democraciaAbierta: Investigation

Hamangaí: Brazil’s Indigenous women find their power after colonial abuse

Violence against women and girls has long been a taboo subject for Brazil’s Indigenous communities. No more

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Pablo Albarenga Francesc Badia i Dalmases
1 November 2022, 2.33pm
Right: Hamangaí Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe, lying on her territory. Left: Aerial view of the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe Caramuru community
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Foto-composición: Pablo Albarenga

Guarded by police, thousands of people from Brazil’s Indigenous ethnic groups descend on Paralela Avenue, near the Bahia state legislative assembly. There is tension in the air in the city of Salvador, in north-eastern Brazil.

The police are intimidating in full riot gear. By contrast, people wearing the distinctive feathered headdresses and ornaments of various Indigenous groups – Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe, Pataxó, Kaimbé, Kiriri, Tumbalalá, Pankararé́ and others – dance and chant. Anti-government slogans and shouts of "Fora Bolsonaro!” (“Out with Bolsonaro!”) resound

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Police surveillance during a march of the Regional Free Land Camp in Bahia

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Pablo Albarenga

But the march ends without incident, unlike the previous day when a scuffle broke out between police and protesters. It happened near the Bahia Administrative Centre (CAB), where a large camp of Indigenous groups from all corners of Bahia state has been holding several days of debates and workshops to assert their rights.

The discussions led by Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe women have been attracting interest at the camp and so is one of their activists, 24-year-old Hamangaí Marcos Melo Pataxó. She is the national coordinator of Engajamundo, an NGO that works on environmental issues with young people throughout Brazil. Born and raised in the village of Caramuru Catarina Paraguaçu, nearly 500 kilometres south of Salvador, Hamangaí also serves as an advisor to Humana, an organisation that works for the rights of Brazilian girls and women.

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Itocovouty Galache Melo films with her cell phone the indigenous march of which her people are part of, during the Regional Free Land Camp in Bahia

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Foto: Pablo Albarenga.

She sees cattle ranchers and farmers as the biggest threat to her people’s territory, as they continue to deforest what little is left of the tropical rainforest known as Mata Atlântica, the ‘Atlantic Forest’. The battle against them, she says, cannot be separated from other ‘invisible’ evils, such as gender inequity. To this end, Hamangaí is promoting the inclusion of young women in decision-making and working on a campaign against gender-based violence and abuse.

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Aerial view of the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe Caramuru community

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Pablo Albarenga

Back home in her village from the protest march and debates in Salvador, Hamangaí organises a therapeutic community session at the village school to discuss the reality of Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe women’s lives.

These lives, she says, are full of accumulated pain and suffering, which she traces back to the colonial era. Women, says Hamangaí, were subjected to terrible and systematic violence by the colonisers, who appropriated their bodies as an integral part of the spoils of conquest.

The young activist’s vision is the reclamation of the Indigenous female body, which was colonised just like the land it inhabits. It must be reclaimed as something sacred, something integral to nature, she says.

The colonial heritage means that “most people have a view of women as objects,” says Hamangaí

The colonial heritage means that “most people have a view of women as objects,” says Hamangaí. “And that's very painful, it hits, and it's passed down from generation to generation. This practice of violence against Indigenous women was left by the colonisers themselves,” she says, proudly wearing a blue feather headdress that signifies power.

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Women from the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe Caramuru community dance and sing during the women's meeting held at the public school in the village of Caramuru

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Pablo Albarenga

“Women are sacred because they generate life, because they generate food,” she continues. “She is sacred because she brings ancestral knowledge, sensitivity, healing through medicinal plants. She is sacred because she brings the message, the word, the advice, the wisdom that comes from the heart, that comes from within. She is sacred because she is an extension of nature.”

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Hamangaí paints posters against gender-based violence along with students and women from Caramuru village

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Pablo Albarenga

It is with this holistic vision of the role of Indigenous women that Hamangaí organises the therapeutic activity at Caramuru village school. Working with Engajamundo activists, she gathers women of all ages around an offering of plants, flowers, fruits, pots and seed necklaces, which symbolise nature’s fertility and femininity. The offerings are placed on banana leaves.

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Students from Caramuru village participate in a women's meeting to discuss gender-based violence in indigenous communities

Her goal is ambitious because the internal dynamics, hierarchies and taboos in Caramuru, as in other villages, are not conducive to candour. But Hamangaí is determined to get the women in her village to talk to each other about gender issues that exist everywhere, in rural and urban areas and among all communities, Indigenous, Black, white or mestizo.

In Caramuru there is an opportunity to address some of the internal conflicts that would be difficult to deal with in other, more isolated communities

Caramuru village is just a few kilometres from Pau Brasil, a town of some 10,000 inhabitants. Many of Caramuru’s inhabitants grew up in Pau Brasil because the village was reclaimed from landowners only in 1997. Consequently, in Caramuru there is an opportunity to address some of the internal conflicts that would be difficult to deal with in other, more isolated communities.

Even so, advancing women's rights in an Indigenous community is not easy, despite the increasing mobilisation of Indigenous peoples for gender rights, the intensive use of social networks and a university education for some.

Nevertheless, Indigenous people increasingly display feminist awareness and are conscious of the urgent need for egalitarian schemes for women as well as for nature. According to the health ministry, between 2007 and 2017 (the most recent data available) there were more than 8,000 reported cases of violence against Indigenous women in Brazil.

Before the school session begins, some of the participants engage in ritual dances and chants that speak of community and allow them to recognise each other as equals and in solidarity, while invoking ‘Mother Nature’ as an element of communion and Indigenous identity.

The sessions, which Hamangaí organises regularly, always take place around an offering of plants, fruit and necklaces. They adopt the ‘fishbowl’ participatory methodology of group discussion: a few chairs are placed in an inner circle with concentric rings of chairs for the rest of the participants. At the school session, soon after the Salvador march, as many as 40 women are in the group at one point. They include both older women and young teenage girls and it is obvious there is considerable interest in Hamangaí’s efforts to help the community share its problems and look for viable solutions.

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Pataxó indigenous people demonstrate in Salvador de Bahia together with more than twenty indigenous peoples of Bahia as part of the Regional Free Land Camp

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Pablo Albarenga

Some of the older women make the most powerful interventions. They speak about the suffering that profound gender inequality has caused in their already hard lives as mothers, grandmothers and caregivers. For years, they have taken great responsibility for the community, with little or no ability to stand up and demand their rights. Now, it is cathartic for them to speak out and share their pain, and they encourage others to do the same.

The women elders of Caramuru village feel a special responsibility and know that if they speak, it will set an example and help overcome the traditional ‘law of silence’. And this is what happens. The session moves from confession to vindication, from accusation to redemption, uniting the participants in their determination to join together to confront the abuse and violence they have experienced.

In the end, it is the emotion and the sheer sense of liberation of having been able to share their experience, of having broken the silence, that gives the fishbowl session its therapeutic value and power of self-affirmation. Hugs of solidarity hugs and shared tears follow, after which the participants express determination to continue the struggle to end injustice.

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Hamangaí Marcos Melo Pataxó and his sister Itocovouty Galache Melo embrace for a portrait

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Pablo Albarenga

The workshop continues with the participants writing slogans, catchphrases and denunciations, and painting banners for demonstrations in favour of Indigenous women's rights and against gender violence.

It is striking that there is a profound awareness Brazil was built on unconscionable brutality and violence, in which much Indigenous blood was shed and women from many communities all over the country suffered. Some men, who have been watching the village school session from a distance, end up speaking out for the rights of Indigenous women and an end to violence against them.

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Hamangaí broadcasts live on Instagram the indigenous march her people are part of, during the Regional Free Land Camp in Bahia

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Pablo Albarenga

The workshop ends with a decision to draw up a plan for action as well as a catalogue of rights. Portrait photos are taken, with each woman posing as a protester in a way that best represents her. This illustrates the women’s attempt to project themselves as powerful, determined to fight and to build their self-esteem. The session culminates in a group photograph that serves as the final catharsis after the intense emotion of the day.

Hamangaí can hardly hold back her tears as the workshop ends. She says she appreciates the power of the day’s work and the liberating effect of the stories. There is a transformative force in the village being able to talk, share the suffering and make the decision to act together against inequality and violence, she says.

Her dream is simple: "That we can smile, that we don't have so many moments of tears. May we also have those moments where we can move around safely… within the community, but also outside it, in the city, in the university. That we are not afraid to be women in Brazil."

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Group photo after the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe women's meeting in Caramuru village

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Pablo Albarenga

Asserting women's sacred identification with nature, or in Hamangaí’s words “an extension of nature”, is a powerful way of defending rights. It is also part of a broader process of strengthening Indigenous identity. It is taking place in an environment degraded by years of colonisation and exploitation that destroyed 90% of the Atlantic Forest, which once contained the Indigenous Caramuru Paraguaçu land. Hamangaí and her fellow activists argue that this sacred dimension helps to confront the Western vision, which conceives of the world – and of women – as something that can be exploited, squeezed, raped.

What happened in Caramuru village is proof that more and more Indigenous women are leading the battle of their lives and for their lives.


This article is part of the Rainforest Defenders series, a project by democraciaAbierta in collaboration with Engajamundo Brasil, with the support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund of the Pulitzer Center. It was originally published by El País here.

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