According to the international human rights research and advocacy NGO Human Rights Watch, Brazil’s rise as an important democratic nation has “masked severe disparities based on race, gender, economic status, region, and urban or rural settings.” Although Brazil has had an organized and effective women’s movement that has made big gains in gender equality (with feminist leaders who were called the “lipstick lobby” succeeding in changing the constitution in 1988), Brazil is still influenced by its patriarchal traditions. In 2010, theUnited Nations ranked Brazil 73rd out of 169 nations based on theGender Inequality Index, which measure women's disadvantages in terms ofreproductive rights, political and economicempowerment and participation in the workforce. Contrary to this statistic, women are more literate and more highly educated than men in Brazil. They are training for and taking jobs that transform their economic status and they’re running for public offices. In 2011, Brazil inaugurated its first female president, an event that mirrors Barack Obama’s status as the first African-American US President; it’s a huge step forward but it doesn’t mean that gender (or racial) equality has arrived. The election of Dilma Rousseff in 2010 was a “historically unique” sign of the “maturity of Brazilian democracy,” according to the new President’s Secretariat for Women’s Affairs, Eleonora Menicucci. Menicucci says that she is “obsessed” with stopping violence against women in Brazil. She has proposed new laws that provide for women’s health and equal pay, including protections for domestic workers.
The real experiences of women in Brazil tell the story of a continuing struggle for equality. In 2005, the journalist Giordana Moreira was writing about Brazil’s first National Meeting of Women Graffiti Artists. She realized that it was very hard to express yourself outwardly in a culture that designates “private space” for women. It was hard for women to break into the all-men world of urban graffiti. So women graffiti artists started to paint together. They formed Artefeito, a group of artists supporting the Maria de Penha Law against domestic violence. They use graffiti as a platform to address sexism and gender issues — and challenge the male-dominated art world. Giordana says, “From the moment a woman takes responsibility as the owner of creation, she will certainly share power with men.”
Giordana also knows that realizing equality requires commitment and activism. It’s a “false idea that (the problem of women’s rights) has already been solved,” says Moreira. The most important first step is “making people recognize discrimination.”
From my experience visiting three different favelas in Rio, there seems to be little room to discriminate against women especially with leadership roles. In all the favelas we visited, leadership was evenly split between genders; it was based on character and ability. With so much changing in the favelas and Rio in general, if a movement’s voice is to be heard or have an impact, there can’t be discrimination, period. Silencing women’s voices or curtailing their full participation severs the possibility of growth and advancement of society as a whole.
Regardless of the leadership roles women have assumed, gender equality is still an issue in favelas. In 2011, a group of women from favelas on the north side of Rio began broadcasting issues affecting women in their communities on a community radio station and called their station “Radio Mulher.” Staffed and run by an all-women team, Radio Mulher exposes the difficulties that girls and women experience in favelas, including rape and abuse. They report on issues “that no one wants to talk about,” says one of the station workers. “Women appear to be more resilient,” she says, “but they weren’t raised to get a job and be successful.”
We learned about widespread sexual abuse by drug gangs before pacification. A favela resident told us how when the police came in to “clean things up,” the police took the spot of drug leaders, taking advantage of the girls in the community.
Brazil has been making much progress towards gender equality with the election of its first female president and with more and more women like Giordana and the women of Radio Mulher making their voices heard. Just as important is the 2006 Lei Maria da Penha Law, which makes it a federal crime to commit domestic violence. This law set an international standard because it protects the basic rights of women. It also states that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, have “fundamental human rights.”
It’s worth noting that the US Congress hasn’t yet reinstated the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Clearly, there’s more work to be done in Brazil and also internationally to ensure that gender equality remains a critical priority. Real gains don’t hide the fact that a lot of work still has to be done.