Young adults form the main group susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases in Cusco, Peru. In 2008, there were 86 recognized cases of AIDS; however, UNICEF estimates that there are about 1,000 people stricken by the disease. The Health Education Program through Peru 109 teaches people about hygiene, contraception and relationships. Last summer, I collaborated with impoverished rural communities (they comprise about 75 percent of Cusco's population) and universities to coordinate better health education systems. Because of the prevalence of machismo and the stigma associated with "sex" discussions in Latin-American culture, sexually transmitted diseases are not the only problem in Cusco; the high rates of domestic violence among spouses and family members is alarmingly high for being the 21st century.
I, along with Washington and Lee students Chris Washnock and Marcus Newsome, traveled across the equator to try to change that mentality. We went through a non-profit organization called Peru 109. Peru 109 is mostly responsible for placing interns with work in clinics, domestic abuse shelters, elementary schools and orphanages. I primarily worked for La Casa de Acogida Kausakasun, which is a domestic abuse shelter for girls, mothers and their children. My goal to market better health education systems was a stretch from reality considering non-profit organizations in third-world countries like Peru differ from non-profits in America, which are better managed.
The amount of red tape we faced in hospitals along with holidays, strikes and parades slowed our efficiency. I had come with certain expectations of how I wanted to implement my ideas, such as marketing the shelter and communicating with hospitals for sponsorship, but the process took much longer. In the first week alone, we helped paint and restore the building in the mornings. During the afternoons on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we read to the kids who have been abused. We created activities for them that would enhance their imagination. My first day, we read Spanish books and taught them how to create a paper chain of construction paper. The second day, we read books again and had a going away party for two interns from Montana. Despite the extreme poverty and abuse they have faced, the children amuse themselves with what little toys the shelter had. These daily activities were helpful short-term, but our long-term projects were yet to begin.
To start our bigger projects, we had to push through obstacles such as the holidays and the countless excuses. I decided to interview the women directly at the shelter and spoke to the interns regarding prior attempts to market the shelter to victims of abuse. One of the other interns and I collaborated to analyze the previous brochures and advertising materials. The advice they had given emphasized more preventative measures such as establishing a healthy relationship and communicating with your significant other, a piece of advice no longer relevant to domestic abuse cases. The angle of the pie charts and statistics were similarly unhelpful. For example, one pie chart mapped out possible reasons why women are abused, such as jealousy or financial troubles. This pie chart makes it seem as if it is the woman's fault or that jealousy justifies for such unforgivable behavior. The chart implies that if these "reasons" are fixed, then the violent abuse will stop. In reality, these are not reasons for why men abuse women; these are factors that provoke such behavior.
We removed such bias and focused more on advice on how to get help after the abuse begins as well as potential signs that a loved one can be an abuser. For the front cover, we replaced happy pictures of women with a bruised Peruvian woman. I searched for local clinics and hospitals to sponsor this project because color printing expenses are exorbitant in Cusco. Unfortunately, they were either uninterested or gave us a long procedure of how to apply for sponsorship that would take months. Fortunately, Juan Carlos and Julia, the director of the Kausakasun shelter, used their funds to pay for these brochures. As excited as I was seeing the finished product, I wanted to start a greater propaganda campaign, similar to the "got milk" campaign, but for domestic abuse.
The poster I designed that Peru 109 published reads "Inaction equals enslavement and action equals freedom, it is your life." We printed out the posters and displayed them in local institutes around town, targeting high school and college students. I also began going to classes with these posters and giving quick seminars about healthy relationships. The amount of whistles, catcalls and disrespect directed towards me when I walked into a classroom of about 30 boys (ranging from 17 to 22 years) alarmed me. Their behavior proved that if they begin objectifying women at this age, they will not have respectful relationships. For most, I made a positive impact but a small minority was infuriated with how bold and independent I was. Despite this minority, I feel I successfully prevented at least one boy from becoming an abuser. Change is gradual, but I saw hope.