The women of the rivers and forests have feminist debate?

Beyond the reach of the internet and television in northern Brazil, feminist activism in the forests, on the boats and in the camps is sowing the seeds of a revolutionary and decolonial movement. Read Part 1.

Rebecca Souza
1 September 2016



Rebecca Souza. Photo: Osonmilu Argdão.When we talk about difficulties of the feminist movement in the northern region of Brazil, there is absolutely no doubt that the main one is isolation from the rest of the country.  There is little dialogue between the feminist movement in the southern and south-eastern regions of Brazil and us, which reproduces a model of xenophobia towards our opinions. This lack of knowledge of one of the largest geographical regions means that the difficulty in relation to the recognition of our feminism persists.

When we talk about feminism of women from traditional peoples, the situation is even more bleak.

How can women with no access to what the academic world is producing call themselves feminists?

In the far north, there are debates on women's issues?

The north exists? Feminism in the north exists? The women of the rivers and the forests have feminist debates?

This historical suppression leads to relations in which we are merely colonised people who can only be discovered when studied by colonisers.

The girl-woman, spouse, the children at home

All feminists of traditional peoples have encountered the following situation. When a girl has her first period, historically, in our communities, they have two options: either she marries a man or goes to work as a domestic worker in the city.

When we talk about our movement's difficulties, going against what is said to be "cultural" is the greatest obstacle we have. We invariably live in the areas of our peoples, and going against their common sense is a herculean task. I would say that this is truly a crossroad for our activism. While our desire to be with our people is very dear to us, we deal with what we believe to be the rights of these young women and girls.

To personalise the debate, I remember that when I left my Romani camp, I believed it was my right to study and to have the opportunity to do so, but I also felt that I had to give something back to the girls that remained there. Being part of a community and going against their customs is not easy for human rights activists, but we continue to believe that these girls will succeed us and accomplish much more than we expect them to.

Who defends women's rights defenders?

According to data from organisations linked to the Catholic Church, since the assassination of Sister Dorothy Stang, an American missionary who died in the municipality of Anapu, Pará, more than 400 people have been killed. Of these, 45% are women who fought for land, housing, education and respect for their traditions. Even though these women were not "academic feminists" or perhaps did not call themselves feminists, they were women's rights activists.

Terrible "death syndicates" exist in northern Brazil. When several people are displeased with someone or something, they get together to pay a hired assassin. When the case involves a woman, the situation is even more alarming. The isolation of female activists is a very significant factor. When they are married and have children, the threats extend to their family.

Let me take a moment to tell my story.

I am an activist under threat. Since I turned twenty, I cannot leave my home at night and I have already escaped from hired assassins twice.  My crime, like that of other women from the north, is having raised my voice against those who have money in the state.

Justice is absent when individuals from traditional peoples are the ones to fall. In the assassination of a couple from an extractivist community, the judge freed the ones who ordered the crime under the allegation in his ruling that "when someone from the north gets involved in a social cause in Pará, he already knows that he is subject to die. Being an activist in the north means you know you are signing your death sentence."

How can we, as women, possibly fight without being afraid?

How can we have the courage every day to leave the house, knowing that we run the risk of that day being our last and that death can come on a motorbike or from the barrel of a gun?

Debating the safety of women activists from the north is of utmost importance and fundamental for our physical and mental health.

Every day is an opportunity

Being a woman from the north prepares us to live in adversity, whether it come from a river that floods and destroys our crops, a leopard that comes at night and eats our chickens, or difficulties in accessing information. However, this does not stop us from reorganising ourselves after every small defeat and we continue to advance in order to guarantee that we will win.

An important moment for this recent regrouping was the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the land of indigenous and traditional peoples. It was not uncommon to find women in the prior consultations, the numerous occupations of construction sites and even in the scene that travelled around the world where a Tuíra indigenous woman from the Munduruku tribe threatened an engineer with a machete after he mocked the indigenous peoples in his speech.

We have been through extreme difficulties. The dam was built and we live with the threat of another 18 being built. These are the moments when we, women, sit and think "How can we fight this? How can we make our voices heard?".

We must overcome these challenges, including those related to modern colonisation that advances daily in our territories and to the lack of recognition of the political voices of women. The challenge of coexisting with and directly confronting tradition, is what gives us our identity. It is what makes us constantly strive to develop more tools to overcome them.

With the advent of social media and social inclusion, we can make what happens to us reverberate around the world. Even though our movement has still not fully incorporated online activism into our practices, it is a powerful way of saying, "Here is our struggle. Come support us!" It is also strategic to occupy spaces. I am currently a civil society advisor for UN Women in Brazil. Yes, I am an advisor, even with my low level of education.

One way of supporting us and saying that we are a just as empowered branch of feminism as the other ones, is by recognising that the knowledge of women from traditional peoples goes beyond that of the academic world and we deserve to hold certain positions and participate in different spaces.

I believe that the best way to support our activism is by giving us the conditions we need to do so.

In many cases, in addition to a lack of education, women activists do not have the economic resources they need to get involved and this makes it impossible for us to be present during important moments. Our meetings are always important, as they are where we re-evaluate what must be done to advance. I cannot say we are prepared for all of the challenges. We are advancing and that is what matters. These are our strategies for change - changes that guarantee that we are always moving forward.

My fate upstream

I end this article with the hope that it goes far beyond my settlement and the rivers and forests of the north.

I end it with the hope that every individual who reads it will remember our victories, and that we were the ones who fought to occupy positions in order to obtain recognition for our traditional knowledge. May each one also remember that, at this very moment, it is possible that a girl from a traditional peoples' community is being torn from her family.

I want people to know that my life and the lives of other activists are being threatened for having committed the offence of fighting for women's rights. We often hear of barbaric acts and think that they do not happen in our country. But they do, here in the north.

I would like to leave you with some questions for reflection.

If you, the one who is reading this right now, identify yourself as a feminist, have you ever stopped to talk with a woman from the north of Brazil, even if only online? Have you ever taken the time to converse and understand that there are women who - despite not being part of the academic world - are engaged in feminist struggles and have a lot to teach others?

If you are not a feminist, I ask you: how many times have you set aside your view as a coloniser and opened up to us?

If we are "the other" or the minority, from what point of view are we seen as the minority?

I believe that our movement is revolutionary and decolonial. It is revolutionary because it happens in the forest, on the boat, in the camp, in the small village - everywhere that is beyond the reach of the internet and television. It is decolonial in the sense that it is done by us, for us - all of the granddaughters of the women who did not allow themselves to be colonised.

And it is for them and with them that we will continue on in our boat of resistance on the river of our feminist movement.

This is the second part of a two-part artice. Read Part 1

Rebecca Souza will be speaking at the forthcoming International AWID Forum Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice, 8-11 September, Bahia, Brazil.

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