High on an arid western slope of the Andes, Santa Filomena is nearly invisible from a distance. The cluster of straw-mat shacks is barely distinguishable from the surrounding hills. There is no water or greenery, and until recently, there was not even an electric light. But for nearly 15 years, the village has attracted settlers from as far away as Piura, in the north, as well as the local department of Ayacucho.
When Juana FernÃ¯Â¿Â½ndez arrived, she was pregnant and had a 14-month-old baby. Irma Menacho had four children; the youngest, Marisol, was just an infant. Primitiva ZÃ¯Â¿Â½rate had three boys.
They tell wrenchingly similar stories of their early years, of long days spent under the hot sun, scrabbling through discarded rock in the hope of finding the magnet that had drawn them to this moonscape village: gold.
"There wasn't electricity, there wasn't much water. We couldn't even wash our faces," FernÃ¯Â¿Â½ndez says.
Men went into the mine shaft armed only with mallets, picks and small charges of dynamite. Discarded rock was hauled out, usually by the miners' sons, who carried it up ladders in sacks on their backs and dumped it near the mine entrance.
Every morning, women would go to the rock piles, small children in tow, to pick through the waste rock, looking for pieces of ore. With luck and a good eye, the work could be profitable -- ZÃ¯Â¿Â½rate says she earned more pallaqueando, as the scavenging is called, than her husband did in the mine.
Children old enough to walk began to pick through the rock, too, first as a game, then to help their mothers. It was their first step into work as miners (LP, Nov. 19, 2001).
After FernÃ¯Â¿Â½ndez's second child was born, she had the stroke of luck of which all miners dream -- she found a vein of ore. A single mother, she went to work as a miner, boring away at the rock with a drill. Eventually, she set up a small business in her home, providing inexpensive meals, but when business slowed down, she still went pallaqueando in the afternoon.
ZÃ¯Â¿Â½rate's fortune changed when her husband struck a vein -- "we got a gram and a half" of gold she says -- and she decided to start a bakery, because the bread delivered to the community often arrived stale.
Menacho recalls leaving home every morning with her children to search for gold in the rock piles. She didn't even bother going home for lunch -- there was nothing there to eat.
The situation in Santa Filomena was especially precarious because the town didn't even exist on government maps. Although the gold rush had swelled its population to more than 400 families, there was no doctor and only a small primary school. While there is now a tiny health center and parents have built a secondary school, even today only one minibus a day makes the four-hour trip up and down the steep, one-lane dirt road to a town on the Panamerican Highway.
The turning point for these women came with a small revolving loan fund set up by CooperAcciÃ¯Â¿Â½n, a Lima-based non-governmental organization that has worked for years with miners, including small-scale, informal miners like those who settled in Santa Filomena.
"I looked for the woman in charge and begged her, with tears in my eyes, to help me, because I had so many children and we didn't have enough to eat," says Mercedes Capcha Luna, a mother of four, who had been trained as a beautician.
To qualify for loans, the women had to participate in a training program. That was the first problem -- their husbands, and in some cases the women themselves, considered the workshops a waste of time. ZÃ¯Â¿Â½rate dropped out after a few sessions. Others faced arguments at home every time they wanted to leave the house for a class.
More than 60 women signed up for workshops, but only about 20 completed the program and submitted proposals for setting up small businesses with initial loans not exceeding US$500, says Katia Romero of CooperAcciÃ¯Â¿Â½n.
One was Capcha Luna's coveted beauty salon. Another was the town's only "public telephone," a radio in Benancia Bautista's home that patches into the phone system. FernÃ¯Â¿Â½ndez expanded her business, while Menacho launched Santa Filomena's first gas station.
Success was contagious, and more than 30 women, including ZÃ¯Â¿Â½rate, finished the next training program.
"The women set an example that went against the current," Romero says.
Skeptics had doubted whether the limited market in Santa Filomena -- with its 1,500 residents, about one-third of them under age 12 -- would sustain the new ventures.
"There was skepticism because of the conditions -- no light, no water," Romero says. "But there was a tendency toward internal consumption -- 'I'd rather buy from a neighbor, who is starting her own business, than from someone outside who has a high profit margin and leaves nothing in the community.' So dependence on outside sources is being reduced and there's an increase in local demand and local quality."
The program has also helped withdraw children from mine labor, partly by increasing families' income and partly because the women agree, when they receive a loan, to keep their minor children out of the mines.
Perhaps the most important result, however, has been the women's increased assertiveness. In several cases, the combination of renewed self-esteem and economic independence led women to leave abusive marriages. They also began to demand a say in community decisions.
"It's been a bit of a shock for [the men], because they thought we were rebelling," FernÃ¯Â¿Â½ndez says. "We're women to be reckoned with. We're businesswomen and we have ideas -- and we have to express our opinions."