Women make a difference in Brazilian politics and activism

Followers of the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, marching during a campaign event in Río de Janeiro on 14 September 2018. (AP/Leo Correa)

The 7 October vote is very unlikely to end the suspense and we will have to wait until the second round later in the month, on the 28th, to know who is going to be the next president of Brazil, in what are the most unpredictable elections seen for many years. The prison sentence handed out to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who continues to be the leading figure in the Workers’ Party (PT), has severely marked the campaign, against the background of political exceptionalism dominating the country since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 – viewed by the deposed president and a section of the population plainly and simply as a ‘coup’ overthrowing democracy. Rousseff was succeeded by Michel Temer, her vice president at the time, who has stepped up the implementation of neoliberal adjustment policies, and whose popularity recently fell to just five per cent.

The feeling of political exceptionalism created by the impeachment process has been reinforced by the irregularities surrounding the jailing of Lula, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in April, despite the absence of conclusive evidence that he received a beachfront apartment in exchange for his participation in the web of corruption surrounding the public company Petrobras, investigated as part of Operation Car Wash. Whilst the PT insists on its coup narrative, the ultra-right responds with its corruption storyline. The debate is polarised, and both narratives are failing to address the issues raised within the framework of the June 2013 uprisings, which radically called into question institutional politics and managed to place previously ignored yet key issues on the agenda such as transport and the right to the city.

Despite the media’s protracted smear campaign, Lula continues to be well positioned in the polls and, despite his imprisonment, the PT is playing its potentially winning – and perhaps only – card, banking on votes for Lula being transferred to the official candidate, former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad.

Parties on both the left and right stand divided in the bid for the presidency: on the left, Ciro Gomes, for the Democratic Labour Party (PDT), and Guilherme Boulos, for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). On the right, far-right Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), is the best positioned in the polls but is also the candidate rousing the strongest opposition, with his misogynist, homophobic and racist remarks, and is unlikely to win in the second round. Meanwhile, Gerardo Alckmin, the establishment candidate, representing the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), is still lagging behind in the polls.

In the case of Bolsonaro, who was stabbed during a rally at the beginning of September, women are making it clear that they will not let him reach the presidency. Within the space of just two weeks, some two million women joined the ‘Women against Bolsonaro’ Facebook group, in an unprecedented show of force, reminding the far-right candidate that women account for over half of the electorate. Part of that electorate has decided to avoid using his name, to avoid turning him into a trending topic, and are promoting the alternative slogan, ‘Women United Against the Thing’. In the early hours of Sunday 16 September, the group suffered a cyberattack, but the networks remained active and the #EleNãoEleNunca(#NotHimNeverHim) hashtag was launched.

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Marielle Franco as a symbol

An atrocious crime was committed in Brazil on 14 March. Marielle Franco, a black, female, lesbian politician who came from the favelas, was assassinated. “Woman have since then been taking to the streets, not only in protest against her murder, but for all the violence we suffer as women,” says activist Graciela Rodríguez, a member of the Women and Trade Network, from Rio de Janeiro.

The news of Franco’s murder, which remains unpunished, made the headlines in Brazil and beyond. She became an icon. The unspoken truth, however, is that if she had not been a councillor for the PSOL in Rio de Janeiro, her killing, as a black woman from a favela, would never have made the news. The local politician untiringly denounced the impunity with which the military police vans, the sinister caveirões, drive into the favelas and kill.

Because the slow genocide being carried out in Brazil’s favelas neither stopped nor waned during the 12-year rule of the PT. Between 2009 and 2016 alone, 21,897 people were killed at the hands of the police, according to the figures of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. The overwhelming majority were poor, black young men from the favelas and impoverished urban peripheries. Whilst Operation Car Wash and Bolsonaro dominate the headlines, none of the newspapers remember the Mães de Maio (Mothers of May), who have since 2006 been denouncing the state violence against Afro-Brazilians on the peripheries of São Paulo.

The cheapest meat on the market is my black meat [flesh]”, sang Elza Soares in 2002. It is as cheap, expendable and incommodious as the lives of the indigenous people and small farmers defending their lands against extractive projects such as mega dams, soy monoculture or mining. The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJ Atlas), a project coordinated by the Environmental Science and Technology Institute of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), has documented 113 socio-environmental conflicts in the country, such as the serious dispute over the lands of the Guaraní-Kaiowá peoples, threatened by the advance of soy in Mato Grosso do Sul, or the impact of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingú people in the Amazon region.

Women’s lives are no less expendable. Of the 4,539 women murdered in 2017, 1,113 were killed by their partners, former partners or relatives. Although Brazil is one of the few countries to have specific legislation to combat femicide, alongside the lethal violence that Brazilian women face is their institutional ‘invisibilisation’. Women account for 52 per cent of the electorate, but they barely make up 10 per cent of the federal deputies in parliament. It comes as little surprise that they are therefore distancing themselves from a political system that sidelines them and leaves them defenceless. According to a poll conducted by Datafolha, 33 per cent of women intend to vote blank, in a country where voting is compulsory, as compared with 23 per cent of men and 16 per cent of the women on the electoral roll in the 2014 elections.

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Beyond institutional politics

“Women’s representation in parliament has always been very low: it is one of the characteristics of Brazil’s democracy that is reproduced in left-wing spaces. This lack of representativeness leaves us in no doubt that this democracy is not for us [women],” says activist Helena Silvestre, founder of the movement defending the right to housing, Luta Popular. The global rise of the feminist movement has managed to bring the need to increase women’s representation to the table. And it has to be said that most of the candidates are running with a female candidate for the vice presidency. As for female presidential candidates, there are only two: evangelical Marina Silva and Vera Lúcia, the working class candidate from the north-east, standing for the PSTU (Unified Workers’ Socialist Party). Silvestre contrasts the quota policy with the organisational approaches of movements that consider themselves to be feminist, such as Luta Popular, in which “women are part of the decision-making structures and the discussions specifically include how to strengthen women, and the need to provide assistance and emotional support”.

What is true is that, despite the electoral retreat shown by Datafolha, women are taking part in politics in ever increasing numbers, but not just at institutional level.

“Party politics is an antiquated model that no longer addresses the problems of a society sceptical about political parties, given the pervasiveness of corruption. I think that before taking on these discredited institutions, we should prioritise social organising and tackle subjectivities, which have been taken over by neoliberal logic, raising issues, for example, such as the new forms of exploitation and dispossession through the financialisation of life and debt,” says Rodríguez.

“No! I won’t accept it! I refuse! / I am not the cheapest meat on the market. / The cheapest meat on the market is not the black woman’s meat [flesh]” are the last verse of the poemCarne de Mulher by poet Jenyffer Nascimento. She is one of the leading figures on the cultural scene of the Sao Paulo periphery. The collectives built up around A Periferia Segue Sangrando (The Periphery Is Still Bleeding), or magazines such as Fala Guerreira (Speak Out, Woman Warrior) and Revista Amazonas are emerging as new forums for activism, in which black, indigenous and marginalised women are able to raise their voice, a voice silenced for centuries, and are coming up with concrete ways of sustaining life and relentlessly defending their bodies and their territories.

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