In his visit to Peru, Pope Francis laid out his own #MeToo agenda, protesting ‘machismo’ and ‘femicide’ and urging devotion to Mary  

In Puerto Maldonado, in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, where children are prostituted in bars in broad daylight and women sold to modern-day slave owners, Pope Francis laid out what amounts to a papal version of the #MeToo movement, decrying violence against women and sexual exploitation.

“Violence against women cannot be treated as ‘normal,’ maintaining a culture of machismo blind to the leading role that women play in our communities,” Pope Francis said Jan. 19, midway through his Jan. 15-22 pastoral visit to the Latin American nations of Chile and Peru.

“Machismo” is a word widely used in Latin America to refer to chauvinistic attitudes toward women, as well as a broader dismissal of women’s voices and experiences.

The next day in Trujillo, Peru, presiding over a Marian celebration, the pope spoke against the “scourge that affects our American continent: cases of ‘femicides,’ and the many situations of violence that are kept quiet behind so many walls.”

The pontiff called for a fight against this suffering through legislation, and a culture that “repudiates every form of violence.”

Femicide describes instances in which women are murdered by men for reasons linked to their status as females. Of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates in the world, 50 percent are in Latin America.

Francis has long been an advocate against human trafficking and modern-day slavery, which he’s described as a “crime against humanity.”

Globally, an estimated 35 million people are victims of human trafficking, and some 70,000 are in Peru. Some estimate the illegal industry has become the most lucrative of them all, surpassing gun trafficking and drug dealing.

Experts say the Amazon jungle has become a leading hub for traffickers, who can hide in the jungle and use it as a route to move their victims. The Pope noted that the region where Puerto Maldonado is located is called Madre de Dios (“Mother of God”). And it is widely considered the most forgotten region in the country, with traffickers able to exploit several routes there with impunity.

Outside of Lima, this region contains the largest number of Peru’s slaves, 30 percent of whom are reportedly forced to prostitute themselves.

According to the pontiff, the world has become accustomed to using the term “human trafficking,” when in reality what’s going on is slavery: “Slavery for work, sexual slavery, slavery for profit.”

“It is painful to see how in this land, which is under the protection of the mother of God, so many women are devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence,” the pope said.

Looking the other way and allowing the dignity of women, most still very young, to be trampled upon is not acceptable, he added.

Appealing to Peruvians’ deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis said that Mary is not only an example, but also “a mother.”

And where there is a mother, he said, “we don’t have that terrible feeling of belonging to no one, that takes hold when our sense of belonging to a family, to a people, to a land, to our God, begins to fade.”

“Madre de Dios,” he insisted, is not a land of “orphans,” because it has a Mother, with a capital M.

The pope said Mary is a “mother who looks upon us with her maternal and tender gaze. She is a mother who knows the heart of her Peruvian children from the north and from so many other places; she has seen your tears, your laughter, your desires. In this square we want to cherish the memory of a people that knows that Mary is a mother who does not abandon her children.”

Pope Francis also reminded Peruvians of the importance of mothers and grandmothers, who he called the “true driving force” of families and society.

“Our love for Mary must help us to feel appreciation and gratitude for women, for our mothers and grandmothers, who are a bastion in the life in our cities. Almost always in silence, they carry life forward. It is the silence and strength of hope,” the pope said.

Despite the witness of mothers, Pope Francis acknowledged there are those who want to turn the Amazon region into a “nameless land, without children, a barren land,” thus converting it into a place easy to exploit.

He made a similar point in another meeting with indigenous people in Puerto Maldonado, criticizing international aid agencies that promote sterilization of poor and native populations. “We know, too, that the practice of sterilizing women, at times without their knowledge, continues to be promoted,” he said.

In his address at the Marian celebration in Trujillo, the pope urged Peruvians to continue to proudly display their devotion to the mother of God in the face of the threats and challenges of the present day.

Images of the Immaculate Virgin of the Gate of Otuzco, Our Lady of Mercies from Paita, the Mother of Sorrows from Cajamera, Our lady of Assumption from Cutervo, the Immaculate Conception of Chota, Our Lady of Alta Gracia from Huamachuco, Our Lady of the Assumption from Chachapoyas, Our Lady of the Assumption of Usquil and Our Lady of Succour from Huanchoco were all present in Trujillo’s famed Plaza de Armas.

Thousands of people cheered as Pope Francis named each devotion, coming from all the corners of Peru, as “each tiny corner of this land is accompanied by the face of a saint, and by love for Jesus Christ and for his mother.”

In total, some 40 images, not all of them of Mary, but also of Jesus, saints and the Holy Family, were present in the Marian celebration, yet the pope’s remarks were focused almost solely on her.

“It inspires hope to see how the mother takes on the features of her children, their way of dressing and their dialect, in order to make them share in her blessing,” the pope said. “Mary will always be a “mestizo” mother, because in her heart all races find a place, for love seeks out every possible way to love and to be loved. All these images remind us of the tender love with which God wants to be close to every village and every family, to you and you, to me, to everyone.”

Inés San Martín is a Vatican correspondent for Crux Now.

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