Brazil: life for women under Dilma
By Tatiana Farah* 14 March 2012
A million clandestine abortions a year; wages 28% lower than those paid to men; four deaths a day in labour; 1,800 daily reports of assault and abuse, according to Disque Denúncia: Dilma’s Brazil is by no means easy for women. But it has been worse. Compared to the last year of the Lula government, mortality in child birth has fallen by 19%. Today the government has the largest number of women ministers in its history, and the president has placed women in key economic posts, such as head of Petrobrás and head of ANP (Agência Nacional de Petróleo).
Recently Dilma chose a well-known feminist and advocate of the legalisation of abortion, the political scientist Eleonora Menicucci, to run theSecretariat for Women. In the complicated chessboard of Brazil’s realpolitik, however, it is two steps forward and one step back. The day after appointing Menicucci, the president selected Senator Marcelo Crivella, from the arch-conservative Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God), to become minister for fishery.
With 97 million women (51% of the population), Brazil is a country riddled with machismo, which extends far beyond the government. Women needed a special law – the Maria da Penha law – to protect them from domestic violence, generally carried out by their husbands or partners. Even so, this violence persists. Gender differences affect social and labour relations. Abortion is a crime, and women who have one can end up in prison or in the limbo of religious and social condemnation. The only way is to carry out abortions clandestinely, which puts women’s health at risk.
In the electoral campaign, Dilma’s declarations against the criminalisation of abortion became weapons that conservative groups used against her. Even her sexual orientation was questioned. “My dear, I’m not going to reply to this. For the love of God, I have a daughter and I’m a grandmother,” Dilma protested in an interview. Asked about being a rigid and assertive person, Dilmareplied ironically: “Yes, of course, I’m a hard woman surrounded by gentle men.” At the same time, Dilma was frequently accused by her opponents of being “Lula’s puppet”. Dilma’s country is indeed not easy, even for Dilma.
“My arrival in the presidency is a unique opportunity to strengthen women’s position in society. I never forget that, even for a minute. My election has helped to increase the power of women, at least in some sectors of society”, Dilma said in a speech on 8 March. But the President admits that it’s too early to celebrate. “We can’t indulge in false triumphalism. Government and society need to do much more.”
Jacira Melo, from the feminist Patrícia Galvão institute, sees this speech, of which a ten-minute section was broadcast on national television, as a renewed commitment to policies for women. For her, the President has “more than a symbolic importance”. “Her speech on 8 March made eight policy commitments for women, in the field of work, health, development, politics, violence against women and culture. Dilma makes her commitment to society increasingly clear, and more and more she seeks to understand her historic role as a female president.”
With regard to machismo, the President is demolishing stereotypes. In an attempt – before her election – to make the former guerrilla more acceptable to conservative sectors, Lula had called her “the mother of PAC”.** But Dilma has done little to promote a stereotypical “motherly” image of tolerance and forgiveness. Instead, she has shown “masculine” determination in her dogged refusal to accept what she calls malfeitos (bad behaviour): 12 ministers have left her government, many of them accused of irregularities. The most recent resignation came from Afonso Florence, minister of agrarian reform, who belongs to Dilma’s own party, the PT. Little agrarian reform has been carried out so far by Dilma’s government, and this is one of the areas most criticised by the social movements. Dilma denied that the minister had been sacked for his poor performance, but gave no alternative explanation.
The President, who sacks ministers from her own party along with VIPs like the former head of the cabinet, Antonio Paloccin, and defence minister Nelson Jobim, calls civil servants, advisers and journalists “darling” or “my dear” when she is annoyed with them. She reserves her sensitivity for her two-year-old grandson, Gabriel, but she rarely allows anyone to photograph her with him. She wears understated clothes and behaves discreetly when she is outside the presidential palace. She treats Lula with great respect and listens to his advice about government and policy, but she paddles her own canoe, without paying undue attention to what her party wants.
No pupper of Lula’s
“She’s not in Lula’s shadow. Now it is he who is overshadowed by her”, says Maria Amélia de Almeida Teles, a feminist and former political prisoner from the União de Mulheres de São Paulo. For Amélia, having Dilma as president is “deeply significant” for women’s struggle, but she says that the President still needs to involve the women’s movement and human rights groups more fully in her government.
In a recent biography, the President appears in a photograph taken when she was being tried by a military tribunal. Thin and delicate, sheolds her head high while the military cover their faces. Forty years later it is this dirty, tortured young woman, condemned to more than four years in prison, who is the greatest power in the land. When she thinks it necessary, she tells off civilians and military officers. She gets things wrong and she gets things right. When she took office on 1 January 2011, she had her daughter by her side in the official car. Without a husband or partner, despite having been married twice, the fact that she entered the Planalto [seat of government] with only her daughter had great symbolic significance for Brazilian society, where many women head families and where the government responds to this reality by giving welfare payments, such as Bolsa Família, and deeds for houses in the Minha Casa Minha Vida programme, to the woman alone.
“Dilma represents an impressive moral force. She has transformed herself into a stateswoman, winning respect throughout the world. At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, she put on the agenda an essential topic, the question of Palestine. She talks on equal terms with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and she has criticised the way Europe combats its economic crisis. This moral force transcends feminism. And our hopes for policies geared to women have been ignited with the appointment of Eleanora Menicucci”, says the feminist Rose Nogueira, from the Tortura Nunca Mais human rights group.
* Tatiana Farah has been a reporter with O Globo newspaper since 2005. She covers domestic issues, including the reports that came out regarding Brazil in Wikileaks.
** PAC (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento) is a big government programme of investment in roads, waterways and other kind of infrastructure. It is very popular among the business class.