Is Brazil’s government rolling back women’s rights?

After Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil has seen a regression in its policies towards women.

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Many women have refused to acknowledge Temer's leadership [Kimberley Brown/Al Jazeera]

Sao Paulo, Brazil – In an abandoned building in the centre of Brazil’s financial centre of Sao Paulo, Marli Aguiar and a group of black women have come together to talk about one thing: what to do about Brazil’s new interim government.

After only weeks in power, it has become clear that this new administration will be a “disaster” for women’s rights, they say – particularly for black, working-class women.

“This is a patriarchal and machista society,” says Aguiar, while the women nod in agreement. “We’ve fought against this for years and achieved successes, but now they’re taking all that away.” 

Aguiar is referring to the interim government of Michel Temer, which took power in May after the senate voted to suspend, and ultimately impeach, President Dilma Rousseff. 

In his short time in office, Temer has already made several changes to public spending as part of his plans to overhaul the economy and balance the budget. These include harsh spending caps on social programmes, reducing labour rights, and closing government ministries – all of which have contributed to major gains in women’s rights over the years. 

“The situation right now is critical,” says Aguiar, who has been regularly attending the anti-Temer protests and sit-ins that have been taking place almost every day in Sao Paulo. 

Leading the fight

Women have been leading the fight to see Temer removed from office, calling his policies a dangerous step backwards. One of the more popular slogans seen at demonstrations has been “Ser mulher sem Temer”, or “Being a Woman Without Temer”, which is a play on words as “temer” also means “fear” in Portuguese. 

Many women, including Aguiar, have also refused to acknowledge Temer’s leadership, referring to his administration as a “coup government”, as it forcibly removed the democratically elected Rousseff and the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) from office.  

“One thing we’ve decided is that we’re not going to recognise this government or ask anything from it, him [Temer] or his ministries. He has to leave,” says Aguiar, who is also a member of the feminist organisation Marcha Mundial de las Mujeres (World March of Women), also known as MMM.

Women have been leading the fight to see Temer removed from office [Kimberley Brown/Al Jazeera] 
Women have been leading the fight to see Temer removed from office [Kimberley Brown/Al Jazeera] 

‘Taking away our rights’ 

One of Temer’s first controversial changes occurred within his first week in office, when he announced plans to close ministries and created a cabinet composed entirely of white men.  

Protesters, led by feminist and LGBT groups, took to the streets the next day to denounce the move, saying that the new government does not represent their diverse population, which is 51 percent female and 53 percent non-white.

Fifteen of Temer’s 24 newly named ministers are facing criminal investigations, mainly on charges of corruption. Three of those ministers have since been forced to resign because of their connection to the infamous Lava Jato corruption scandal, a large-scale scheme involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras and a large portion of Brazil’s congress. 

READ MORE: Why ‘Brazilians never give up’ 

Temer himself has been accused of corruption and banned from running for office for the next eight years, though he continues to deny these accusations.

But there were other changes within the cabinet that were much more alarming for women’s rights groups. 

Several of the ministries that were slashed were those that promoted equal rights for women and black communities, including the Ministries of Racial Equality, Human Rights, and Women – which were all folded into the Ministry of Justice. 

This alone is a cause of concern for women’s rights groups since it eliminated the key post in charge of promoting and protecting their rights. It also closed down any policy negotiations and proposals that the previous Ministry of Women was engaged in. 

According to Aguiar, the MMM had long been negotiating more progressive policies with the Ministry of Women, particularly on issues of legalising abortion and prostitution.

Aguiar admits that those conversations were advancing slowly under the PT government, but at least they were beginning to see a “tiny opening” for more progressive policies, she says. “With this new government, we will never get in to negotiate or even present proposals,” she adds.

The new Minister of Justice, Alexandre de Moraes – whose ministry will now be in charge of women’s rights issues – was accused of having connections with organised crime in his previous position as Sao Paulo’s Minister for Public Security and having a history of ordering the military police to use excessive force against protesters and social movements.

But even more concerning for women is the new head of the Secretariat of Policies for Women, now operating within this ministry. This role was assumed by Fatima Pelaes, a former congresswoman for the state of Amapa, who is opposed to the decriminalisation or legalisation of abortion – a major issue for women’s rights groups in the country. 

Currently, abortion is illegal in Brazil unless the pregnancy puts the life of the woman in danger, is a result of rape or the foetus suffers from a brain defect called anencephaly. Outside these circumstances, if a woman has an abortion, she can be imprisoned for up to three years.

“It is really dangerous for us that there is someone who is in charge of the secretary of women who is against the autonomy of women,” says Carla Vitoria, who is a member of the Brazilian Sempreviva Feminist Organization. “So this government is implementing serious projects that are taking away our rights that we have already won.”

‘Protesting because they know the risks’

Apart from the cabinet reshuffle, Temer has wasted no time in trying to cut funding to social programmes, which will also “directly affect the lives and autonomy of women”, said Vitoria.  

Social programmes have been a hallmark of the PT government since it came to power in 2003. It is one reason why the party has won the past four elections – first with former president and party founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who goes by the name of Lula, and then Rousseff. 

READ MORE: Behind the Dilma Rousseff impeachment story 

Even though Rousseff herself has seen her popularity plummet since 2013, mainly because of her connection to the floundering economy, this lack of confidence has not been extended to the PT’s socially progressive policy agenda. Lula himself still sees some of the country’s highest approval ratings and is believed to be the most likely to win the next national elections, if he chooses to run.   

As a result of these social programmes, Brazil has seen its poverty rate drop from 17.3 percent in 2006 to 7.4 percent in 2014. Its infant mortality rate has also dropped by 40 percent in the past decade, and the national literacy rate has risen for both men and women. 

They have also contributed to women’s empowerment by increasing access to education, improving labour rights in certain sectors, and increasing women’s autonomy in the home. 

“Women are protesting now because they know the risks they are facing,” said Eleonora Menicucci, the former minister of the secretariat of policies for women, in a recent interview with local media Brasil 247.

“Women, especially the poor, were the main beneficiaries of economic and social policies inaugurated by Lula and continue … under the [Rousseff] government,” she added. 

Its biggest success stories include the Bolsa Familia programme, created in 2003, which distributes monthly payments to poor families, under the condition that the children attend school and get regular health checkups. 

The payment is given to the woman of the family because they are more reliable, according to the policy. As a result, 93 percent of the beneficiaries are women [PDF], with 68 percent of those being black women. The programme has also been found to empower women by giving them authority over their own bank accounts and a greater role in family leadership.

Some studies also show that it has given them greater independence from their husbands, in a country where the domestic violence rate is one of the highest in the world. 

Another programme called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life), created in 2009, was developed to help people on low incomes to buy their own house. Almost 80 percent of these beneficiaries are women. 

READ MORE: Is Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff a victim of a coup? 

Since 2004, universities have also been using affirmative action policies, mainly through scholarship programmes and quota systems for accepting low-income and non-white students. 

These include programmes such as ProUni, which provides scholarships for low-income students, Fies, which offers low-interest college loans, and Pronatec, another low-interest loan system for technical and mechanical courses. These were all created to increase access to university education and diversify Brazil’s student population, which has traditionally been dominated by wealthy white men.

They have also specifically benefited women. According to the Ministry of Education, by 2013, ProUni had given 1.2 million young people access to higher education who otherwise would not have had it, while 51 percent of these scholarships were given to women. Women now represent a majority in most college-level classes. 

According to Menicucci, programmes such as Pronatec have also contributed in part to rethinking gender roles, since it has allowed more women to take on technical and mechanics training, which are normally seen as male jobs. 

Despite these major social gains, these programmes are at risk under Temer’s austerity plans. He has already proposed specific cuts to the healthcare, education and housing budgets, which will limit or freeze any of the above-mentioned programmes and more.  

He has also proposed a cap on spending for social programmes so that each year the total fund cannot grow beyond the rate of inflation. This blocks the development of any new programmes to attack poverty and inequality and stops the government from increasing investments in social programmes in times when the economy is doing well. If congress passes this proposal, the law would be in place for the next 20 years. 

‘This is not our government’

To understand what this means, Joao Sicsu, a professor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, did a simulation study looking at what would have been the investments in education and healthcare over the past 10 years if Temer’s spending limit was implemented in 2006. 

According to his calculations, healthcare programmes would have received 178 billion Brazilian reals ($56bn) less than they actually have, and education would have received 321 billion reals ($101bn) less. 

Temer did recently announce plans to increase funding to the Bolsa Familia programme by 12.5 percent, just above the 9 percent increase that Rousseff had announced in May. But this will not exempt it from the future inflation spending cap. 

This boost was also revealed just weeks after his government proposed a plan to overhaul the Bolsa Familia programme and decrease the number of recipients – what local media said could eliminate up to 10.5 million families, or 39 million people, from the programme. 

The Ministry of Social and Agrarian Development (which now oversees the Bolsa Familia), told Al Jazeera in an email that Temer’s government “is not making cuts to social programmes”. However, the press office added, the ministry has “proposed a review of the social benefits with the objective of ensuring it reaches those people who really have a right to it”. The ministry also stated that “women continue to be the focus of social policies for this government”. 

But Temer has already dismantled a more recent law created in 2013 that allowed domestic workers – who are predominantly black women – to have labour rights on par with the rest of society for the first time in Brazilian history. When it was released, UN Women praised the new bill, saying it “corrects a historical debt to millions of Brazilian women and will generate economic growth for the country”.

However, Temer has repealed the clauses of the law that guaranteed domestic workers access to social security, payment for wrongful dismissal and the guaranteed payment for time served, known as FGTS funds, stating that employers found them too costly.

“We will see a lot of losses, and very fast,” said Aguiar, “and that’s why we’re asking people to mobilise, including taking to the street, to get rid of this government, which is not our government.”  

Many women, including Aguiar, have refused to acknowledge Temer's leadership [Kimberley Brown/Al Jazeera]  
Many women, including Aguiar, have refused to acknowledge Temer’s leadership [Kimberley Brown/Al Jazeera]  

‘The process is a horror’ 

Most protesters have been demanding that Rousseff return to office to finish her term, while others are demanding new elections, but they remain united in the idea that Temer has to go.  

Demonstrators have been quick to point out the irony behind Rousseff’s impeachment, since she is one of the few people in Brazil’s Congress who is not actually being charged with corruption. Instead, she’s being charged with manipulating the budget in the run-up to the last national elections to cover up Brazil’s failing economy, which many say is not an impeachable offence. 

READ MORE: Brazil is like ‘House of Cards,’ Rousseff’s attorney says 

For some women, this process has been another example of the deeply embedded sexism in Brazilian society and politics. They say the way the media portrayed and attacked Rousseff both during the latest elections and the impeachment process would have never happened to a male leader. 

According to Aguiar, these attacks actually allowed women to identify more strongly with Rousseff.

Many women also say Rousseff’s political past – she was held prisoner and tortured during the 1970s dictatorship – has contributed to this idea of a shared struggle. This has allowed women to feel more represented in Congress, at least for middle and working-class women, says Aguiar. 

Not all women feel this way, however. Vitoria supports Rousseff because she is the democratically elected president, not because of her gender, adding that former President Lula actually passed more policies that helped women’s rights than Rousseff did.

She added that the impeachment process has not been about sexism so much as a tactical manoeuvre by the right-wing opposition to take power – a common perspective among anti-Temer protesters. 

Whether Rousseff’s impeachment is an act of misogyny or not, she is not the main victim in this process. Millions of other Brazilian women are at risk of losing their rights and access to essential services.

The process is “a horror”, says Aguiar, “but if enough people come out to the streets … we can change it, because we have changed many things up until now”.

Source: Al Jazeera