Cuso International: Josefina’s Story


As one of the longest tenured Cuso International volunteers in Peru, Josefina Mena Aguilar came to the country with a mission.

“I originally arrived in Peru planning to complete an eighteen-month volunteer placement with the _Defensoría del Pueblo_ – the National Ombudsman’s Office – which I felt was an ideal length of time to immerse myself in the culture and working environment of a foreign country,’ Josefina said. However, I enjoyed it so much that I signed up for a second volunteer placement and have now been living in Cusco for almost three years.”

Josefina is part of Cuso International’s South-South volunteering program, which places skilled professionals living or residing in Latin America or the Caribbean in a country other than their own. As one of nearly 500 South-South volunteers placed over the past 20 years, Josefina has contributed her depth of understanding of local society, culture and language to her placement in the _Defensoría del Pueblo_.

_(Photo courtesy of Cuso International)_

Specifically, her experience as a gender expert in intercultural contexts allows Josefina to approach the issue of gender inequality in Andean communities in a way that respects and preserves traditional ways of life while contributing to reducing gender-based violence, which disproportionately affects women.

As an educator, Josefina’s work has taken her from the classroom to the boardroom, where she facilitates workshops focused on the prevention of gender-based violence to diverse audiences ranging from schoolchildren to lawyers in various offices of the _Defensoría del Pueblo_ throughout Peru’s Andean region.

I had the privilege of seeing Josefina in action working with youth on June 28 in Cusco, where she was one of the presenters of the event _Amar sin violencia marca la diferencia_ at the Sacred Heart of Jesus elementary school. Equipped with a wide smile and with the unmistakable blue vest of her partner organization, Josefina led groups of girls and boys in an educational game that allowed them to reflect on their conceptions of gender and gender roles.

As Josefina explained, “the idea of the game is to engage in a discussion with the schoolchildren regarding common gender stereotypes and expectations placed on men and women in Peruvian society. During the event, I was surprised at the level of knowledge that children as young as eight have about gender issues. We are well on the way to creating a lasting impact in promoting gender equality here in Peru!”

Months later, I had the opportunity to participate in another of Josefina’s workshops; this one was held on October 25 in the _Defensoría del Pueblo_ offices in Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. During the workshop, the team of front-line employees and legal experts engaged in discussions of real cases of citizen complaints of the abuse of their rights. Discussions focused on how unhealthy attitudes about gender can contribute to violence by state institutions against citizens. The goal was to enhance the capability of staff to recognize gender-based discrimination, allowing them to fulfill their mission of protecting citizens from any and all forms of abuse.

Mercedes Pilco Morales, commissioner of the _Defensoría del Pueblo_ in Puno, was enthusiastic in her praise of the workshop.

“Josefina is an invaluable asset to our team and her workshop allowed for ample learning opportunities,’ Morales said. I strongly believe that people learn better by studying and discussing real-life examples of citizens seeking legal recourse, rather that rote-memorizing concepts, theories and definitions.”

_(Photo courtesy of Cuso International)_

After three years as a Cuso International volunteer in Peru, Josefina feels the pull to return home to her native Costa Rica, but she assures us that the experiences gained in Cuso will remain with her for life.

To those who are thinking of volunteering abroad, Josefina has some words of advice.

“Too many times in our lives we are afraid to take risks,’ Josefina said. To risk leaving the comforts of home. To risk leaving behind one’s life, one’s studies, one’s family. I was in the process of studying a second career in sociology when I left Costa Rica with a year and a half left to go in my studies. But it will be there waiting for me. The experience of volunteering abroad has given me a much greater wealth of knowledge compared to had I stayed home. Just go for it!”

For those who may be interested in the Cuso International program, they have a number of open volunteer placements in Peru and around the world. Apply today

You can also check out their Facebook pages in English and Spanish
This volunteer is striving to combat gender inequality in the Andean communities one day at a time.