U.S. Ambassador to Peru Lisa Kenna (far right in blue hat) and the climbing group reach for the sky on the way up Mount Mismi, Dec. 4, 2022. Photo by Victor Vílchez
By Ed Cox
“Ya llegan—you’re almost there!” shouted the outfitter from Waykiy Expeditions, as the expedition team was just 30 minutes from the summit of Mount Mismi, which lies more than 18,000 feet above sea level in Peru’s southern Andes. It was 2:30 p.m., Dec. 4, 2022, and the group had been climbing for four hours.
“This will be the longest half-hour of your life,” smiled Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, as she encouraged U.S. Ambassador to Peru Lisa Kenna and her pack of nine protégés to keep going.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Vasquez-Lavado chanted, channeling Laozi to inspire the group to continue its trek to raise awareness for 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence (GBV).
Vasquez-Lavado is a proud Peruvian-American, who holds the distinction of being the first Peruvian woman to conquer Mount Everest and the first openly lesbian woman to complete the famous Seven Summits. As a GBV survivor herself, she’s accustomed to overcoming challenges. In fact, she spent the last seven years working with groups of GBV survivors like this one to overcome their fears, reclaim power over their bodies, and pivot their attention from a dark past toward a hopeful future. Climbing this challenging mountain peak marked a new stage in these young women’s journeys, as they showed themselves and their social worker (who was also climbing) just how much they have overcome in their lives.
During the acclimatization treks, the ambassador has gotten to know each of her co-climbers. All nine (aged 18-24) are survivors of physical and/or sexual violence. They are all from Peru’s Andes, but few have had the chance to enjoy the towering landscapes. Some have never even hiked for recreation. On most days, they do not get out of the city of Arequipa where they now study or work. All still volunteer at the Hogar de Cristo shelter where vocational training and psychological assistance set them on the road to recovery.
GBV instances in Peru are very high. Peruvian official reports indicate that 7 in 10 adult women have suffered psychological, physical, or sexual violence at some point in their lives. On average, 32 women disappear every day in Peru. According to the Peruvian Ombudsman’s office, only 48% of the 10,610 women reported missing between January and November of 2022 have been located. Of those girls who went missing in November, 64% were teenagers or younger. Human trafficking as well as domestic violence are significant problems in the country.
The scale of the problem has pushed Embassy Lima’s awareness and prevention campaigns to new levels. With the support, guidance, and resources of the Department of State’s J family (Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights), Kenna and her team focus on GBV all year long. Drawing from the J family, the Department of Homeland Security, and USAID’s Trafficking in Person prevention and victim protection programs, the embassy provides legal and psychosocial services to victims of human trafficking and GBV throughout Peru. Through the public affairs section’s Te Quiero Sin Violencia (I Love You Without Violence) radio show, the embassy team empowers youth to recognize and prevent this kind of violence early in life. And through the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement programs, the Mission is strengthening justice sector actors’ capacity to investigate, prosecute, and convict perpetrators of GBV crimes. Leaders like Vasquez-Lavado, and the other climbers, inspire the team each day to look for new and creative ways to combat GBV and support victims.
In the days before and after the climb, Vasquez-Lavado joined embassy staff, local police teams, and a psychologist for a week of prevention education with students at public schools and recovery programs with survivors at women’s emergency centers in Lima, the port city of Callao, the highland cities of Ayacucho and Arequipa, and the high jungle town of Tingo Maria. Everywhere the team traveled, the message was the same: We all are responsible for creating a GBV-free society.
This may be Kenna’s first mountain climb in Peru, but with Vasquez-Lavado by her side she knew she could push her mind and body past fear and fatigue.
“The mountain demands respect,” Silvia reminded the team.
Slowly, the climbers ascended over steep rock and dirt, past small patches of snow and mud to the summit. The group of 30 barely fit on the small summit. Quickly, they absorbed the view of the surrounding volcanoes, including the distant, erupting Sabancay sending its gray fumarole high into the blue sky. Although they felt weak and exhausted just a few minutes prior, together, atop the mountain, they felt strong—maybe the strongest they had ever felt.
The ascent may have been the high point of the embassy’s 10-day, five-city campaign, but the story did not start or end there. For Vasquez-Lavado, it began long ago in Lima with years of abuse from a household employee. Improbably, that trauma led her to a safe space, Embassy Lima’s American Space. Her English language lessons there led her to the United States on a university scholarship, and onward to a successful career in Silicon Valley. Eventually, she returned to Peru for meditation and a life-changing vision. She saw reconnecting with nature, through climbing, as a means to salvation.
Vasquez-Lavado founded her NGO “Courageous Girls,” and trained hard to successfully reach the highest summit on each of the world’s continents, conquering Mount Everest in 2018. She was featured in Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s series, “Gutsy,” and Selena Gomez will soon play Silvia in a film adaptation of her autobiography.
The team proudly pulled out the U.S. and Peruvian flags to commemorate their summit.
“UNITE to put a stop to violence against women. #16Days. #EndGBV,” read the massive banner printed for the occasion. A camera drone buzzed overhead and the group cheered for the picture, “The United States and Peru at the summit! Women at the summit! Women and men at the summit!”
This program immediately showed impact beyond the direct participants. Two of the contracted drivers approached embassy staff asking for help: the first for his sister-in-law who was a victim of spousal abuse, and the second for himself as a domestic abuser who wants to stop. The embassy is connecting both of these individuals with resources and assistance available through Peru’s Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations.
This trip was a transformation for everyone—a literal and figurative high point of the ambassador’s time in Peru.
As she headed to the airport for her flight back to the capital to resume her duties on solid ground, Kenna remembered Vasquez-Lavado’s favorite proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
The battle against GBV will not be easy or quick, but Embassy Lima raised the bar for 16 Days of Activism against GBV. Together with its partners in Peru, the embassy commits to persisting—slow and steady, all year long.
Ed Cox is a public diplomacy officer at Embassy Lima.