Until recently, women in Latin America had achieved unprecedented levels of political participation with the election of women presidents in several countries in the region. Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016), Cristina Kirchner (2007–2015) and Michelle Bachelet (2006–2010 and 2014–2018) all served two terms as elected presidents in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, respectively. All three are political activists belonging to parties with a long-standing history and ties to popular demands that were born out of the fight against dictatorships that devastated various countries in Latin American during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In Costa Rica, the sovereign will of the people saw yet another woman elected president. Laura Chinchilla (2010–2014), who had ties to local oligarchies, was also among those women in positions of great power who succeeded in introducing great changes in legislation.
All the aforementioned elections were the result of lengthy processes of women’s political involvement in the public life of those countries, which expanded their participation beyond the domestic sphere and taking care of their families, a gender role that has traditionally been viewed as the natural place of women. These changes were a sign of remarkable progress in a continent characterised by the concept of machismo.
In this new social framework of greater political participation by women, and also as its driving force, women are leading diverse and powerful social movements within the region. In Brazil, a wave of widespread protests against Jair Bolsonaro, joined together under the name of Ele Não! (“Not Him!”), soon grew into the largest women's movement in the country's history, uniting millions of women from every city in Brazil during the second round of the most recent presidential elections in 2018. In the midst of his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro publicly stated that “women should earn less than men because they become pregnant”, despite occupying the same positions and fulfilling the same job duties at work. The current Brazilian president even showed no respect for his only daughter, publicly declaring that after having fathered four sons, she was merely the result of a “moment of weakness”.
The movement, which has helped to raise awareness of the plight of Brazilian women, took to the streets to demand that the government implement policies and allocate funding towards combating femicide, definitively raising the issue of machismo in its worst form. In Argentina, the Ni Una Menos (“Not One [Woman] Less”) movement brought women together to demand their rights and insist that laws be put in place to defend their lives against the growing wave of gender-based killings. This same movement vehemently championed a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and inspired similar movements in Mexico, Peru, Chile and Costa Rica, as well as Brazil.
In Latin America, this grassroots feminist movement has become a major player as a result of its impassioned fighting spirit in the streets and its ability to advocate for a clear public agenda in defence of rights. This mounting tide of women’s participation in the politics of the region is the fruit of many years of struggle. Before Ele Não!, even before the election of our country’s first woman president, Brazilian women were already fighting for their rights across all social sectors. We needn’t look far to find exemplary figures like trade unionist and human rights activist Margarida Alves, one of the very first women to hold a position of union leadership, who championed the struggle of Brazil’s campesinas (peasant women). She was brutally killed in 1983. To this day, in our country Brazilian peasant women hold an annual demonstration called the Marcha de las Margaridas in honour of the assassinated revolutionary leader, whose name in Portuguese is the same as that of the beautiful white and yellow daisy.
Dorothy Stang, a religious missionary better known as Sister Dorothy, was an American-born, naturalised Brazilian citizen and a strong advocate for land and environmental rights. She was murdered in Anapu, a city in the state of Pará, in 2005. From the moment of her arrival to the Amazon region in the 1970s, she dedicated her life to defending the environment from illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.
Eleven months after the brutal slaying of Marielle Franco, a councillor for Brazil’s second-largest city, her killers have yet to face justice. Franco was a vocal opponent of police brutality who also openly criticised the federal government’s intervention in the public security of Rio de Janeiro. Although the exact details remain unknown, her assassination has been linked to the organised crime that has plagued Rio de Janeiro for years; her death a punishment for her tireless commitment to the defence of human rights.
The Brazilian trade union movement has invariably played a role in each and every one of these cases, demanding that public authorities launch investigations and commemorating the heroic deeds of the women who gave their lives for our country as social activists and human rights defenders. The aforementioned examples fail to reflect the massive participation of women in all sectors of social and political life. Up until recently, Brazil had been a pioneer in the defence of women's rights. President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva enacted a legal framework to end domestic violence against women, and his administration also established the Special Secretariat of Policies for Women, aimed at promoting gender equality. However, this same department is now headed by a minister appointed by the most reactionary factions of the fundamentalist evangelical churches; she espouses extreme, controversial and divisive public policy positions .
If we are to foster a social resistance movement strong enough to match the country’s current political climate, the Brazilian trade union movement must develop and implement participatory mechanisms to help foster women’s involvement in politics. For example, during the most recent Congress of the teachers’ union to which I belong as an active member, the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação (CNTE/Brazil), we chose to make equal participation of women in union leadership a priority. It is absolutely imperative that our organisational leadership reflects the reality of our sector, which is comprised mostly of women. In so doing, we can bolster our political participation in a world dominated by misogyny and machismo. In the words of Marielle Franco, “The roses of resistance grow out of asphalt. We might receive roses, but we’ll keep clenching our fists from where we stand against the powers that be and the forces that affect our lives”.
This blog is part of a series of blogs to commemorate International Women’s Day 2019, which highlight gender and education issues that are linked to the themes and sub-themes of the 8th EI World Congress, which will take place in Bangkok, Thailand July 19-26th 2019.
Read the previous blog in the series: “A gender perspective is an integral part of EI’s child labour projects ‘Out of Work and Into School’”, by Nora Wintour.