Brazilian feminists on the alert

Brazilian feminists have made steady progress at both national and regional levels with establishing sexual and reproductive rights, and they have an important stake in the discussions at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Cecilia Sardenberg calls on them to be alert against retrogressive steps
Cecilia Sardenberg
28 February 2010
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Recognized as one of the most articulate and influential women’s movements in Latin America, the feminist movement in Brazil has taken important strides beyond national limits, making its presence positively noted in global spaces. We were present at the UN from its very beginnings, Bertha Lutz, a Brazilian feminist who led our struggles for women’s right to vote (won in 1932), was one of the only four women delegates to the UN founding Charter in 1946. She played an important part in securing the inclusion of clauses against sexual discrimination and regarding equality between the sexes in the San Francisco Charter. And it was partly under her influence that Brazil pushed for the creation of the CSW as an organ of the Social and Economic Council.

Despite this early contribution and a short mandate in the Commission in the 1950s, 1985 and 1988, Brazil did not take a more progressive position towards women’s empowerment in the UN until the 1990s. The military who ruled the country for over twenty years (1964-1986) maintained a “trickle down effect” on the status of women, arguing that it would naturally improve with “development”. This position was still held by Brazil in the 1985 World Conference on Women in Nairobi: Brazil remained aligned with the G-77, a caucus of developing countries within the UN created in 1964 to provide “the means for the countries of the South to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity”. Despite the group’s importance in defending economies from the South, it has remained very conservative in regard to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

However, considerable changes in Brazil’s official position – with repercussions within the G-77 – came with the strengthening of the feminist movement at home. Feminists played an important role in the re-democratization of the country, joining in the struggle for the downfall of military rule and the creation of a more democratic constitution. Adopted in 1988, it recognizes the principle of gender equality and ensures women’s rights. Feminists supported the election of progressive candidates and gained increasing legitimacy for women’s demands within governmental circles. The creation of police stations for battered women and Councils for the defense of women’s rights came as a result of this dialogue with the state. Likewise, the formulation of the Comprehensive Health Program for Women (PAISM) and the provision of public services for legal abortions– in the case of pregnancies resulting from rape or those that pose a threat to the woman’s health – were also positive outcomes of this process.  

Prior to the 1994 Cairo Population and Development Conference, Brazilian feminist NGOs had brought together more than 300 feminists to produce a consensus on the recognition of women’s reproductive and sexual rights. Once there, the Brazilian delegation took a progressive stand and was instrumental in negotiating the more difficult issues in the Cairo Programme of Action, such as those in paragraphs 7.2 and 7.3  that deal with health and reproductive rights. This came to represent an important break for Brazil with the G-77 as well as with the position held by the Vatican and its allies regarding the recognition of these rights.

In Beijing in 1995 feminists were members of the official Brazilian delegation and also participated emphatically in the debates in the NGO forum - sometimes physically running from one to the other to argue a point.  These points included the need to incorporate the concept of gender and of a gender perspective in the Beijing Plan of Action - a concept that was widely rejected by the Vatican and Islamic countries alike, and the need to include sexual and reproductive rights including that the legalization of abortion on demand should be seen as a matter of public health.

When these rights had to be guaranteed again in the Beijing +5 meeting in 2000 it gave rise to new group within the G-77: SLAC (some Latin American countries), a group of Latin American countries that support a progressive stance towards women’s rights. Brazil has taken a leading role within this group, especially since the election of President Lula and the creation of our Special Secretary for Public Policies for Women. Within the last 15 years Brazil has served three terms in the CSW and has become a needed presence in the CSW so as to ensure that real advancements towards gender equality and women’s empowerment are promoted in the UN. 

Needless to say, this official “progressive” presence in global arenas must be sustained by an engaged feminist movement at home that both supports as well as monitors our official standing. Thus, although I was not present in the Beijing 95, Beijing+5 or Beijing +10 meetings, I certainly do not intend to be a passive observer as we evaluate Beijing +15 in the upcoming CSW 54.  Indeed, we need to be here this week and to be on the alert.

I hope that other feminists will also come to New York so as to ensure that, even if progress has been slow in coming, no retrogressive steps, especially concerning the controversial sexual and reproductive rights, will mar the implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action in the future. We, Brazilian feminists, have an important stake in these issues, those concerning abortion rights in particular: we have yet to fully guarantee them at home.    

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