Brazil International

Brazil’s new administration hinders upkeep and development of women’s rights in the country

Brazil is a place of many contradictions, inequalities and social struggles with no easy answers. Many have failed to either minimise or even address these problems in the past, but no one has shown so much disregard for them as current president Jair Bolsonaro does. At least, not since the days of dictatorship that plunged the country into darkness for over 20 years in the past (1964-1985).

Bolsonaro’s victory in the ballot boxes, in 2018, has left a considerable amount of Brazilians feeling vulnerable and afraid, as it now feels as if the country is officially moving back towards a past no one wants to relive. Women are especially scared to exist in Brazil nowadays, with domestic violence, rape and femicide rates on the rise and a generalised contempt for fundamental human rights increasing by the day, in favour of conservative and ultra-religious ideas.

Reproductive rights in Brazil

We are, of course, talking about a country where reproductive rights are already essentially nonexistent. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Brazil’s abortion laws are incompatible with its human rights obligations”. The termination of a pregnancy, in the country, is considered a “crime against life”, except on two occasions, in cases of rape or when it’s necessary to save a woman’s life – but even in these cases, there are bureaucratic obstacles that discourage women. Except for those circumstances, the Articles 124 to 128 of our Criminal Code are there to punish not only the woman but anyone who helps her to perform the procedure.

It’s a widely known fact that strict abortion laws are ineffective, as countries that legalised it saw, in fact, a drop in the number of procedures and consequently of maternal deaths. In Brazil, it’s worth mentioning, abortion laws are incredibly outmoded, dating from the 1940s, and do not prevent 1 million abortions from happening within its territory every year, even under such prohibitive legislation. Women won’t stop having abortions but, in a country like Brazil, they will resort to dangerous clandestine solutions, especially if they come from unprivileged backgrounds.

According to the National Abortion Survey (PNA), the most common profile of women who resort to abortion is of a 19-year-old black girl already with kids. Meanwhile, data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) shows that the rate of abortion provoked by black women is 3.5%, twice the percentage among white women (1.7%). That means that a black woman is 2.5 times more likely of dying because of unsafe abortion in Brazil. The statistics are deeply rooted in the institutional racism that accompanies a deficiency of sex education and access to contraceptive methods in the peripheries of the country, where a large part of the black population lives.

Reproductive rights and women’s lives hang in the balance between racial and social inequalities in Brazil.

If the scenario isn’t terrifying enough, the new administration has placed in power a legion of incompetent conservatives to handle pressing issues such as women’s reproductive rights and domestic violence. Adepts of the saying “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” have taken over Congress and attempts to go back on settled rights have already started.

On the head of the rebranded “Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights” is Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor who claims that a new era has started in Brazil and that “boys should wear blue and girls should wear pink”. Her mandate didn’t start very well as she launched a provisory measure that temporarily excluded LGBT communities from the new Human Rights directory.

Alves is setting the pace when it comes to women’s rights in Brazil, being herself an advocate of an unborn baby’s right to life from the moment of conception. She’s known for defending an old bill that furnishes rights to the embryo and promises to restrict access to legal abortion further, even in cases of violence, the so-called “Statute of the Unborn Child” (PL 478/2007). If approved by Congress, the proposal will create a “rape benefit” for a woman who decides to have a child even if the pregnancy is the result of a crime and it may prohibit embryonic stem cell research in the country.

Another reason for concern is the PL 261/2019 proposed in January by Márcio Labre, a Rio de Janeiro representative from Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL). The bill suggests a complete veto of all trading, advertising, distribution and donation of morning-after pills, progesterone based pills, contraceptive implants and even IUDs. The contraceptive methods, in the narrow mind of the councilman, are considered “micro-abortions”.

Rising rates of femicide in 2019

There’s no doubt that a wave of antifeminism has risen in Brazil since the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose campaign relied heavily on fake news spread on WhatsApp and rhetoric. Almost as a reflection of the promoted hatred towards feminists and “dirty leftist” women and disdain for women’s fundamental rights, 2019 saw a boom in cases of femicide.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), an alarming number of 126 cases of femicide and 67 attempts were registered nationwide, only on the first month of the year, with an average of four women killed every day. The reports refer to cases registered in 159 cities of the country, distributed in 26 different states.

Going against the odds, the new head of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security Sérgio Moro presented a package in February to amend the Criminal Code and, technically, reduce crime. Targeting corruption, organised crime and violent crime, the project means to provide “legal shelter” for police officers who kill in service. But Moro’s proposal foresees a change in Article 23 of the Criminal Code. The text will be adapted to consider cases of “excruciating fear, surprise or violent emotion” as self-defence. What the change does, in fact, is creating a dangerous loophole that can protect men from penalty in cases of femicide.

War on Education

Retired from the army, Jair Bolsonaro himself does little to hide the old-fashioned ideas of the administration and vouched for radical changes in Education. On several occasions, the chairman has declared he wants the military to take over public schools, vowing to eliminate references to feminism, homosexuality and violence against women from textbooks, often classifying the subjects as “brainwashing” and “Marxist indoctrination”.

When the media started pointing Bolsonaro as most likely to win the presidential elections, we knew it would be the start of a systemic campaign of misinformation targeting not only women but also LGBT, black and indigenous communities, the old, the poor, the left and human rights activists in the country. After all, this is the man who dedicated his vote to impeach former president Dilma Rousseff to the army officer responsible for torturing her during the dictatorship. A man who relativises rape, encourages the spanking of gay children and claims his sons are “too well educated” to date a black woman. Bolsonaro represents the past no one wants to revisit.

Feminists have a saying that “being a woman is an act of resistance itself”. In Brazil, that was never so true.


by Gabriela Nogueira

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