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Fighting for gender justice

August 24, 2011

Brazil has pioneered some of Latin America's most advanced legislation and mechanisms to ensure women's rights and gender equality. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

A female pilot inspects a helicopter in Brazil
Brazilian women are entering jobs once reserved for menImage: AP

Funk and rap music in Brazil often portrays women as sexual objects. But times are changing and women are talking back. With the hit song ‘I’m ugly but I’m trendy’, rebellious female MC Tati Quebra-Barraco became the first female rapper to break into Brazil’s funk music scene. She was a political sensation, using her lyrics to reverse the trend and make men the sexual objects.

Women in Brazil are increasingly taking jobs in fields that, until recently, were dominated by men. They're becoming bus or cab drivers, starting out in the police force or working as security guards and construction workers. One of the most symbolic advances is the recent election of the first female president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff.

Women leaders step forward

In her inauguration speech, in January of this year, Rousseff acknowledged this symbolism.

Newly sworn-in Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff poses for a picture at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday Jan. 1, 2011
Will Brazil's first female president usher in a new era of women's rights?Image: dapd

"I want to state my first commitment after the elections: to honor Brazil's women so that today's unprecedented result becomes a normal event," she told supporters after she was sworn in. "I would very much like for parents to look into their daughters' eyes and say, yes women can."

Since taking office in January, the new president has named 10 female ministers to serve in the 38-member cabinet. That's double the number of ministers serving under her predecessor and mentor, Lula da Silva, during his eight years in power. In 2000, there were no women in the cabinet. Today, women hold key positions in offices like the Ministry of Institutional Affairs, which is in charge of negotiations with Brazil’s Congress and the Cabinet Chief.

'Not a revolution'

But while women in public office help raise the profile of women in politics, Silvia Pimentel from the United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women believes the election of Dilma as the first female president is not necessarily a result of more participation and conscience on the part of female voters in Brazil.

"[Dilma] is a very well prepared woman, everybody knows, but she would never be there if President Lula hadn't appointed her," Pimentel told Deutsche Welle. "So it's not a revolution or an evolution that women are now coming like this to high positions in my country."

The case of Maria da Penha

Brazil has pioneered some of Latin America's most advanced legislation and mechanisms to ensure women's rights and gender equality. But there is still a lot of work to be done. A survey conducted by the Fundacao Perseu Abramo foundation estimates more than 2 million women are subjected to sexual and domestic violence or psychological abuse every year. In 2009, more than 200,000 women called a government-run hotline to report cases of assault and violence.

A turning point in the fight against violence towards women in Brazil was the case of Maria da Penha, who is considered one of the country’s most important voices in the struggle for women's rights. The 60 year-old pharmacist has used her experience of spousal violence to call for better protection of women by the police and the courts.

Maria da Penha receives an honorary title of baiana citizen in the Brazilian city of Salvador, 10 September, 2009
Maria da Penha is a heroine for women's rights in BrazilImage: Alberto Coutinho/AGECOM

"I thought my marriage would last forever … but in 1983, I woke up with a bullet in my back. I was shot by my husband," she explained.

In the early 1980s, her then-husband beat Maria da Penha continuously and finally attempted to murder her twice, causing her to become a paraplegic. But it took eight years for the case to be heard and even though her husband was found guilty, he was released following an appeal.

"I was very disappointed because he could walk out free like that,” Penha said. But she refused to give up. She wrote a book describing the brutality her husband inflicted on her and her daughters and became a voice for abused women across the country.

Justice at last

Maria da Penha's case was sent to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which said that Brazil’s failure to take legal action indicated the country condoned the violence. The court went on to say that Brazilian authorities had added to Maria da Penha's suffering with their failure to carry out justice.

Former president Lula da Silva signs the Maria da Penha law
The Maria da Penha law provides better access to justice for women in BrazilImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This landmark ruling contributed to the international consensus that governments around the globe have a legal obligation to take active measures in protecting women's rights.

And in 2006, President Lula da Silva signed the "Maria da Penha law", with the intent of reducing domestic violence. Among the changes initiated by the new law was an increase in punishment for those who are violent towards women, and protective measures for family members at risk of becoming victims of domestic violence.

Maria da Penha is just one of the thousands of strong women standing up and making a difference for justice and equal rights throughout Latin America. Their struggle and contributions are already bearing fruit for generations of women on the continent and around the world.

Author: Milton Bragatti (sjt)
Editor: Saroja Coelho