(IPS) - Hilaria Supa has broken down many barriers in her life. Now she has overcome another one, in an unprecedented achievement: this Quechua indigenous woman who never went to school is today chair of the congressional education committee in Peru.
And she is clear on what she plans to do in the committee: work to democratise the country's educational system, which, she says, discriminates against and excludes native people -- something she has experienced firsthand.
In her colourful traditional dress, Supa moves comfortably around the legislative palace in the historical centre of Lima, where just a few years ago the security guards would probably have barred her from entering the building, but now she has been unanimously voted to preside over the educational committee by its members.
However, Supa, who belongs to the Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP), has faced criticism from legislators of the governing APRA party and the Alliance for the Future, made up of supporters of former president Alberto Fujmori (1990-2000), who is serving lengthy sentences on multiple charges of corruption and human rights abuses.
Her detractors argue that because of her lack of formal education, she is not qualified to head a committee that plays a key role in determining the direction of educational policy.
"Who criticises me? The 'doctores' (roughly, 'the PhDs') who have already presided over the committee and did not do a thing for the people I represent, who have historically been marginalised," she told IPS in an interview in the chamber where the committee meets.
"I am a social activist who fights for the rights of poor campesinos, and you don't get that degree at a university," she said.
The lawmaker was born 52 years ago in the rural community of Huallococha in the province of Anta, four hours northwest of the highlands city of Cuzco in southeastern Peru.
From a young age she suffered humiliation and abuse at the hands of the powerful elites. Her family worked for a local landowner whose mistreatment of local peasants included rapes of women.
"I didn't become a rebel in a political party," she said. "I have experienced marginalisation in the flesh, for the simple fact that I am a poor, Quechua-speaking campesina woman.
"For people like me, education is prohibited. I have made it to Congress because of the votes of my (indigenous) brothers and sisters, and it is them I represent," Supa said.
In this South American country with an overall literacy rate of 96 percent among men and 89 percent among women, 31 percent of Quechua-speaking rural women are illiterate, 38 percent have some years of primary schooling, 23 percent have made it to secondary school, and just under three percent have gone on to the university.
Pro-Fujimori legislator Martha Hildebrandt, who is a linguist by training and a former chair of the education committee, disparaged Supa's election to preside over the committee as "inappropriate," while Mauricio Mulder of the ruling party said "If there's one thing she doesn't know about, it's education."
"I am self-educated, and I say that with pride," Supa responded.
APRA legislator Wilmer Calderón, who has a doctorate in education, commented to IPS that Supa's election as chair of the committee was an "act of demagoguery" that gave a glimpse of what a possible PNP government would look like, "giving important positions to people without the necessary qualifications.
"I am also a Quechua-speaker, and I was born in the (central) sierra of Ancash," he said. "But that doesn't give me the qualifications I need; a rigorous education is also necessary.
"Exclusion isn't fought by putting representatives of the marginalised in key positions like the education committee, but rather people who are qualified to tackle the challenges facing Peru's educational system," Calderón said.
In this multiethnic country, Amerindians account for an estimated 45 percent of the population of nearly 30 million. The main indigenous groups are Quechua and Aymara people from the highlands, while a relatively small proportion of native peoples are distributed in several dozen lowland groups. Around 80 percent of native people in Peru are poor.
"Mestizos" or people of mixed European and indigenous descent represent roughly 37 percent of the population; an estimated 15 percent of the population is of European descent; and there are small black and Asian minorities.
Referring to the criticism, Supa said "I detect a certain racism in their words. That's how they always talk to us: 'You people are Indians, you aren't capable of doing anything.' No, 'doctores', now it's our turn. And you will see the results for yourselves."
The oldest of the 14 children of Eufrasio Supa and Elena Huamán, Hilaria was basically raised by her maternal grandparents, to whom she refers as her parents. And no one has to describe to her how the peasants in her highlands region work practically around the clock to eke out a living.
"A campesino's day starts at 4:00 AM and ends at 9:00 PM," she said. "As a girl, I worked in the fields and tended the livestock."
By her teenage years, she was helping organise people in her community to stand up to the mistreatment of the landowners and the local authorities who were accomplices in the abuses, which she herself experienced, including the 1965 murder of her grandfather for defending campesino rights.
She later worked as a domestic in towns in her home province, and in Lima, from which she returned after her husband was killed in an accident. She has two daughters. Her son died young -- a subject she prefers not to dwell on.
On her return from the capital, she began gathering with other local women, to organise protests and set up soup kitchens for children.
In the late 1980s, she headed the Micaela Bastidas Committee of Anta, and in 1991 she became organisational secretary of the Anta Women's Federation (FEMCA).
"When I was a leader of the FEMCA, we organised to teach women and children to read and write in Quechua, offered workshops on dangerous agricultural chemicals, and taught people the benefits of traditional medicine," she said.
With her enthusiasm and energy, Supa soon became well-known as a social activist and leader in the entire department (state) of Cuzco, and was invited to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing.
Fujimori also attended the Conference, "to explain his plan to supposedly pull campesina women out of poverty and ignorance, through family planning. Everyone applauded.
"He didn't mention, however, that the method he would use was forced sterilisation," Supa said.
The roughly 2,000 victims of that programme included one of Supa's daughters. The activist organised the women and launched an all-out offensive against the Fujimori regime and the forced sterilisations.
In 2009, the public prosecutor's office shelved a lawsuit against three former health ministers, who under Fujimori implemented the plan, which coerced and tricked poor indigenous women into being sterilised.
But Supa said she will continue fighting for justice in the case. "The Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down a ruling calling on the Peruvian state to bring to justice those responsible for the crime that affected my fellow campesinas, and I will carry on with this, to see that justice is done," she said.
In 2006 she was elected to Congress for the PNP, whose leader, Ollanta Humala, won the largest number of votes in the first round of elections that year, but lost in the runoff to current President Alan García.
Last year, pro-Fujimori legislator Alejandro Aguinaga, one of those accused of running the mass sterilisation campaign, was elected vice president of Congress.
"When he walks by he doesn't look at me, he turns his face away, embarrassed," Supa said. "I feel indignant that he forms part of the leadership of Congress. I'll make him pay for his responsibility. He caused harm to thousands of women."
Supa had some good news to share. Her biography, "Hilos de mi vida", which was originally published in Spanish to little fanfare in 2001, in a small print run in Cuzco, will come out again this year in a new Spanish-language international edition, propelled by the success of the German and English ("Threads of My Life: The Testimony of Hilaria Supa Huaman, a Rural Quechua Woman") editions, which were published in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
"I've been told that my book is taught in schools in Germany," she said with evident pride. "How can the 'doctores' say my life experience doesn't count for anything? They're wrong. They have a lot to learn."
Photo by Virgilio Grajeda/IPS