Women in Brazil fighting for Human Rights and Against Bolsonaro

by Nayara Lima

Protest against Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Protest against Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro won a run-off election in October 2018 and will take office as president of Brazil on January 1, 2019 for the coming 4-year term. Bolsonaro, who has been elected for successive tenures as a congressman since 1991, is well known for his extremist views and racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks that undermine minority rights, as well as for his controversial endorsement and praise of abusive practices carried out by authorities under the military dictatorship, which led the country for decades in the recent past.

Bolsonaro, who has four sons and one daughter, has mentioned on several occasions that his only daughter was born due to a moment of “weakness”. He has said that women should be paid lower salaries compared to men because they “get pregnant”, and even commanded women to stop “whining” about femicide. In 2014, during a heated discussion with his  fellow congresswoman Maria do Rosario, he told her that the only reason he wouldn’t rape her was because “she did not deserve it”.

Women United Against Bolsonaro

All the popularity and support recently gained by Bolsonaro has been opposed and resisted by movements that have sprung up during the campaign, some of them led by women, such as “Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro” (Women United Against Bolsonaro).

The women’s campaign launched on Facebook in early September 2018, right before the election, called on women from all political backgrounds to come together “against the advancement and strengthening of machismo, misogyny, racism and homophobia and other prejudice”. This organization, which uses a closed Facebook group as its headquarters and is meant for only those who identify as women, witnessed its membership rising up to almost 4 million members in about three weeks. The group is aligned with the #EleNão (#NotHim) movement, which also emerged during the electoral campaign and called on Brazilian voters to vote against an openly sexist candidate that disseminates hate and authoritarian speech towards minorities in general, and women in particular.

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In late September, a week before the first round of the elections, thousands of people took to the streets and marched in several cities across Brazil, as part of a number of protests under the leadership of “Women United Against Bolsonaro” movement. As a result of such protests, Bolsonaro’s candidacy has attracted international attention and was even referred to as an example of the trend seen globally of the emergence of populist and extremist politicians.

In Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy, women represent 52.5 percent of the electorate. But while it has already had a female president, Dilma Rousseff, in 2011-2016, it remains a deeply patriarchal country. Women were given the right to vote in 1932, a lot later compared to the rest of the world, and feminist movements were restricted from organizing during the country’s military dictatorship.

Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world for women, with nearly 4,500 deaths and more than 60,000 rapes this past year alone, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, a nonprofit group. Brazil also remains a deeply religious country and a increasingly conservative one at that.

Although it is still the most populous Catholic country on the planet, evangelicals have been growing at a rapid pace in recent decades. Many of them oppose gay rights and abortion. In Brazil, one woman dies every two days of complications from illegal abortions, according to the Brazilian Ministry of Health. Bolsonaro’s campaign, which includes keeping abortion illegal, and his victory showed how far the country has yet to go when it comes to basic universal human rights.


The Brazilian Backdrop

Behind this frightening backdrop was a story that has become alarmingly common among the world’s democracies; the rise of the populist movement. Brazil is experiencing a moment of intense and unusual polarization after a tumultuous few years, when the country was emerging from its worst-ever recession, which is to a great extent usually attributed to mismanagement and wrongdoings perpetrated throughout more than a decade while the Worker’s Party was ahead of the country, under the leadership of former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016).

A broad investigation called Operation Car Wash has revealed an intricate corruption scheme in the government on a larger scale than anyone expected. Lula has been convicted and is currently serving time in prison for corruption (and is a respondent in several other judicial proceedings). His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and, as a result, the country was handed to her Vice-President, Michael Temer, who is also under investigation.

Protest against Bolsonaro in New York City.

Protest against Bolsonaro in New York City.

Against such backdrop, Brazilians were, and are, anxious for any changes whatsoever in the domestic politics scenario. After all the years of corruption under the Workers Party long tenure, it’s not very far-fetched that for some Brazilians, voting for Bolsonaro was much more a matter of pushing and keeping the Workers Party out of office than anything else.


The Rise of Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro took advantage of the situation and used it for his benefit. Despite long being a peripheral figure who has authored only two laws in a 27-year period serving as a Congressman, Bolsonaro’s campaign has both benefited from and contributed to the political divide. His campaign was pretty much built around and focused on a promise that, under his administration, Brazil would be cleaned out of corruption, whilst the most “traditional” family values (some rooted in religious dogmas) would re-assume the relevance and spotlight that Bolsonaro and his supporters so much praise. And he would do that by disrupting and putting an end to the long-standing common practice in Brazil of distributing positions in Ministries, public companies and the like among allies and even political adversaries to obtain support and majority needed for implementing the measures and reforms intended. In order to gain more support during election times, Bolsonaro was fast in presenting the left-leaning Workers Party as the public enemy to be fought against. Such a strategy was successful in this regard and a great turnaround has happened, with many people who were already disgusted and disillusioned with the Worker’s Party adhering to Bolsonaro’s campaign.


What now?

Protest against Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Protest against Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Considering Bolsonaro’s praise of Brazil’s former dictatorship and his comments on race, women, and homosexuality, opponents voiced concerns that his victory could ultimately represent a threat to relevant victories and progress attained in the past decades in respect to human and minorities’ rights in the world’s fourth largest democracy.

Just a few weeks after being pronounced as the winner in the Brazilian presidential election, Bolsonaro and his inner-circle started to announce names of members of the team who, together with Bolsonaro, will be in charge of the country’s business and affairs as of January 2019. However, as some of the names chosen for his team are already announced, it seems that the choosing process is inconsistent with Bolsonaro’s campaign promise to break out the chains and connections with traditional parties, given that some of the names are of politicians who either have been convicted or are under investigation for wrongdoings and corruption practices.  

In spite of the results of the election and of any threat that his election may represent towards minorities’ rights, it is not yet clear whether Bolsonaro and his team will effectively be able to put in practice all the measures and actions promised along his entire vociferous campaign.

But one notable thing that the latest Brazilian presidential elections showed us all, is that women played an extremely important role and that they are out and up again, perhaps stronger than ever, in a somewhat of a revamping of the preceding feminist movements that contributed to and allowed so many recent women’s conquests. The “Women United Against Bolsonaro” is a good example of that, as are other feminist initiatives spread recently across the whole world, such as the Women’s March.

The “Women United Against Bolsonaro” movement has suffered massive attacks from Bolsonaro’s followers, with some of their messages incorporating actual physical and life threats against whoever is behind or supporting such a movement. Yet, this is certainly one of the largest feminist mobilizations ever organized in Brazil. The Facebook group is still active and its members keep fostering and strengthening feminist networks. As the name of the group hints, when working and demanding in an organized and united manner, women can better position themselves to stand strongly for their rights and beliefs, aiming at reaffirming a political view as to a more respectful, ethical, equal and inclusive society.

Protests against Bolsonaro in over 300 cities around the world in September, 2018


The writer is a Kota Volunteer from Brazil, who is herself an active member of the movement.