On an ordinary street in an ordinary city on an ordinary Saturday, a group of Saskatchewan women gather each year to do something extraordinary.
On the surface, holding a garage sale may not seem exceptional, but this is not just an annual attempt to purge the house of junk. The proceeds from this garage sale, held each June by a Regina women’s group since 2005, go toward improving the lives of women in Peru.
The money empowers Peruvian women’s groups to unite against their daily reality—poverty, inequality, and a lack of basic necessities.
Maureen Sonntag, a member of the Regina group and one of the organizers of the garage sale, says they usually raise about $1,200 per year, which goes a long way in Peru. None of the items are priced—buyers donate what they choose to give to the cause.
“It isn’t really a big effort on our part. And because we’re a big group of women it’s not a lot of work. With a small effort we are able to make quite big improvements to the women in Peru, in their lives. We have extra and so we can easily share that extra,” she says.
Starting in 1980, Peru suffered a two-decade internal conflict that killed nearly 70,000 people. Many more suffered torture and rape at the hands of state agents and insurgent groups. The violence also coincided with the country’s worst economic crisis in recent history.
Though the economic climate has improved somewhat since then, over 30 percent of Peruvians continue to live in extreme poverty.
Women and children have borne many of the lasting effects of the conflict and continue to suffer discrimination, domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, and a lack of education, health care, and legal rights.
The idea to hold a garage sale to raise money for Peruvian women was the brainchild of Sister Pauline Maheux, an Ursuline nun and member of the Regina women’s group. She knew that a little money goes a long way in the South American country.
Maheux had been stationed in the Peruvian city of Chiclayo for years along with other Ursuline nuns (2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Ursulines’ work in Peru). This year, the Ursulines funded two of the Peruvian women to come to Regina to show their solidarity and support, as well as build a stronger connection between the groups.
“The garage sale is important and the money is important, but what is more important is the sense of connection between women,” says Maheux.
Two of the Peruvian women, Erla Hoyos, 48, and Vitalina Flores, 61, arrived from Chiclayo on June 13 to meet the Regina women for the first time. In Sonntag’s living room two days later, Hoyos talked about how much the Canadians’ gesture has meant to them.
“We thank the women from Regina for the confidence they put in us, and we really feel our responsibility to use that money well,” she said through a translator. “The money is used to help the women to be able to get from place to place. … It also enables us to have workshops that help us learn more, to know ourselves and our reality.”
Those workshops are a fundamental tool for helping Peruvian women overcome the darker challenges of their lives. With topics ranging from self-esteem, gender equity, and spirituality to dealing with violence and systemic abuse, the workshops are a safe place for Peruvian women to come and find strength.
“We live in an often very violent situation, and the women are very invisible in society. They do not have a voice,” says Hoyos.
“So the impact of the [local women’s group] is that we are empowering ourselves in our value, in our dignity as women, and in our rights as citizens, and are capable of relating socially and politically in equal relationship with the men.”
Women Empowering Each Other
This empowerment extends to the broader community as women come together from all walks of life. In their nine small groups totalling 70 women, professionals like Hoyos, a nurse, and Flores, a sociologist, join women from rural areas, some who cannot read or write.
This blending allows women to share information, skills, and resources in a society that does not always make it easy for women to succeed.
“We struggle so hard just to have water, to have light, to have sewage, to have decent housing, and to have a right to educate our children, and a right to health,” says Flores.
“Our dream is that the countries in the South, the countries in North, the rich and the poor can find a way to live together so that there’s an equity of sharing economically, so that everyone can live with dignity.”
Sonntag says meeting the Peruvian women and hearing about the impact of the Regina group’s efforts has been deeply satisfying.
“Beautiful, wonderful,” she says of the experience. “When women in Peru reflect on their connection with women in Regina, they realize that they are supported in their own struggle and that they are not alone.”