Who Says Only Men Can Lead? Promoting Health and Gender Equality in Peru

 {Photo credit: MSH}Graciela presents on the experience of her community in the city of Pucallpa.Photo credit: MSH

In rural Peru, persistent machismo—male chauvinism—often limits leadership opportunities for women. But in Monte de los Olivos, a poor rural community in Irazola District in the region of Ucayali, those now driving community development are female.

The change began in 2011, when Monte de los Olivos, home to more than 60 families, committed to becoming a “Healthy Community” under the Healthy Communities and Municipalities II (HCM II) project funded by US Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by Management Sciences for Health.  Healthy Communities increase grassroots leadership and management skills for health and development, as well as local approaches to promote healthy behaviors.  By design, the program requires that men and women share positions of authority.

HCM II offered trainings to foster female participation, and women steadily increased their presence at meetings and assemblies. Graciela Quío, 47, attended one of these meetings. Married and with an 11-year-old daughter, Quío had already been elected president of the Parents’ Association for the neighborhood school.

In the parents’ association, Quío was supporting health improvements and gender equity; confidence in her proven skills led the community also to elect her president of the Community Development Committee in January 2015. The same election secured seats for five other women on the committee—making its composition 100 percent female. The committee’s responsibility: to lead the process to become a Healthy Community.

“At the beginning, it was not easy because some men doubted us,” said Quío. “They would say, ‘What are those women going to do?’ and laugh. But, we showed them."

We organized ourselves to work for the health of people, to manage the assemblies, develop community plans, and to visit and motivate families to become Healthy Families. [The men] were surprised, but little by little we won their respect, and now women and men work together.

Monte de los Olivos has seen rapid progress among families that previously lived with poor hygiene and whose children frequently suffered diarrhea. These families now drink boiled water and wash their hands with soap. The community seems more united in its efforts for health; it is clean and features gardens and well-marked streets.

Said Quío:

Thanks to USAID there was a tremendous change in my community. I say tremendous because my community is now more united, cleaner, women participate in the assemblies, men respect us, and the children are no longer sick like they were before.

Both women and men in Monte de los Olivos note the difference—a difference ushered in through the leadership of women and a project that furthers both health and equity.

[This is 1 of 12 stories in the 2016 special edition Global Health Impact newsletter. Click here to read more.] {Photo: Gwenn Dubourthournieu}This is 1 of 12 stories in the 2016 special edition Global Health Impact newsletter. Click here to read more.Photo: Gwenn Dubourthournieu