Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Ana and Adriana* stood in the middle of a crowd of Brazilian activists protesting against recent proposals to further restrict access to abortion.
The couple, both 42, moved to Rio de Janeiro more than a decade ago, leaving behind their home countries of Venezuela and Argentina.
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For them, Brazil – with its reputation for tolerance and an open culture – was the least chauvinistic society in Latin America, a traditionally conservative and Catholic continent.
“If Venezuela were a ‘1’ on the scale of how bad it is, the US would be an ‘8’ and Brazil would be a ‘4’,” said Ana, who is a musician and originally from Caracas.
“We wanted to live in Latin America and we felt better here, even though a lot of women are killed here, even though a lot of black women are killed here.”
Despite their own personal victories – they formally married in 2012, registering their two children with both of their names – they were inspired to join scores of activists on the street last month.
The wave of public action in November was so galvanised, it was dubbed the “Women’s Spring”, with campaigners uniting across the country against politicians and policies seen as undermining women’s rights.
A key concern of those attending the events was an amendment to the country’s abortion law that would require rape victims to report the crime before being able to have an abortion.
Abortion is illegal in Brazil, except in three circumstances: in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is endangered, or when the foetus is developing with anencephaly, meaning that they are missing a part of the brain or skull and will certainly die.
Activists have criticised the proposed changes as a regression in policy led by the growing evangelical caucus in the Brazilian government, reversing progress in a country where, according to the United Nations, a woman dies having an illegal abortion every other day.
“It’s a setback in the life of women,” said Luciana Targeno, a coordinator with the Brazilian Women’s Union.
“It’s not about abortion, it’s about women today dying and it’s worse because it’s about sexual violence. Under this law, a woman would have to prove she has suffered sexual violence,” Targeno continued. “This is a cultural question of machismo. Poor women have little information about our fight. They believe in the evangelists and they applaud.”
Research indicates that as many as one in five women in Brazil have had an abortion.
Congresswoman Jandira Feghali from the Communist Party of Brazil, who originally brought the anencephaly amendment to the table, said the growth of evangelism in Brazil had made issues such as abortion ever more problematic.
“There were various attempts to advance the question of abortion in Congress, always hitting the wall, principally of religion, violating the definition of a secular state,” Feghali said, speaking at a union meeting in downtown Rio on a November public holiday.
“These things put religion above politics and this makes the advance impossible. I think it’s more difficult than it has been for a while,” the congresswoman said.
Ana and Adriana had joined dozens of women and their children to protest against the proposals with signs reading: “Being a mother is a choice.”
They have adopted Brazil’s mission for equality “for women”, they said, regardless of the fact that they are not Brazilian.
“I think we have to fight against any backward step,” said Adriana, a producer, talking at the family home in one of Rio’s picturesque bohemian neighbourhoods.
“The battles were all so difficult that we cannot allow years and years of struggle to be cancelled out with the stroke of a pen. We’ve had a lot of luck. For us in our middle-class bubble, it’s much easier to have a choice. But the majority of women don’t have that choice,” she said.
“Brazil is very broad. My reality is very different from [that of] a black woman who lives on the periphery.”
Map of violence
The author of the original draft amendment, Eduardo Cunha, the president of the lower house of Congress, complained in a newspaper column that the public outcry and protests had turned him into “enemy number one” for Brazilian women.
But abortion wasn’t the only issue that brought women’s rights activists on to the streets.
Revelations had emerged at roughly the same time that Pedro Paulo Carvalho, the would-be successor of the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, had assaulted his ex-wife, dismissing the incident as a “couple’s fight”.
The incident coincided with the release of the latest figures from this year’s Mapa da Violência – Map of Violence – report, showing that 50 percent of women killed by violence in Brazil died at the hands of a relative, and a third were killed by current or former partners.
The figures also showed that murders of black women had increased by 54 percent over the past decade.
The accumulation of factors brought together hundreds of activists in downtown Rio on November 25 to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
A difficult political struggle
In recent years, Brazil has made significant progress on women’s rights.
In 2006, an anti-domestic violence law, known as the Maria da Penha law, was introduced to set out strict time limits for police and authorities to respond to reports of domestic abuse. The law was deemed by the UN to be the third best in the world for combating domestic violence.
Earlier this year, a law against femicide was introduced to legally classify gender killings as a heinous crime with severe sentences.
But the recent women’s rights protests are seen as a response to fears that Congress could undo these developments.
“Many of the things that motivate women to go to the streets are precisely the risks of [legislative] regression in Congress,” said Feghali, who was also the rapporteur for the Maria da Penha law.
She said that before the law was implemented, she held public audiences where women told stories of almost being killed by their partners, of being stabbed and beaten. In one case, a woman was brutalised for simply changing her hair colour without permission.
“This ‘Women’s Spring’ has come about because various movements have emerged across Brazil and their cause is unified – the backward steps taken by Congress,” Feghali said.
The congresswoman, who has served six terms in office, said she went to the first women’s congress in the late 1970s, which took place at Rio’s state university.
“There have been a series of political victories but also in society, we are still very far from what is called equality,” she said.
“The difference between a black woman and a white man is phenomenal. And this is what we have to look at and overcome.”
At the fifth annual “Slutwalk”, which also took place in Rio in November, many young women were taking part for the first time.
Eighteen-year-old Beatriz Moreno said she went to the gathering in Copacabana because “We need more visibility for feminism in Brazil.”
One of the coordinators of the Slutwalk, Claudia Machado, explained that for many of the young women attending the event, it was their first experience of the women’s movement in Brazil. “It’s really important that this continues to be a place for young women to meet,” she said.
But the struggle has even reached the corridors of power in Brasília.
“In Congress, we still have an extremely male-dominated system, it’s not even 10 percent women,” Ferghali said.
“With the current Congress, which is more conservative than in recent years, prejudice against women has grown. This means that often when you are firm in your convictions, you become a target. And this is what happened with me,” she added, describing an incident in which she says one colleague verbally abused her and another grabbed her arm.
According to projections by the Folha de São Paulo, at the current rate of progress in Brazil, men and women will not earn equal salaries until 2085.
The report, which did not take into account any possible legislation changes to allow for quotas, also claimed that women would not be proportionately represented in Congress until 2254.
Disregard and fear
But far from reducing inequality, Ana, who received death threats when she and Adriana posed for a newspaper cover after their son was born, said being a woman in Brazil today is tantamount to “constant diminution”.
“I feel like it’s a daily struggle,” she explained, describing situations in which builders working on her home would, for example, only speak to her son’s godfather.
Ana and Adriana battle to offset the attitudes their children encounter. “People ask me why I take my son to gymnastics instead of judo,” Ana said.
“There are moments when I have more energy to fight these things and others when I don’t have any energy. When I was younger, without kids, I was more aggressive,” Adriana added.
At the heart of the current women’s campaign is the fear that Brazil may be going backwards, and Feghali believes the next priority should be a law to establish quotas in government for women.
“To have women in parliament would raise the relevance of the women’s cause,” she said.
“This movement is beautiful. It’s strong and I think it’s going to influence the Brazilian political process.”
Ana and Adriana said they wouldn’t hesitate to leave Brazil if regressive policy changes affect their children. But, they added: “We don’t want to leave Brazil. That’s why we have to be on top of this. So we don’t take a single step back.
“It’s like ants’ work every day. To notice inequality, not [to] pretend not to see it.”