The Attack on Brazilian Democracy is an Attack on Women

Religious Fundamentalism, Sexual Politics, and Feminist Resistance After Dilma Rousseff

By Kristina Hinz

Brazil is a dangerous country for women. Every 11 minutes, according to official statistics, a person is raped in Brazil. Alone in 2016, nearly 50,000 women were included in the list of rape victims – but the number of unreported cases is much higher. If this shameful situation were not enough, Brazil occupies the 5th place of the countries with the highest occurence of femicide.

Since the removal of the elected President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 2016, the situation for women in Brazil has worsened further: ultra-conservative and religious fundamentalist forces have gained significant political power under the government of Michel Temer (PMDB) and have put the already precarious abortion legislation in their crosshairs. Women’s movements across the country are mobilizing against the attack on reproductive rights and have asserted themselves as protagonists in the fight for democracy and human rights.

The Removal of Dilma Rousseff and the Political Crusade of Religious Fundamentalism

In recent years, Brazil has been the scene of a strong expansion of conservative and especially Christian-religious forces in party politics. Today, at least 199 of the 513 parliamentarians of the Brazilian Congress identify themselves as members of the Evangelical Front [Frente Parlamentar Evangélica]. Thus, almost 40% of the members of parliament belong today to the so-called Bible Faction [Bancada da Bíblia]. The group is made up of politicians from various parties which position themselves against gender equality, abortion and homosexuality, and more.

In addition to their ultra-conservative positions regarding gender identities, the Evangelical Faction has distinguished itself through its leading role in the process of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. It was the evangelical politician Eduardo Cunha (PMDB), a renowned religious-fundamentalist, who led the process of impeachment against the elected President. Almost unanimously, the Evangelical Faction voted in favour of the dismissal of Rousseff and profited in particular from the subsequent change of government that took place without a democratic election. Important ministries such as Development, Industry and Foreign Trade and the Ministry of Labour went to politicians of the “Bible Faction” after Rousseff’s dismissal. Particularly symbolic for the conservative jolt under Michel Temer’s administration was the transfer of the Special Secretariat for Women’s Policies to the evangelical politician Fátima Pelaes (PMDB), well-known as a fierce opponent of abortion.

Attack on Reproductive Rights as Part of the Attack on Democracy

In the course of the expansion of religious-fundamentalist forces in Brazilian party politics, the pressure on the hard-won women’s rights has increased tremendously. Abortion legislation, in particular, has repeatedly been the scene of ultra-conservative moral advance in recent years, despite the fact that Brazil’s law on the protection of reproductive rights is already extremely backward in international comparison.

Abortion is not only forbidden in Brazil, but is considered a crime against human life, punishable with imprisonment for physicians and pregnant women. For women, the consequences of this legislation are fatal: poorly performed abortions are the fifth leading cause of death for pregnant women. Every year more, than 200,000 women are treated in public hospitals as a consequence of deficiently executed abortions.

Under Dilma Rousseff’s government, however, some isolated progress has been made. In 2012, for example, abortion became legalized in the case of diagnosed anencephaly in the foetus. In addition, the former president passed a law in 2013, which guarantees comprehensive counselling and care to the victims of sexualized violence.

However, the conservative counter-attack was not long in coming: Eduardo Cunha, the same politician who also led the impeachment process against Rousseff, submitted no less than five legislative proposals to strengthen the criminalization and prosecution of pregnancy termination. Among other things, these proposals include the classification of abortion as a capital offence and the increase of penalties for treating physicians. One further bill currently in parliamentary procedure threatens to institute prison sentences on healthcare workers who inform and council rape victims about the possibilities regarding abortion.

Women’s Movements as Protagonists in the Fight for Human Rights and Democracy

In response to the attacks on the fragile abortion legislation, women’s movements have asserted themselves as protagonists in the fight for human rights and the protection of democracy. Since 2015, the year in which the controversial impeachment process of Dilma Rousseff was initiated and the criminalization of abortion has been prominently discussed by means of the above legislative proposals, Brazil has experienced an unprecedented boom in women’s movements. Women of all social classes and of all ages are founding feminist collectives, demonstrating against attacks on their reproductive rights and social cuts under Michel Temer’s administration.

Unparalleled in Brazilian history is the leading role of black women in the feminist resistance movements. Due to their double structural disadvantage, both in terms of gender and race, they are particularly affected by the attack on reproductive rights and the cuts in social policies. The politically motivated assassination of socialist councilwoman and black feminist Marielle Franco (PSOL) in March of this year has added even more fuel to the resistance of women from the favelas, provoking a series of candidatures by black women from the city’s peripheral regions for the upcoming general elections.

Brazil’s youngest women have also written history of resistance. In 2016, Brazil witnessed a nationwide wave of occupation of public schools in protest against the cuts in education budgets advanced by the Temer government. More than 1000 schools have been occupied throughout the country and the so-called “High School Feminists” [feministas secundaristas – school girls between 13 and 19 years old organized in feminist collectives at Brazilian high schools] have supported the occupations with their political expertise and in many cases assumed their leadership.

Imminent Danger: Right-wing Extremist Jair Bolsonaro Leads Predictions for Presidential Elections

Despite the massive protests against the attacks on human rights and democracy, the prospects for the upcoming presidential election are more than gloomy. After Lula’s arrest in April of this year, ex-military Jair Bolsonaro is now leading the election forecasts. The former captain defends torture and military dictatorship. Due to his discriminatory statements against quilombolas [descendants of enslaved persons that escaped from plantations], indigenous people and refugees, he was charged with racism at the Federal Court of Justice (STF). Nevertheless, he has currently accumulated almost 25% of the votes in the election forecasts. The prospects for women, black and persons of colour, Indigenous and LGBTIQ are not only bleak, but seem almost hopeless in the event of the triumph of the “Donald Trump of the Tropics”, as the Guardian has euphemistically described Bolsonaro.

The resistance against anti-democratic forces and human rights violators in Brazilian politics depend on the widespread mobilization on the streets, and can no longer be left to the alone responsibility of women and other structurally disadvantaged groups. It is now up to the entire Brazilian society to speak out loud against growing fundamentalism and right-wing extremism, both on the streets and at the polls.

Kristina Hinz is a Researcher at the Center for Studies on Inequalities and Gender Relations (NUDERG) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and coordinator and lecturer of the extension course Contemporary Feminist Theory at the same university. Her research covers Brazilian feminist movements, the role of women in the Brazilian drug war, the militarization of security policy, and violence against women in Brazil.

Kristina holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and a Bachelor of Science in International Economics and Latin American Studies from the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen. In Brazil, she has worked for the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), the country office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Global South Unit for Mediation (GSUM), among others.


This article is also available in German.