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The Roses of Lima.

ON THURSDAYS SISTER ROSE DOMINIC LOOKS for prostitutes. The 70-year-old Maryknoll nun, originally from Upstate New York, walks out of her office and makes her way through the chaotic circling traffic toward the bus stop at Plaza Bolignese, passing the hustling street vendors and grim soldiers with automatic rifles. From here she catches a crowded minibus to Plaza San Martin and walks the few short blocks to El Crilloma--a dirty side street choked with trash, money thangers, and desperate young women.

In most cases, six or seven young prostitutes will be there leaning against the dingy stucco wall as they wait for customers when Rose Dominic approaches. In appearance, there's little to suggest that this petite woman is a nun. She's usually casually dressed in a cardigan sweater and slacks, her gray hair tied up in a neat bun, and a crystal dangles from her neck. "We walk up and down the street and meet the women," she explains. "We talk to them about their problems. We say we hope they are using condoms and practicing birth control. We want them to know that we are concerned about them as women."

Rose Dominic chooses the daytime for her visits to the prostitutes out of concern for their business, not wanting to come at a busier time. "These women are earning a living, and you have to respect that."

Rose Dominic and Sister Rose Timothy, 80, run a program that counsels prostitutes and poor women on sex education, self-awareness, and feminism. For 12 of their 40 years in Lima, they have helped prostitutes gain access to health services and sex education, as well as promoted women's issues. They've done this work from within an oppressive culture that too often views women as little more than chattel, and they've pursued their mission tirelessly despite the risks associated with speaking out against an authoritarian Peruvian government, their own church, and a brutal terrorist organization.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a shadowy Maoist. group called Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) waged a bloody campaign to overthrow the Peruvian government, killing more than 40,000 people. Their targets have crossed political and social lines, including some prominent Peruvian feminists who have been assassinated.

In 1992, Maria Elena Moyano, a well-known feminist and friend of Rose Dominic's, was brutally murdered after taking part in a demonstration against terrorism. "She was very dynamic," Rose Dominic recalls, "an outstanding political leader in the community. She marched with thousands of people against violence, against Sendero. She defied them. They shot her and then threw dynamite at her, blowing up her body. It was terrible."

Moyano's photograph hangs prominently on a wall within the office of Creatividad y Cambio (Creativity and Change), the center the Roses started, which is dedicated to promoting human rights of women. The nuns downplay any risk associated with their work: "We don't have the right kind of visibility for them [Sendero]."

Creatividad y Cambio is funded largely by private contributions from feminist groups in the U.S. and Europe and by nongovernmental organizations. The center publishes and distributes articles and pamphlets on women's issues and has also carried out campaigns against pornography.

El Pozo (The Well) is a refuge created within the center for prostitutes. These women can meet weekly with trained psychologists to talk about their problems, find solidarity with other prostitutes, and regain a sense of dignity.

Rose Dominic and Rose Timothy see themselves as activists, not religious workers. "I've always tried to do this work as a Peruvian feminist, with Peruvian feminists," Rose Dominic explains. "The restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church on women are extremely oppressive, and I have to question this. I don't want to be part of that part of the institution that is oppressive. I'm not restricted by the Catholic Church."

The Roses are especially opposed to the church's stand on birth control and the role it assigns to women. They say policies such as the ban on birth control and a resistance to sex education greatly contribute to a woman's lack of choice and social power, giving her more children than she wants and sentencing her to a life of dependence and poverty.

Yet both women remain Maryknoll nuns. "They've been very supportive, and we've been allowed a lot of freedom," says Rose Timothy. "I've been a Maryknoll my whole life; I wouldn't want to pull out at this point."

The Maryknoll sisters and priests are Catholic missionaries known for their work with the poor, especially in Latin America. They have long been recognized for their aggressive advocacy for the poor and tolerance of divergent beliefs within their order's own membership. Sister Therese Howard, a Maryknoll nun who works in the communications office in Maryknoll, New York, says that the order's patience has to do with its history. "Maryknoll has never been an organization to try to put us into molds," says Howard. "We are called to think critically for ourselves."

ROSE TIMOTHY GREW UP IN ELIZABETH, NEW JERSEY, Rand after joining the Maryknolls in 1940, she began working with Hispanic women farmers in Stockton, California. In California she encountered the terrible pressure put on Mexican women to work the fields by day and run the home at night. She experienced this situation again and again after her transfer to Bolivia and later to Peru.

Rose Dominic grew up in Niagara Falls, New York. After receiving her masters in social work, she joined the Maryknolls and in 1954, at the age of 25, went to Peru. The two nuns met in 1962 when both were working as Catholic social workers assisting poor Peruvian families.

In 1966 the Roses moved into Caja de Agua, one of the impoverished neighborhoods of Lima, and began sharing a modest cinder-block home without water or electricity. Suddenly the women who were once their clients now became neighbors, allowing the Roses to witness firsthand the tradition of male dominance, known as machismo, and the injustice it represented. "I noticed the systemic oppression of women, and in the late '60s two friends gave me a name for it," Rose Dominic says. "It was patriarchy." Thirty years later, Rose Dominic and Rose Timothy remain in the same neighborhood.

The modern feminist movement in Latin America was greatly influenced by worldwide events such as the U.N. Decade for Women and the International Year of the Woman, yet it was born out of a set of circumstances unique to the region. Unlike its counterparts in the developed world, the pioneers of Latin American feminism crossed class lines, and their ranks continue to be made up of mostly poor women of color.

Latin America, also called the "Catholic continent," has had a long record of oppressive governments--many of which operated with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church. This oppression prompted the birth of liberation theology, which calls for the church to disassociate itself from abusive governments and advocate directly for the poor. The Roses acknowledge the great contribution liberation theology has made in effecting social and economic change in Latin America yet feel that the movement's theologians pay little attention to gender issues and the "levels of sexual exploitation within the church itself."

One of the watershed moments in the Latin American feminist movement took place in Argentina in 1977. Fourteen mothers, affectionately called Las Madres, marched on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in direct defiance of a ban on public demonstrations by the newly installed military junta.

This was the first political action against the regime by any civilians, and because it was a group of women to exhibit such courage, it created a new image of women in political power. Las Madras campaigned for the disclosure of prison records of their imprisoned relatives, for free elections, and against the Falkland Islands War with Great Britain.

IN 1981, THE DISCREDITED ARGENTINE GOVERNMENT relinquished power and held general elections. Soon other countries in the region caught the democratic fever. And today dictatorships are the exception rather than the rule. In Peru, a democratically elected president has made real economic and social improvements yet struggles to maintain a balance between two traditional forces: the military and the church. Meanwhile, in Caja de Aqua, the Roses and their neighbors live pretty much as they always have--on the margin.

As Rose Timothy and Rose Dominic walk around their neighborhood, they are constantly greeted by loving friends who shout "Madre! Madre!" Their neighbors enthusiastically throw their arms around the Roses.

One neighbor wants to make sure they come to her daughter's 15th birthday party, and another wants the sisters to see a son's new bike. At one point, a middle-aged woman walks up to Rose Timothy, starts to laugh, and begins to tuck in the bottom of the nun's blouse, which has come loose. Rose Timothy stands there like a child whose mother is straightening her hair. This scene is one of deep love and caring between women--here on the streets where the Roses do their best work.
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Title Annotation:work of two Catholic nuns counseling poor women in Lima, Peru
Author:Daniels, Jim
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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