– It is nine o’clock in the morning and Mauricia Rodríguez is already peeling garlic to season lunch of the day at the Network of Organized Women of Villa Torreblanca, one of the more than 2,400 solidarity soup kitchens that have seen the day in the Peruvian capital in response to the worsening of poverty caused by the partial or total cessation of economic activities in the country due to COVID-19.
Until March 16, 2020 – when then-President Martin Vizcarra’s government declared a national state of emergency in an attempt to curb the pandemic – Mauricia made a living selling snacks and meals at a school , while her husband drove a rented motorcycle taxi, with which he provided local transport services. But overnight, they found themselves without means of subsistence.
They weren’t alone. In this Andean country of 33 million inhabitants with solid macroeconomic fundamentals, the pandemic has revealed structural flaws that cause deep inequalities. For example, seven out of 10 workers worked in the informal sector in 2019, with no pension, health insurance and other labor rights, and no opportunity to save money, like Mauricia and her husband.
As a result of health emergency measures and the pandemic, more than six million people found themselves unemployed in 2020, most of them in the informal sector in trade and services, where women play a predominant role. . In Latin America, 34 million jobs were lost that year, according to the International Labor Organization.
In addition, according to a report by the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI), poverty rose by 10 percentage points to 30%, pushing an additional 3.33 million people into a precarious situation, who could no longer afford the basic basket of goods, estimated at 360 soles ($92) per month.
Families in poor neighborhoods of the capital have been among the hardest hit.
“The already existing poverty has been aggravated by the pandemic. We saw desperate people, they had nothing to eat,” said Esther Alvarez, a lawyer in charge of advocacy at the NGO CENCA Urban Development Institute, who has worked for more than 40 years in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Lima. like those in the San Juan de Lurigancho district, IPS said by phone.
Soup kitchens have sprung up spontaneously through food donations and community organizing based on solidarity, reciprocity and a humanitarian and rights-based approach, combining efforts with local parishes, to respond to growing hunger in areas invisible to the authorities, in the capital of the country itself.
In Lima, where a third of the national population is concentrated – almost 10 million inhabitants – poverty has risen from 14.2% to 27.5%, and it is estimated that with the crisis, another 250,000 people are fallen into extreme poverty, unable to afford a basic food basket of 196 soles (49 dollars) per month.
Alvarez explained that in alliance with other institutions of civil society, they organized the soup kitchens that emerged in different neighborhoods of Lima, creating a permanent online communication space, which continues to this day, while promoting the formation of the Network of soup kitchens of the metropolis of Lima. .
The network and the online communication space allow interaction between the organizers of soup kitchens, mainly women, who have established themselves as leaders in the fight against hunger and for the right to food, issues that should be dealt with by the authorities.
Solidarity community efforts for a better life
The network of organized women of the Villa Torreblanca soup kitchen was born in the upper part of the Carabayllo district, located on the slopes of the northern hills of the capital. A few days after the declaration of the national pandemic emergency, it began to function in the wooden house of Elizabeth Huachillo.
Originally from Ayabaca in the highlands of northern Peru, she came to Lima aged 15 to find work and is now 40 and mother to Lizbeth, 17, and Tracy, seven. , she is the driving force behind cooking soup.
Huachillo used to drive a moto-taxi to support her family, but because of the lockdown she couldn’t work and they were hungry. “We had nothing to eat and I started researching how to create a soup kitchen. I searched for Señora Fortunata who is a well known and respected leader in the district and with her we launched it on March 23, 2020, she says showing IPS the fish that will be served at lunch today today.
Fortunata Palomino is 57 years old. From her native Ayacucho – a central Andean region devastated by the internal armed conflict of 1980-2000 – she was sent to the capital by her parents when she was still a child. She went through many difficult situations to move forward and put a roof over her head. She has four daughters who have managed to turn professional and she is proud to have been able to provide them with an education.
While she and her husband ran their household, she became involved in different organizations to promote the rights of local people, including nutrition and a life free from violence for women and children.
She knows the neighborhood and the fate of its inhabitants well, especially in the slums built on the hillsides where the houses are made of wood, the families have neither drinking water nor sanitation and the roads are not tarred. “The authorities are absent here,” she complains.
She feels like a survivor as she thinks back to March 2020 and the terrible uncertainty, anxiety and fear that swept through the poorest families in her neighborhood.
“We were the first to open a soup kitchen in Carabayllo, and many more followed, until there were 137,” she said.
In order to coordinate and strengthen their activities, they formed the Network of Soup Kitchens of the Metropolis of Lima, of which she was elected general coordinator. As of November 2021, a total of 2,468 soup kitchens were registered there, feeding 257,000 people a day.
“Here, in our soup kitchen, we served 250 lunches a day at the height of the crisis. Now we are doing 120 because some people have managed to return to their jobs as collectors, drivers or street vendors,” said Elizabeth Huachillo.
The solidarity price is two soles (51 cents). But nothing is charged in special cases, such as the elderly or people with tuberculosis. When women find out someone has COVID, they leave meals in plastic containers on their doorstep. And children orphaned by the death of their parents due to COVID-19 also receive free meals.
According to the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations, in 2021, there were 98,000 orphaned minors due to the pandemic.
“We are doing what the authorities should do because we could not remain indifferent to such desperation. Despite our efforts, it has been difficult to obtain legal recognition for the soup kitchens so that they can access budget funds; the law was passed last year and now is the time to implement it,” Huachillo said.
With the political instability that Peru has experienced in recent years, four governments have already managed the pandemic, and each has made achievements in coordination with civil society organizations and the Food Security Council of the Municipality of Lima, a multisectoral body that brings together social organizations, non-governmental institutions and the State.
Esther Álvarez from CENCA said challenges for this year include implementing the food emergency law and allocating a budget for soup kitchens to deal with the food emergency, and to bring the government to approve a regulatory framework that integrates them into a Zero Hunger Program.
For her part, Fortunata Palomino reflects on the post-pandemic world and suggests that the government should train and certify women who currently run soup kitchens in various activities so that they can join the formal labor market in the future. “We need our own income with jobs that respect our rights,” she said.