Digital tools amplify the voice of women in Peruvian communities

Perú’s ollas comunes or community-led soup kitchens – a community response to COVID-19 based on solidarity, tradition and resilience that is breaking gender norms – have embraced a hybrid way of working to ensure women’s voices are heard.

Pamela Hartley Pinto's picture
Pamela Hartley Pinto is a development practitioner from Perú
11 November 2021
Screengrab of a videocall with eight people in a meeting room and five more online participants

Online meeting to organise ollas comunes and community activities locally (Photo: copyright Red de Ollas Comunes Lima)

Lima’s ollas comunes – spontaneous traditional structures of struggle and resilience that re-emerged in response to strict lockdowns – have continued to grow.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 2,447 have been identified in Lima, serving 247,756 meals a day (website in Spanish).

Challenging gender norms

In Perú, preparing meals and feeding family members is traditionally regarded as domestic work, assigned to women and conducted in the private space of the home. Through the ollas comunes, it has become a collective and public act of survival undertaken by both men and women in the public sphere. 

Jessica Huamán, city council member and president of the Mesa de Trabajo de Seguridad Alimentaria (Food Security Working Group), points out that in the ollas comunes, men step out of their traditional role as providers, to help guarantee food security for their communities by preparing meals, obtaining ingredients, and so on.

The groups have also allowed women to adopt responsibilities beyond their traditional roles of caretaker, mother and wife. They have become teachers, advocates, spokespeople, fundraisers, activists and food recovery experts. 

A hybrid approach to community organisation

During the pandemic, online platforms have become the ‘new normal’ in education, healthcare and government around the world, with many organisations adopting virtual or hybrid ways of working. And Lima’s ollas comunes are no exception: they have shifted their social and political capital online while continuing to organise in person.

Community leaders in Lima, who are mainly women, are using social networks and online platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Zoom to organise their ollas comunes and community activities locally. They also use them on a larger scale, to connect with wider networks of ollas communes and advocate for people living with daily food insecurity. 

Technical support

The Food Security Working Group provided technical assistance for female leaders on three fronts: ensuring their advocacy work is heard by central and local government, supporting their daily work of feeding the population, and helping them develop innovative food recovery habits and urban agriculture.

Although digital literacy was initially a challenge for many women, local NGOs and younger community members helped with the basics of joining Zoom calls and turning microphones on and off.

Access to key actors

Digital tools have enabled slum dwellers to actively participate and collaborate in community organisation on and offline during the pandemic. In particular, they have been able to participate in meetings with key actors.

For community leaders in informal settlements, this ‘new normal’ has opened up spaces for negotiation and dialogue that were previously exclusive to those in positions of power. Now, their voices are heard and included in the conversation through built-in speakers and cheap headphones.

And while the audio may be bad due to weak internet connections, these relationships built via Zoom have grown strong, unwavering and grounded in months of ongoing virtual coordination.

These dialogues are rooted in one main goal: advocating for ollas comunes and declaring a nationwide food emergency.

Overcoming barriers to participation

Although virtual spaces allow community participation, internet access remains a privilege. Families often share a single electronic device that simultaneously serves as a virtual classroom, a venue for neighbourhood meetings and a workspace. And the geographical location of Lima’s informal settlements means that internet connection is often poor yet expensive.

But using innovation and social capital, community leaders have overcome some of these technological limitations, making the Food Security Working Group the most efficient and recognised virtual space on food security in Perú.

Convening a meeting every Tuesday, they have not cancelled a single session to date, and when necessary, can move the meeting in person in order to stage a protest. Establishing a set schedule on a specific day of the week allows households to plan their use of multifunctional electronic devices, thus ensuring participation. 

These weekly meetings provide a safe and efficient space for democratic participation and coordination (in Spanish), where community members and leaders can take part in dialogue between actors, achieve advocacy and implement key communication strategies – such as the #ollascontraelhambre campaign (in Spanish) – which transcend the physical space of informal settlements.

Greater digital access is needed

But for many, replicating these exchange spaces remains a challenge, especially in remote areas where internet access is limited. Lima’s ollas comunes and the Food Security Working Group achieved this level of organisation and success because they could get online, a privilege many Peruvian communities do not have.

As council member Huamán explains, female leaders got a place at the table because they were in Lima and had internet access. This allowed them to connect, even during the lockdown, and gave them direct access to the prime minister and other high-level officials. People in remote communities need internet access for empowerment and to have their voices heard.