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Peru's women unite in kitchen – and beyond

With food prices on the rise, 'community kitchens' provide half a million Lima residents with affordable daily meals.

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Solidarity: Two women cook a pot of bean stew at a community kitchen in Lima, Peru.

Sara Miller Llana

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Steam rises into air thick with the scent of garlic as women prepare lunch for 120 of Peru's neediest.

But this is no charity. Obaldina Quilca and Veronica Zelaya – who are on cooking duty today – are also beneficiaries of one of the estimated 5,000 community kitchens run by women in Peru's capital, Lima.

The kitchens started in the 1970s and persisted through the '80s and '90s, through dictatorship, terrorism, and hyperinflation that brought Peru to its knees. And now that global food prices have put basic staples out of reach for families across the region, the kitchens that feed an estimated half million residents of metropolitan Lima every day are again providing a refuge.

But their work goes well beyond survival; the kitchens have become a vehicle for collective action, giving women the self-esteem to denounce government shortcomings and demand change. They have risen as one of the most significant women's organizations in Latin America, and today are on the forefront of protests demanding solutions to a cost of living that many say is reversing recent progress in reducing poverty.

"You have to fight for your rights," says Ms. Quilca, as she mashes a pile of garlic by stone in her community kitchen, Diez de Febrero, in the hardscrabble neighborhood of San Martin de Porres. "With marches you can obtain your objectives. If you don't march, you get nothing."

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