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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 September 2005, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Helping Peru's 'invisible' women
By Lucien Chauvin
In Lima, Peru

When Haydee Massoni attends meetings with politicians or civil society leaders in Comas, a poor district on the outskirts of the Peruvian capital, they no longer refer to her as Haydee or Ms Massoni.

Peruvian domestic workers take part in an arts and crafts workshop
Women can take a variety of courses as part of the programme
Instead, they call her "Panchita" in reference to a group she represents in the district.

Ms Massoni is one of four outreach co-ordinators for an organisation that is raising awareness about the rights of domestic workers, one of the most discriminated against and marginalised groups in Peru.

The organisation is called Panchita's House, and the name has stuck with Ms Massoni.

"Since I started working with the programme people call me Panchita whenever I go to a meeting.

"This is a sign that they recognise us, but there is still a lot to be done to turn this recognition into real progress for women," she says.

Much of the success of the Millennium Development Goals being discussed at a summit in New York this week - and which include gender equality - will rest on whether groups like this, supported by governments, can overcome the obstacles.

Scratching the surface

Panchita's House, or the Casa de Panchita in Spanish, was opened in 1998 as a drop-in centre for domestic workers. It is a non-governmental organisation funded by foreign charities, and runs on a small annual budget of about $20,000 (11,000).

While it has played a role in efforts to improve conditions for domestic workers, organisers say they have only started to scratch the surface.

Blanca Figueroa (right) talks a worker
Blanca Figueroa (r) says most people do not know domestic workers have rights
Blanca Figueroa, who founded Panchita's House, says one of the first problems is figuring out how many women (nearly all domestic workers in Peru are women or girls) are domestic workers.

"No one wants to identify herself as a domestic worker, because domestic work is valued only slightly over prostitution.

"Many of them don't even consider what they do as work and will tell you that they are just lending a hand to a relative or neighbour," says Ms Figueroa, who began working on the issue in the 1970s.

'Invisible'

According to Labour Ministry statistics, there are approximately 300,000 adult domestic workers.

In addition, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that about 110,000 children under the age of 18 are domestic workers.

It is hard for young girls like me, who come to Lima from the countryside. We are unaware of the law and people take advantage
Luisa Paucar, domestic worker
Ms Figueroa says a conservative estimate would double the ministry's numbers and believes that a new project Panchita's House is implementing with the ILO will show that many more minors are actually employed as domestic workers.

"Women and children domestic workers are invisible because they are inside the home and simply not counted.

"Most people do not know that domestic workers have rights," Ms Figueroa says.

Raising awareness

Ms Figueroa's comments are supported by the results of a survey carried out in January 2005 by the Centre for Social Research and Publications (Cesip) in Lima.

Of the people polled, 82% saw no problem with domestic workers labouring seven days a week and just 26% said that those who lived in should receive a salary.

Only 8% knew that there was a law on the books guaranteeing a day's rest and a negotiated wage.

The Peruvian government passed the Domestic Workers Law in 2003 to outline basic rights that must be respected.

Ms Figueroa says the law is a positive first step, but it is difficult to enforce.

The Labour Ministry, for example, reports that only 40% of domestic workers have health care, despite the fact that the law requires health care for full-time domestic workers.

A Domestic worker with her family at home in a Lima shantytown (Image: Panchita's House)
Domestic workers often live in shantytowns
One of the principal efforts undertaken by Panchita's House is raising awareness among domestic workers about their rights.

The programme offers counselling, job placement and courses on everything from toy making to English lessons.

Outreach efforts, like that involving Ms Massoni, are aimed at educating elected officials and community leaders about the rights of domestic workers.

Luisa Paucar, 23, has been taking part in activities sponsored by Panchita's House for nearly three years.

She says the programme not only let her know that she had rights, but gave her the strength to tell her employer that she wanted these rights respected.

"It is hard for young girls like me, who come to Lima from the countryside. We are unaware of the law and people take advantage. I received help here and I come every Sunday to support the new girls," she says.

Millennium goals

Women's rights activists say the difficulties confronted by domestic workers are part of a larger problem that has kept Peru from making strides toward complying with the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to promote gender equality and empower women.

Maria Esther Mogollon says the Peruvian government has focused on welfare programmes for women instead of addressing the real issue, which is the need to pass and enforce the Equal Opportunity Law that has been wallowing in Congress for nearly five years.

"We need legislation that guarantees equal rights for women, but the Ministry of Women's Issues and Social Development focuses on programmes that provide food or other forms of assistance.

"While these efforts are important, they distract attention from the goals of equality and empowerment," says Ms Mogollon, who heads a coalition of 15 organisations known as the Co-ordinating Committee of Women for Equal Opportunities.

Government figures suggest households headed by women are twice as likely to live in absolute poverty - defined as a family of four surviving on $1 a day - than households headed by men.

But Ms Figueroa says that meeting the Millennium Goal means seeing poor women, including domestic workers, not as impoverished, but as marginalised.

"We need to change concepts. We need to talk about the rights of most marginalised citizens instead of the poorest citizens. Women are marginalised and domestic workers are marginalised further," she says.

'Small steps'

Women's Issues and Social Development Minister Ana Maria Romero dismisses these accusations, arguing that Peru is making strides in reaching all the Millennium Goals.

She points to one campaign, the National Crusade for Names, which is aimed at ensuring that all women and children have birth certificates and national identification documents. Tens of thousands of women lack these documents, meaning that they technically do not exist in legal Peru.

"Having a name and an identity is one of the most fundamental rights. We are not working as fast as some would like, but we are making progress in guaranteeing women's rights and equality," said Ms Romero.


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