Two women join thousands of black women from across Brazil in a march to protest the violence and discrimination they say they suffer, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. AP Photo/Eraldo Peres.
In the midst of a historic political, social, and economic crisis, Brazilian women are building historic feminist solidarity to fight for their rights and demand a more just and inclusive society. The country's first female president, Dilma Rousseff, is facing impeachment and has been suspended from her position for 180 days. Since Michel Temer’s interim all-white and all-male government has assumed power, the World Economic Forum has calculated that the country will fall from its 2015 ranking of 85th in the WEF gender equality index to number 107.
When she was president, Dilma Rousseff’s administration did not always generate solidarity between feminists. There was often a marked line between those who tried to work with her government on developing better public policies and those who rejected her administration, citing the lack of advances in reproductive rights, in the political sphere and in education during her term.
However, many feminists agree that the campaign for her impeachment was sexist and discriminatory. Many right-wing Brazilians used derogatory and gendered language to ridicule her, and mainstream Brazilian magazines launched stories declaring that she was hysterical and mentally destablized. Not only have many male politicians been found to have practised pedaladas fiscais – using public bank funds to finance federal or state social programmes, apparently without any consequences, but those who voted for her impeachment are being investigated for corruption for personal gain. Although independent auditors have found Rousseff had no involvement in pedaladas fiscais, few believe she will be exonerated in the impeachment trial.
Since Rousseff’s impeachment, thousands of women across Brazil have come together to express solidarity with her. New movements, such as Mulheres Pela Democracia (Women for Democracy), have sprung up in support as women have marched in protest and even sent Rousseff letters and pictures empathising with the injustice of her ousting, and warning of its future implications.
The most conservative congress since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship is now responsible for both the political coup and the growing attacks on women’s rights.
Prior to the impeachment, right wing politicians had passed a raft of bills chipping away at women’s rights, including a bill to define personhood from the moment of conception, and another to define “family” in the constitution as the union of a man and woman and their child. Other bills were introduced to prohibit the discussion of gender in the National Education Plan, and to further criminalise legal abortion for victims of rape. There were moves to make it difficult to access emergency contraception, and to increase the penalty for abortion in the wake of the Zika virus.
At the same time, none of the old problems went away: violence against women is still endemic, and there is widespread acceptance of sexual violence in society. More than 1 million women undergo illegal abortions every year.
Over the past year, however, women have been fighting back in much greater numbers and with renewed vigour. In October, during what has been dubbed Brazil’s “feminist spring” (Primavera das Mulheres), hundreds of thousands of women protested on the streets and through social media against sexual violence, paedophilia, and the sexist bills aiming to limit their reproductive rights.
Younger women and girls are using social media and technology to become informed, debate and mobilise on women’s issues. They have declared their support for feminism through internet-based campaigns such as #MeuPrimeiroAssedio (My First Assault) and #ForaCunha (Get Out Cunha – aimed at removing from office Eduardo Cunha, seen as Rousseff’s accuser-in-chief), which garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and tweets on Facebook and Twitter.
Last month, hundreds of thousands of women united across Brazil and Argentina under the banner: Por Todas Elas (For All Women), protesting against rape culture, after 33 men allegedly gang-raped a 16-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro in May.
Between October 2015 and January 2016 alone, the search for the word “feminism” on Google in Brazil rose by 86% and “female empowerment” by more than 300%. More women have begun to identify themselves as feminist, and even begun introducing new vocabulary, such as the word “sorority”– which does not exist in Brazilian dictionaries and was virtually unheard of until 2015 – to describe solidarity with other women.
Agora Juntas, a network of feminist collectives and women in Rio de Janeiro, which I founded, is building a feminist hub to encourage greater collaboration and solidarity. Many feminist groups are under-resourced, and work physically and strategically isolated. Young feminist groups here in particular do not have their own spaces to meet in. Agora Juntas is collectively building a collaborative feminist house to strengthen feminist solidarity, networks, and innovation.
Feminist solidarity is by no means simple – it means cross-movement building and recognizing different party, personal, sexual, racial, and intellectual lines while working for common goals and objectives. Identity and historical differences have not disappeared – for example, black feminists have historically been marginalized from the feminist “priorities” and leadership of more established organizations and movements. They have subsequently established their own organizations, events, and priorities. 2015 marked the first National March of Black Women in Brasilia, for example, which represents the increasing visibility and strength of black feminist mobilization. Young feminists have also been divorced from older feminists and their politicized advocacy work – many young feminists belong to informal grassroots collectives and focus on conscience-raising and dialogue work through art and campaigns instead of formalized political dialogue processes. However, in the current political scenario, feminists of different backgrounds, contexts, and locations have come together to articulate against the political, economic, social, and religious conservadorism that refuses to recognize their rights and the need for advances for women in Brazil.
Unfortunately, despite the increased feminist mobilisation, the situation is still bleak. Michel Temer’s new government has gone backwards in terms of the rights of women and minority and indigenous groups. Under his all-white, all-male administration, politicians are attempting to undermine the Maria de Penha law, which was a landmark victory to increase domestic violence convictions and support victims of domestic and sexual violence. This bill, currently waiting for final approval in the Senate, will give police powers to approve protective measures for women; at the moment the judiciary is the only body that has these powers. The final insult for women has been the Temer administration’s appointment of the conservative Fátima Pelaes as the secretary of politics for women. Pelaes has previously declared that she does not support abortion as a legal option for women who have been raped.
In an essay, The Patriarchal Coup, Maria Betânia Ávila, sociologist, researcher of SOS Corpo Instituto para a Democracia, and member of Articulação de Mulheres Brasileiras, writes: “The feminist movement [in Brazil] is showing its capacity for resistance and mobilisation in defence of the first democratically elected female president’s mandate and democratic legality. This is a confrontation with the patriarchy, with male chauvinists and neoliberals.”
Amid the cries of “Fora, Temer!” (Out with Temer), feminists are reminding Brazil of the need to re-instate Rousseff, and to ensure that future governments implement reforms and public policies that guarantee human rights and social dignity, and combat inequality. Until then we will continue to shout: “Without women, there is no democracy. Without feminism, there is no democracy.”
A former version of this article was previously published by The Guardian