Justice for the Poor

By Sandra Oblitas
May 21, 2012

Solidarity in the Ongoing Struggle
My mother, who is from Chile, always maintained that it was better to have sons than daughters. I had three elder brothers and an elder sister who died a few years ago. All of us were born in Chile but were brought up for the most part in Peru. The boys considered it their duty to look after me and that meant I could not go anywhere alone and, against the better judgment of all, I played socalled male sports. I was brought up in a socialist, non-religious family in Lima. My Dad was a life-long member of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), but he was buried with a Requiem Mass, referred to as the spiritual aspect, as well as the civic aspect, namely speeches by his socialist friends. Dad was also a great friend of a Jesuit priest who lived beside a central church in Lima and, while Dad did not profess any religious belief, he certainly did not reject those who did. He used to say to his Jesuit friend that they really did the same thing, as both were dedicated to helping the poor get justice.

Through my family connection with the PCP, I earned a scholarship to study medicine in Bulgaria, where I spent seven happy years. On returning to Lima, I went to work in San Juan de Miraflores, a poor area to the south of the city. I soon discovered that my approach to patients was not getting results. They did not buy the medicines that I prescribed, because they did not have enough money. So, like many other medical personnel, I chose to give priority to developing a system of preventive medicine and focused on this for two or three days a week. After a year in the area, I had prepared a reasonable diagnosis of local health needs, plus actual and preferred responses to the situation. I did all this through my work with local women’s organizations, such as soup kitchens, a number of civic organizations and some non-government organizations. However, I could not get used to the cumbersome ways of the State bureaucracy and decided to look for work with a non-government organization (NGO).

After completing the required one year of service with the Ministry of Health in a poor urban or rural area, I got a job with FOVIDA, an NGO. During the 1980s the socialist mayor of Lima, Alfonso Barrantes, had developed ways of working with a free milk distribution program for children. There were also networks of soup kitchens and medical clinics in the poor barrios of Lima. The work with FOVIDA, my socialist family background and my experience of life in Bulgaria combined to convince me of the importance of tackling the medical issues of the poor by working closely with the local community. FOVIDA was financed through particular projects, and I stayed in that job for six years.

The projects ran their course, and I found myself back with the Ministry of Health in 1992 and worked for some months in local medical centers, but soon tired of that because the Ministry delayed our wages for periods of up to three months. I went to work for another NGO, Flora Tristan, which financed an itinerant medical team for detecting and treating cervical cancer. In just one poor district we checked 1,600 women and discovered six cases of cancer. For those patients, I did the follow-up work during the next four years.

Flora Tristan is a feminist NGO where I received my intellectual formation in feminism which was quite a change after the macho formation at home, where even as a youngster I remember challenging the macho ways of my family by answering back and playing the socalled male sports. In Flora Tristan the organizers provided plenty of opportunity for reflection and discussion on relevant feminist issues. Once again I moved on because the project I had worked on was completed.

I returned to the Ministry of Health, but this time to a clinic on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. In Mendoza we were just a little higher than the flat land of the Amazon jungle. Our medical team in the clinic worked in primary health care, and when I arrived all were busy coping with a yellow fever epidemic.

The rural people live a different kind of poverty from the city. They don’t seem to be motivated to strive for anything beyond the routine of country life, so tend to be super laid back. They work their small farms, have a basic diet of root vegetables, bananas and other tropical fruits, get together to celebrate baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals, but even then it all depends on whether the family concerned has money for the party.

The Columbans have been pastorally responsible for the area where the Sisters work since 1952, when it was still under cultivation. The urban sprawl of Lima began to take over the farmland in the 1980s and the Columbans led the development of what is now the parish, The Holy Archangels. In 1994, Sister of Mercy, Jackie Ford, who was working in Santiago, Chile, came to look at one of the poorest parts of the parish. Columban Fr. Peter Woodruff was parish priest at the time and took Jackie to a small hill more or less in the middle of our parish jurisdiction. It was a good place from which to get an overview. Fr. Peter told her that we were building a small chapel for the local community and that the patron saint would be recently named Chilean saint, Saint Teresa of the Andes. Jackie took that as a sign from God and returned to Chile to prepare for the move to Lima. She arrived in Lima on February 14, 1995.

Sisters Joan Doyle and Patricia McDermot completed the team in May and July 1996 respectively. The three Sisters belong to the Australian North Sydney group. A couple of years ago Jackie returned to Australia after more than 20 years in Latin America and Joan and Patricia continue developing and working in a variety of services aimed at improving the lot of women, especially the poorest. The parish priest of the area is Joe Ruys, a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and presently an associate with Columban Fr. Peter Woodruff.

Once back in Lima a friend invited me to work in a similar kind of clinic in the Huarochiri area, in a small town in the mountains a few hours to the east of Lima. There were about 5,000 residents in San Damian, all of whom made a living working the land and/or running a small business. There was no electricity and little social life, but I could return to Lima each week to see my children.

After nine months in San Damian, I found another job with an NGO, Doctors without Frontiers, who were running a project to combat family violence, child abuse and sexual and reproductive health for adolescents (unwanted teenage pregnancies among the poor were increasing). From there I moved to my present job in the clinic, run by the Sisters of Mercy from Australia (North Sydney). So much of what I learned in the previous jobs I’ve held in various parts of Lima and in rural areas has prepared me for this job. Most of those I work with are from rural Peru and have come to Lima in search of a better life.

I do the basic doctor-patient consulting but, in this clinic, the patients can buy the subsidized medicine that we sell in our pharmacy. I also draw on my experience of work with other local communities to develop our preventive medicine projects. We have 25 health promoters whom I supervised up until a year ago. I now join in the monthly meeting with the health promoters and meet regularly with the team (a nurse and a social worker) that supervises them. The health promoters do follow-up visits with needy cases, especially the elderly and physically disadvantaged. They give talks on health, focusing on malnourishment in children, and also help publicize what we do in the clinic.

I’m happy working with the Sisters. We understand each other and share goals and objectives in our work together. We may differ in some of our beliefs but, after working in this clinic with the Sisters for eight years, I’ve found them open and flexible in their attitude towards the issues we must face in our work. We don’t like others trying to impose their view of things upon us. As in the case of my Dad and his Jesuit friend, I can say that we are doing the same thing since all of us are dedicated to helping the poor get justice.