6% women. In 2006, President Ollanta Humala included only 17% women, while the outgoing government of Francisco Sagasti left with women in charge of 42% of ministries. Today, Guido Bellido’s cabinet barely reaches an 11% presence of women public officials on the Council of Ministers.
The absence of women, on the one hand, and Bellido’s homophobic comments, on the other, clearly show something that was already known: Castillo, whose origins are very conservative and religious, does not consider equality and discrimination issues as a priority.
During his presidential message, Pedro Castillo made only five mentions of proposals on gender violence against women and vulnerable populations:
- National Entrepreneurial Women’s Program to grant credits to families affected by the economic crisis of the pandemic.
- National System of Care for children and the elderly.
- Recognition and inclusion of common kitchens in national social programs.
- Public funding for the comprehensive rehabilitation of children who are victims of sexual violence.
- Strengthening of the National Specialized Justice System for the protection and punishment of violence against women and family members.
Although these are necessary proposals to strengthen women’s economic autonomy and guarantee access to justice, preventative measures, such as comprehensive sexual education, should also be considered to eradicate violent situations. The positions of the current president of Peru, as well as the members of his party, on the gender approach have not only been sparse but also alarming on the few occasions in which Castillo or a spokesperson of Perú Libre ventured to mention the subject.
It should be one of the priorities of the new government in a country that has one of the worst records in terms of women’s rights, where, for the moment, abortion is only allowed if the life or health of the mother is at risk. Girls and women who have been raped are still prevented from exercising their right to terminate their pregnancies and are persecuted and imprisoned if they do so.
Access to sexual and reproductive health services is still very limited in our country. In addition, it should be noted that there is an underestimate of the real problem as many cases are not registered because minors are treated at home or have difficulties when seeking care at a health facility. Thus, this problem must be understood in its complexity since not all people can access health services due to factors such as place of residence.
Added to this situation are the flaws in the system as evidenced by COVID-19 in access to health services aimed at guaranteeing access to women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The first year of the crisis alone was devastating for women and girls: the use of modern contraceptives fell 20%, maternal deaths increased 42%, and the number of girls under 11 years of age who became mothers quadrupled, as pointed out in a study conducted in Peru by Promsex.
Thus, we are left with reactive proposals in view of the refusal of a new government that does not recognize the importance of the focus on gender as a preventative tool for the eradication of violence against girls, adolescents, and adults. During 2020, the Women’s Emergency Center (CEM) reported 13,843 cases of sexual violence, of which 8,448 cases correspond to girls and adolescent women under 18 years of age. Of these cases, 6,323 were of rape, 67% of which correspond to girls, boys, and adolescents under 17 years of age.
The truth is that neither Pedro Castillo’s presidential message nor the appointment of his cabinet without parity help dispel the deep-rooted doubts of organizations defending human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and sexual and gender diversity in relation of how the new government would address these matters. Times ahead seem, therefore, unfavorable and because of that the civil society will continue to claim these rights and call for the autonomy of the National Electoral Committee, of the Constitutional Court, of the Ombudsman’s Office and the (less and less) independent press that in decisive moments of the recent country political trajectory have guaranteed the respect for fundamental rights.
By Ángel Pineda, Peruvian journalist and LGBTIQ+ activist. Communications advisor at Promsex and administrator of the Latin American news portal La Mala Fe, a product of Clacai