Photo: Jair Bolsonaro, poised to become Brazil’s next president. Photo: Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved.
In February 2016, a few months after Brazil’s only female president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached, the country’s newly installed interim-government under President Michel Temer issued one of its first directives.
With political leaders embroiled in a massive statewide corruption scandal, and the country anguished over the Zika health crisis, few noticed the official mandate to dissolve the Ministry of Women and replace it with the Secretariat of Policies for Women, now tucked away inside the Ministry of Justice.
This seemingly incidental administrative demotion, coupled with the appointment of an evangelical, anti-abortion congresswoman to lead the agency, has contributed to the abnegation of women’s rights in Brazil.
It also foreshadowed the rise of the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, a misogynist, homophobic, former military man who may become Brazil’s next president after this weekend’s runoff election.
This experience is not unique to Brazil. Many countries with women’s ministries face right-wing and religious attempts to eliminate or downgrade their influence – and in some cases, to change their mandates altogether. When this happens, it’s a strong signal that other democratic structures may also be at risk.
Women and democracy
The history of women’s ministries goes back to the 1970s, a time of democratic transitions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Women were key contributors to these movements yet their specific needs were often not addressed as new governments formed.
Protecting women’s human rights was an issue for new democracies, and more established ones. The United States had legalised abortion in 1973, yet marital rape was exempt from the criminal code, women could be fired for being pregnant, and they couldn’t apply for a credit card. Irish women weren’t allowed to sit in pubs; women In Nigeria didn’t have the right to vote; divorce was illegal in Brazil, Chile, and South Africa.
Against this backdrop, the United Nations’ 1975 World Conference of Women called for the creation of “national gender machineries” for the advancement of women. National machineries is UN-speak for government-recognised bodies such as ministries, departments or directorates.
This was a groundbreaking step and a critical necessity to ensure the health, security, and basic human rights of women and girls. It was also well-received by countries internationally. At the end of the World Decade for Women in 1985, 127 UN member states had some kind of national institution focused on women. By 2010, all but four countries had an office like this.
Of course, not all offices fulfill their mandates. Their success varies depending on funding, political will, and where they sit within the government hierarchy. Still, by merely establishing such a mechanism, a government at least tacitly acknowledges that women’s human rights require a dedicated focus, and that they are willing to put some resources behind this.
Under serious threat
The US is among the few countries without a dedicated women’s office. Though it has come close to creating one.
In 1995, President Clinton opened the Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, which was swiftly shuttered once President Bush took power in 2001. President Obama tried in again 2009, establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls, and the State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues.
Today, neither of these offices are listed on the White House website. Donald Trump’s administration has decimated their staff and senior leadership, refusing to appoint an ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, or fill other key vacancies. Meanwhile, many career staffers have left.
Women’s ministries throughout the world have enabled significant progress, especially on efforts to address violence against women, and increase women’s political participation. Regional studies show that effective gender machineries are a sign of a strong democracy. It’s alarming that these structures, to protect and promote women’s rights, are now under serious threat.
In Croatia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and Peru, ultra-conservative legislators and activists have called for new family ministries to be established, or for women’s ministries to be replaced by these.
They are part of a wider movement that wants the family – narrowly defined as a married man, woman and (ideally many) children – to have primacy over the individual rights and autonomy of women, girls, and LGBT people.
Rising populist movements with regressive social agendas are widely seen as threats to democracy. They are often defined by their anti-free press, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim positions, but they also share an open hostility to women’s human rights.
Bolsonaro’s steady ascendency in the polls in Brazil has been accompanied by an alarming rise in violence against journalists and activists – with women, including trans women, at particular risk while reporting or protesting.
Democracy can only flourish with women’s full participation. Assaults on women’s rights, and government bodies dedicated to women’s protection and empowerment, is a seldomly-mentioned indicator of creeping illiberalism.
Protecting women’s human rights, by building and preserving legal safeguards in government, is a bulwark against the erosion of functioning democracy. Losing these entities is the Klaxon call that demands our immediate attention.