What’s sex got to do with it in Brazil?

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What’s sex got to do with it in Brazil?


Vanessa Baird writes about how for Brazil’s women and minorities there is more rape, violence, and sexism since the coup.

We know that the president Dilma Rousseff, who they impeached in Brazil last year, was a woman.

How much does Dilma Rousseff’s gender have to do with her impeachment? Heloisa Melino is an academic and a citizen lawyer. She is certain about this: ‘I see this coup as a very strong attack against women,’ she tells me as we talk in a café in Rio. Melino is young, strong, and drinks her coffee espresso.

‘In Brazil, women are for the private places and men for the public places. Then what happens? A woman gets to the highest place in public life, as president of the republic. From her first term, people criticized Dilma all the time: for her clothes, for not having a husband, for being a lesbian… Is she a lesbian? I don’t know. I would like it if she was… But they called her hard. When men are in high office, people don’t criticize them for “not being soft” – but people criticized her and even people in her own party.’

In Rousseff’s second term the criticism was stronger. She lost support and they suspended her in May 2016 – for breaking budgeting rules.

When Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice-president took her place, he made his ideas about equality and diversity clear.

He is the leader of the centre-right Brazilian Democratic Movement and he formed a goverment that was all white and male. This was the first since the 1964-85 dictatorship and very different from the open presidential ideas of the past leaders of his Workers’ Party.

Temer ended the Ministry of Women and the Ministry of Racial Equality with four others to ‘save costs’. Later, he changed his mind a little and put a conservative, black woman in charge of human rights.

In March this year, on International Women’s Day, Temer gave his ideas about women by saying how good they are at shopping and in the home.

A few weeks later, Veja, a popular conservative magazine, said the same thing. They wrote about Marcela, the president’s wife. Molino remembers, “They said she was young, beautiful, but most of all “domestic” – a woman who knows her place in the home.’

She says: ‘We have a new Right in power that has a problem with women and minorities. They say we do not need feminism any more. They are happy to be homophobic and transphobic – and that is true of people in Brazil.’

Violence against transgender women has, for some time, been very bad. 40 per cent of trans murders in the world since 2008 were in Brazil. But, says Molino, today it’s ‘normal’ to share videos on social media of murders of trans women.

Sempre Viva Feminist Organization and two other NGOs are worried about losing the government structures to protect the human rights of LGBT+ people. More than 32 per cent of LGBT+ people reported physical violence, 42 per cent sexual, and over 70 per cent psychological. Progress on LGBT+ rights is going backwards.

Rape culture

Misogynist, homophobic and transphobic ideas are strong in congress member Jair Bolsonaro.

He is a presidential candidate for 2018 and second only to Lula in the polls. He was a soldier and voted for Rousseff’s impeachment and for Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ultra – the colonel who was the leader of the terrible Doi-Codi tortures in the 1970s.

They tortured Rousseff during this time – Bolsonaro was honouring her torturer. He also said he would prefer his son to die in an accident than be gay. And he told a congress member and anti-rape campaigner that she was ‘too ugly to rape’. Brazil has a high rate of rape – 47,000 cases a year: that’s one rape every 11 minutes. Since the coup, rape in São Paulo state has increased 38 per cent.


Djamila Ribeiro (left), is one of the few black women in the world of academic philosophy. Esther Solano (right) teaches sociology in São Paulo and sees a big change since the coup.

Esther Solano teaches sociology at the São Paulo Federal University, She says, ‘Brazil is an unequal country that is very violent with women.’ Thirteen women are killed every day – a third by their partners or past partners. Before leaving her job as president, Rousseff increased penalties for men who murdered women.

There are other forms of violence against women in Brazil. For example, the socially conservative, evangelical group in Congress wants abortion to be a crime. Discrimination is also economic. It is already harder for women, even with university education to find a job, says Solano. The coup government’s plans are to end helpful labour and welfare laws, and to hit women and minorities hardest as they are more likely to be in low-paid or part-time work. The new labour laws will return the country to a system of ‘legalized slavery’.

There are more than 100 changes. For example, no holiday and sick pay for seasonal workers. Employers can end contracts more easily and/or reduce wages and increase hours of work. Workers will no longer have the right to choose their union, and their safety and compensation for injuries will depend on how much they earn, and not the injury.

Race and class

For women who are poor or black or both, it’s worse. Traditionally, black women in Brazil have low-paid jobs as domestics or nannies. No one really listens to them in the media or in public office. In advertising, they prefer women who are ‘not too black’. In the media, black women’s bodies are often hyper-sexualized.

But there is a growing cultural movement of women of colour. They are making their own identities and using rap, art, blogging, and social media. The police target mothers of black youth and they are now organizing and resisting.

And a small number of black women are now in jobs usually for white men. Djamila Ribeiro is one of these. She is a philosopher at the Federal University of São Paulo. Through her work and activism, she is showing gender and race inequality. For example, a black woman has two problems of inequality - her colour and her gender.

The women’s movement is very ready to protest against Temer. Thousands are taking to the streets to protest against the coup in the past year. Some women are entering politics at a local level, but are very under-represented in high office. Indianaria Siqueria is a trans activist and sex worker who helps with a night shelter in Rio. She won an ‘alternate’ seat in the municipal elections of October 2016. She stood for the leftwing Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and her campaign slogan was ‘a whore for councilwoman’.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).