Does participation empower? The example of community kitchens in Lima, Peru


Women activism is spreading around the world as an answer to social, economic and political problems. Many international donors, non-governmental organizations and women’s movements support these efforts, because the people on the ground can find the best solutions to local problems. Moreover, they claim that participation in initiatives has empowering impact on their members, social structures and political system. In this paper I will try to answer the question whether participation empowers. As my starting point I take consumption-based movements in Latin America, with closer look on community kitchens in Lima.

Women movements in Latin America

Despite diversity among states and societies across Latin America, there are certain characteristics that enable comparing different grassroots women’s initiatives in the region. It is not only the experience of military regimes and structural adjustment but also the culture of machismo and importance of motherhood that make them similar and encouraged the emergence of women’s movements throughout Latin America in last decades.

It is important to mention that women have been active since 19th century, fighting for their rights as citizens as well as against authoritarian regimes (Valdes 2004). However, this involvement was permitted within the boarders of traditional gender roles. It was hindered by culture of machismo (cult of menliness) that places women exclusively in private space, limiting their role to mothers and wives. Nevertheless, the identity as mothers helped women to build their path to public arena.

Latin American women are insisting upon distinct forms of incorporation that reaffirm their identity as women, and particularly as wives and mothers (…) In short, they are redefining and transforming their domestic role from one of private nurturance to one of collective, public protest, and in this way challenging the traditional seclusion of women into the private sphere of the family (Safa 1990:355).

It is not only visible on the example of victims of regimes who lost their children, such as Mothers of the Plaza Mayor from Argentina. Women have also a long history of involvement in urban movements, trying to secure basic rights and needs, such as right to housing. It is also happening on the local level, in neighbourhoods, where women have been transforming traditional reproductive roles into collective action.

These kinds of consumption-based movements started flourishing in the times of structural adjustments that dismantled welfare state, suddenly leaving women without access to services and subsidies. Women were traditionally responsible for reproduction and supplying inadequate income (Schild 1994). Their entrance to the labour market, encouraged by industrialisation, reinforced gender divisions instead of weakening them, by assigning women to particular jobs with lower salaries. However, the economic crisis even decreased incomes, forcing women to organize themselves in neighbourhoods in order to survive. This mobilization took a form of cooperatives and communal kitchens that enabled saving by sharing costs. Those movements derived from practical gender needs (Molyneux in Lind 1994) and were created to address basic needs not to undermine women subordination. However, as these practical gender interests are collectivized and politicized, they may also lead to a greater consciousness of gender subordination and the transformation of practical into strategic gender interests (Safa 1990:363).

This attempt to change structures transferred women’s movement from consumption only to political action. However, they rarely tried to join traditional political channels, parties, because of their weakness during regime times and their traditional perception as men’s sphere. That’s why they were trying to build their own space and address demands directly to state. This self-organization and transformative process from practical to strategic needs would have not been possible without help of other actors. Among many there are two that need to be mentioned in order to understand the emergence of the movement: middle-class feminists and church. The former groups invested their time and resources to numerous projects and services such as daycare or health centres, shelters, support lines. Although it is important to underline that women in neighbourhood organizations mobilized themselves using their own agency and resource, these programs helped to transmit feminist concerns for greater gender equality and have stimulated  poor women to challenge their traditional role (Safa 1990:358), providing them with knowledge and skills. The second institution was Catholic Church, which inspired by liberation theology, turned towards working for poor and social justice and created safer and acceptable space under military regimes. Those actors, along with different sphere of political involvement, fostered women’s movements in Latin America.

Certain common historical, political, social and cultural factors described above contributed to the phenomenon of women’s neighbourhood organizations through Latin America (Schild 1994). I would like to examine the impact of its emergence on women’s life.

Empowerment and Participation

Women self-organization and collective action should have tremendous impact on women’s life. Making step forward, from securing basic needs to political action cause a change from the personal level, community structure to political system. Based on literature I would like to briefly describe whether participation in neighbourhood organizations empowers their members.

Empowerment is a dynamic concept, very dependent on the context and as such difficult to measure. As it is accurately summarised by one Ngo activist cited by Batliwala I like the term empowerment because no one has defined it clearly yet; so it gives us breathing space to work it out in action terms before we have to pin ourselves down to what it means (Kabeer:436). Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article I understand empowerment as ability to make choice. However, it requires denial of this ability to gain or regain it in the process of change. According to Kabeer, the ability to make choices may be understood on three dimensions: resources, agency and achievements. The former refers to material resources as well as social relations and capitals. Agency means the ability to make changes in surrounding reality or at least sense of this power within. These two mentioned elements constitute capabilities that refers to ability to choose life that people want. They also determine to what extend women can achieve their decision-making power. The aim of this part is to examine weather consumption-bases initiatives, gathering women from neighbourhoods, contribute to such empowerment.

Many example of women neighbourhood, consumption-based initiatives in Latin America show that although neither women’s movements for human rights nor collective consumption were designed as challenges to gender subordination, participation in these movements has apparently led to greater self-esteem and recognition by women of their rights (Sefa 1990: 363). Participation provided safe space for women to talk about their problems and experiences, discover themselves, their bodies, sexualities. Chances for learning appeared not only during income generation activities but during workshops and additional events organized by women for women (Schild 1994). For many women, going to community kitchen or workshop was the first step out of structured family life, concentrated around household. Creation of own space and self-awareness contributed to their self-esteem, changing their positions within families and communities.

The realisation of gender construction rose awareness of multiple constrains restraining their ability to choose between alternatives, such as class, race or ethnicity. This consciousness enabled them to perceive problems outside their collective and to enter public sphere in order to address problems of community. Their voice started to be heard when they became visible in public space, developing their own political subjectivity. However, in this case we need different understanding of politics, which goes beyond traditional concept of taking and keeping power. Politics, then, is also about challenges to power relations that set the limits within which we define ourselves and establish our differential participation (Schild 1994:64). Consumption-based organizations, managed by their members, became schools of democracy and participation. Some women continued this track, becoming local leaders or setting up their own NGO. But many were empowered to express their needs and problems, get access to services and demand respect for their rights and finally be included as full citizens. It leaded to change on personal and community level, as well as political system and democratisation process, opening the stage for new actors.

Nevertheless, not all researchers support the idea of unambiguous empowering effect of women’s participation in neighbourhood organizations. Although experience of working with other women and sharing experience may lead to slow personal growth and gender awareness during the time of participation, there is no proof of long-term impact, after the empowerment process. Moreover, the rising self-esteem of women and her entering public space may threaten position of men and cause resentment, what may lead to domestic violence. That’s why the impact on social structure and, further, on political system in rather unclear. Along with ability to make choices, it is also about being efficacious, that is, about being able to carry those choice through and to have an impact on policy (Craske 2003:68). The lack of deeper impact on higher level is connected to inability to create broader networks and continuity in the movement. The new generation is not always interested in carrying on mothers’ achievements and building on them. Moreover, participation added to domestic responsibilities and paid labour put on women triple burden. They need to reconcile social/political involvement with previous duties, what creates more obstacles.

Although it is difficult to generalise about all exemplification of this type of movements through Latin America, their role should not be underestimate. Despite several drawbacks and limitation they have, their role at least at personal level is difficult to undermine. Now, I will take a closer look on described process on the example of community kitchens in Lima.

Community kitchens in Lima

The community kitchens are successful example of consumption-based initiatives leaded by women from poor neighbourhoods. They were created during times of economic crisis as a collective survival strategy. In 2000’ more than 4000 kitchens were providing cheap food for half million Lima inhabitants (Zibechi 2008). Moreover, they have provided safe and socially accepted space for women to gather and build their safe-esteem. For last three decades, this popular phenomenon has been an interest of many scholars, who has been trying to examine the empowering effect of participation in that type of grassroots structure. After very brief description of the general idea of community kitchens, I will present their main findings.

The growing number of urban poor is interconnected with neoliberal reforms introduced by Peruvian government. Structural adjustments program forced rural communities to migrate to cities, looking for income opportunities. Those people joined the ranks of urban poor in slums areas around the capital, known as pueblos jovenes, and became the main participants and organizers of community kitchens, which were aim to reduce household expenses by sharing the costs of food and cooking. First community kitchens started to flourish in the end of 70’ and have been developing in different parts of the city since then. However, the increase in number was connected to waves of economic crises. In the 80’ huge portion of national budget was devoted to repaying foreign debt and fighting against guerrilla groups. The presidency of Alberto Fujimori from the beginning of 90’ brought even more severe shock doctrine, cutting expenses on public health, education and food subsidies. In that case, sharing reproductive responsibilities, providing women with more time for income generation activities, was a way to survive.

There is surprising inconsistency within literature about the beginning of community kitchens. Some state that they started from communal meals for participants of strikes (Zibech 2008), others claim that inspiration came from church or state (Kamioka 2004). Nevertheless, they were organized by local women with support of external actors. In general, we can distinguish two main types of community kitchens: administrated and subsidized by stated and autonomous, looking for support of non-governmental sector and religious organizations. On the productive level they have similar characteristics. Few women are working in shifts, taking care of buying and preparing lunches in particular week. Although their work is on voluntary basis, they are entitled to free meals for them and their families. In most of places around 10% of meals are distributed for free among the poorest members in the community and elderlies. What is left is sold to other consumers. What differs government-sponsored and autonomous kitchens is the method of administration and management. The former tends to be organized in more top-down manner, with administrator assigned by government, while the latter use more participatory and non-hierarchical approach with more equal rights of all members and shifting leadership (Plyushteva 2008).

Because of impressive number of community kitchens and diversity of management approaches, it is difficult to assess empowering effect of such organizations. However, most researches show that the level of empowerment is correlated with time and intensity of participation, which is most likely to appear in more democratically govern initiatives (Kathleen 2006; Plyushteva 2008, Mujica 1994). This growing ability to make choices, based on increase of resources and sense of agency, may be observable on different levels.

Most researchers agree upon the fact that participation in this type of consumption-based movement helps building self-esteem and feeling of solidarity among women. One of members claims: It gives me food for my children and allows me to help others. It makes me happy to be here, not just to receive, but also to be able to give. What I like most is to be here (Zibechi 2008). In many cases willingness to participate in this kind of initiative did not meet agreement and support from family side. Husbands were not happy with the appearance of their wives in public sphere and they preferred them to stay at home. However, this common experience with other women helped them to transform perception of private role in food provision and gain new awareness of the value of their work. Even if unintentionally, it started transforming gender relations, especially gender division of labour. One of women said: When I started [participating] in the comedor he’d tell me I was just wasting my time. But then he realized how much one has to work. He saw for himself how much work it is because one spends the day there (Mujica 1994:20).

Time spend together gaves a chance to build solidarity and trust necessary to talk about problems not connected to economic needs. They realised that they share the feeling of oppression, marginalisation, domestic violence as well as lack of knowledge about practical things. Beside production of food, space was used for workshops about domestic violence and addictions, nutrition and hygiene, management and organizational skills (Zubechi 2008; Garrett 2001; Kathleen 2008; Plyushteva 2008). Some of these trainings and discussions were organized by local leaders as well as national and international non-governmental organizations which were confident to invest their resources in community that had already known how to work together.

Communal kitchens have also been called „learning to speak schools” because in them women have developed certain levels of self-confidence which have empowered them to stand up for themselves (Mujica 1994:22). Gained knowledge and opportunity to take part in decision-making process was a lesson of democracy on the micro level. However, while rising self-esteem was very common among community kitchens’ member, further participation in decision-making process on the community level was not so universal and concerned mostly women who were deeply involved in the work (Mujica 1994). Nevertheless, some women decided to continue their activism, getting involved in local NGOs, community councils etc.


Numerous examples from Latin America show that there is relation between participation and empowerment. It is difficult to access long-term influence on women life as well as the impact on social and political structures due to multiple factors influencing urban reality. Nevertheless, the impact on self-esteem and gender relations of community kitchens in Lima is researched and proved. And these two as such I perceive as a huge transformative effect of consumption-based initiatives that were originally not created to undermine gender subordination.

In my opinion, grassroots participation not only builds solidarity and causes personal growth but creates alternative to dominant neoliberal system. However, we need to be careful if it is not perceived as an achievement of neoliberal state that wants people to replace functions of welfare state. As was accurate summarised by Gill:

Yet too much emphasis on the positive aspects of social life in destitute communities can be extremely dangerous during a period of neoliberal restructuring (…) It opens the door for the withdrawal of state support and investment from impoverished communities and, in the end, worsens the already precarious position of the poor. (Plyushteva 2008:6)


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