Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Feminist-perspectivesbanner ;

Victim-blaming discourse and politics: Media (mis)representation as a political strategy in Peru

Feminist Perspectives
Katalin Zsiga

PhD Student in the Department of International Development

17 November 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into light and intensified inequalities across the race, class and gender lines. An analysis of power relations during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Peru highlights that the authoritarian politics in response to the crisis function in concert with the mechanism of scapegoating vulnerable populations by using media (mis)representation. This shifts attention from where the real capacity and responsibility lie to reduce the harms caused by the crisis and lockdown: the government.

The way it has been reported on COVID-19 and lockdown related outcomes in media and social media in Peru, such as the overwhelmed hospitals, the videos and pictures circulating on social media showing how people break the quarantine with their non-essential outings, portrayed those who broke the lockdown1 as the main cause of failure to contain the virus. This scapegoating works as a mechanism of stigmatization and marginalization. These images were contrasted with the government’s tireless efforts to beat the virus with regulations, which were seen as they would have worked, if only people had followed government guidelines. The media and social media never failed to point out that lives could have been saved if people just obeyed government measures, portraying and labelling those who broke the lockdown as “uneducated”, “ignorant”2 and the cause of what early on this year was the second worst outbreak in Latin America. Meanwhile, the government emphasized its extraordinary efforts to save lives and stressed that the strict lockdown was in everybody’s best interest. For example, efforts were made to increase healthcare capacity, and in the first week of the lockdown President Vizcarra announced that vulnerable families would receive an emergency relief of 380 soles (around £90) per household - a transfer that was repeated as the lockdown went on. In this picture the government is portrayed as professional, calm, rational, and making decisions that serve all Peruvian people equally. However, the image of a competent and inclusive government is in stark contrast with reality.

The vast majority of those who broke the quarantine regulations came from disadvantaged segments of a society in which poverty has a glaring racial dimension. The alleged cause of the crisis, the people who broke the quarantine, have been the worst hit by the virus and the negative outcomes of the lockdown. Ironically, while they were placed at the centre of the blame for the outbreak, the virus was brought to Peru by those who enjoy multiple privileges such as trips to Europe3. The pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor highlighting a racial, class, gender and location hierarchy within Peru. The spread of the virus was clearly already unstoppable within the first six weeks of the quarantine, yet the government insisted on continuing to impose a strict lockdown that had devastating side effects. For example, the exodus after the first month when those in the slums ran out of resources or got evicted and had no choice but to head back to their villages in the highlands despite the road closures and lack of transport4, or the jump in gender based violence and feminicide cases5. The extreme measures continued without actually enabling people to stay at home. This placed economically disadvantaged people who depend on going out daily to make ends meet, on the wrong side of the law, pushing vulnerable households further into poverty, as well as exacerbating gender-based violence and disproportionately burdening women with caregiving responsibilities. Many households never received the money promised by the government. In Peru most people use cash for all transactions. From the start, questions were raised as to how this money would reach households where not a single person has a bank account, or how the money would be withdrawn when in large parts of the country banks and ATMs are sparse at best and non-existent at worst. Many of those eligible for cash relief had to stand in long queues without social distancing to retrieve the funds. This policy makes sense in the context of the wealthier districts in Lima and maybe in some other major cities, but quickly becomes meaningless as we move out of the centres and more into the informal economy, which makes up 70% of the country’s economy. While the government did not mind pouring money into keeping the wealthy safe and secure by deploying military personnel and riot police in and around the cities, and using helicopters to surveil Lima, it did not strengthen marginalised areas’ access to water and basic foods during the crisis, nor did it strengthen the healthcare system or offered other services, such as the much needed women’s shelters from gender based violence. The reality of these policies is a demarcation between those who matter and those who do not, stigmatizing the poor as “ignorant” and responsible for the crisis, despite them suffering the harshest consequences.

This mechanism of shifting responsibility through representation and stigmatization is all too familiar to feminist researchers, particularly in the context of sexual assault where there is a tendency to blame the victim for the violence. Patriarchal power structures, beliefs, and harmful gender practices, that are continuously constructed and repeated in and by the media, and social media and their consumers, play a crucial role in the majority of the society complying with institutional violence. Much of the research around victim-blaming in gender-based violence deals with individual circumstances, situational factors, or the legal environment, and not enough attention is paid to other institutional factors, such as the overwhelmingly conservative voice of the media and its discourse around sexual assault. This dominant discourse paints a picture in which the victim of the violence is responsible for the violence. Drawing a parallel between the (mis)representations of the poor in the media during the COVID-19 crisis in Peru and the victim blaming in gender-based violence allows us to highlight a mechanism that shifts responsibility and attention away from those in a position to bring about change, i.e. the state. For example, the state could hold perpetrators accountable, create and cultivate an environment in which women and minors are protected and safe, and extend basic human rights to the poor, women and minors. Just as the COVID-19 crisis disproportionally affects one particular group, the poor, sexual assault disproportionately affects women and minors. This imbalance highlights a power structure that does not allow the possibility for racial, gender, and social equality. Similarly to the discourse that blames the spread of the virus on the poor, the dominant discourse on sexual assault continues to insist on the victim’s responsibility, despite now having ample amount of evidence that the majority of sexual assault takes place in one’s own home often the perpetrator being a person known to the victim6, and not because of what one wears or where and what time under what circumstances one uses public space. Like the media representations of the poor during the COVID-19 crisis response in Peru, victim-blaming in the context of sexual violence also demarcates between those who matter and those who do not; stigmatizing the victims of violence and holding them responsible for the violence committed against them.

Victim blaming discourse

Social inequalities seen through the view from an apartment complex in North Barranco, Lima.

Political strategies of representation and diversion of attention

Particular representations of the poor in political and media and social media discourse are utilized to gain consensus over the government’s use of riot police and the military, while power relations remain obscured. This mechanism of shifting attention by representation allows for the erosion of basic human rights and the implementation of punitive policies, while reinforcing social norms and values. This mechanism also diverts attention away from events and facts that do not serve the government’s image, such as the chronic underfunding of Peruvian healthcare. The government invested nearly a third of the Latin American average in healthcare between 2000 and 20177, and the accessibility and availability of services is extremely low outside Lima. The anxiety and misplaced anger created by these media representations serve to maintain the inequality necessary for the government’s exploitation and control of the population.

The normalization of social exclusion through media representations and discourse have real effects on individuals. Scapegoating the poor for the national crisis is essential to achieve support for the government’s COVID-19 response. At the same time, it diverts public attention away from the government’s failure to: support marginalised areas; reliably transfer emergency cash to families and individuals that desperately needed it, including unprocessed migrants without an address or bank account; and provide protection, services, and shelters for women and minors victimised by domestic violence. The videos and images of those who break the quarantine appeal to the sense of justice of those who stay at home, (and it is important to emphasize that they can stay at home), creating a sense of outrage and disgust. This mechanism of shifting responsibility becomes a political practice to reinforce social norms, and is used to disrupt public perception and to naturalize poverty, while creating a division between populations that matter and those who do not. The dominant discourse of victim-blaming in Peru makes the individual responsible for their circumstances, overlooking the stigmatized group’s lack of freedom of choice. This strategy of blaming the disadvantaged for their unfortunate circumstances, and in this case even for the COVID-19 crisis, hides the class struggle of unequal opportunities, access, and care, as well as the uneven distribution of labour along racial and gender lines. 

Similarly, victim-blaming in gender-based violence is essential to securing support for the government’s actions and inactions in responding to gender-based violence, and at the same time diverts public attention away from the government choosing year after year to not fund or underfund services, failing to offer comprehensive sex education to young people, and not training judiciary employees on gender-based violence and relevant human rights. The victims of violence are often depicted in the media as in some way responsible for the violence committed against them to somehow justify the act of violation. As with the representation of the poor during the COVID-19 crisis, this same mechanism becomes a political practice that reinforces social norms, disrupt public perception and naturalizes violence against women and minors. This normative discourse of the individual responsibility of the victim hides the uneven distribution of power along class, racial and gender lines.

Dominant discourses around race, gender, and class are vital to the Peruvian government maintaining the status quo and releasing itself from the responsibilities of providing healthcare, education and basic services to its citizens, as well as basic human rights, including the right to sexual health to women and minors. Privilege and links to powerful actors are key in Peru’s social practices, and critical in determining experiences of the COVID-19 crisis, but remain hidden behind the discourse of responsibility. The outrage and fear provoked by media representations allow the consensus on the sometimes violent arrests of tens of thousands of citizens caught breaking the lockdown by police. This consent to the erosion of rights is possible in the Peruvian context, where the discourse of the irresponsible and ignorant citizen is opposed to the image of a caring, firm and above all very capable government. 

The COVID-19 crisis has made gendered class and racial inequalities more visible than ever before, highlighting the dominance of corporate powers and patriarchal policies that particularly harm women and minors. Although the government could draw on substantial savings made over the last decade, the priority has been to please investors and large corporates8, while treating populations as dispensable. The government gave companies the freedom to dismiss employees without pay, resulting in at least 2,6 million job losses between March and June9. Meanwhile, it failed to address gendered issues such as gender-based violence, the disappearances of women10, and care-work, to name but a few. Placing power at the centre of the analysis of the COVID-19 crisis in Peru allows us to see political strategies and a power system that work with particular representations, making certain issues visible and others invisible, where representation causes exclusion and injustice. Media representations allow for control of the population, shifting the focus of public attention from where the real capacity and responsibility to handle the crises (both the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of gender-based violence) lies – with the government. The poorest parts of Peruvian society have been hit exceptionally hard by the crisis: economically, in the form of bearing the largest numbers of infections and death, and socially by being blamed for the spread of the virus. What the crises of COVID-19 and gender-based violence have highlighted more than ever before is the urgent need for inclusion of these vulnerable populations into what is considered the basic human rights of the privileged in Peru, such as water, sanitation, access to healthcare, and education, and to strive for an inclusive and feminist democratic politics characterised by equality. In achieving that, we must challenge dominant discourses and shift the focus from the victims of institutional and sexual violence on to the violators, i.e. the state and the perpetrators of violence.

  1. Peru had one of the longest and strictest lockdown measures globally with strict curfews and the ban on interprovincial travel and the use of private vehicles.
  2. Videos and images of those who broke the quarantine often circulated on WhatsApp and Instagram during the quarantine and with condemning comments of holding those who broke the quarantine responsible for future deaths.
  3. President Vizcarra in his televised speech to confirm the first case in Peru, detailed how the first case was a Peruvian traveller returning from Europe.
  4. Carlos Noriega, 24 April 2020, Nodal. Miles de personas huyen de Lima a pie en busca comida en sus pueblos
  5. UNDP Peru, Aprill 2020. La otra pandemia: violencia en el hogar en tiempos de cuarentena. 
  6. Dulcie Leimbach, 20 September 2018, Passblue. Rape in Peru – stopping a deadly epidemic.
  7. World Bank, 2017.
  8. Global Business Reports, 12 May 2020.
  9. Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informatica, 7 July 2020. Situacion del Mercado laboral en Lima Metropolitana.
  10. Óscar Chumpitaz, 7 October 2020, La Republica. Cada día desaparecen 14 mujeres en el Perú, según cifras de Defensoría del Pueblo.

In this story

Katalin  Zsiga

Katalin Zsiga

PhD student

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

Latest news