The 2016 Summer Olympics are about to come to an end in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And while there’s been talk about risks in Brazil from water contamination and the Zika virus, there’s a far larger threat that’s gone largely un-reported: the threat to women’s rights from the current political and economic crisis.
As the world looks to Rio for the Olympics, it’s time to look more deeply at what’s going on for women in the country. Women activists are tackling unprecedented rollbacks in human rights, silencing of women’s voices, especially in government and public life, and an administration that is turning a blind eye to, among other things, Zika—a public health crisis that disproportionately impacts women. Women’s groups have been on the frontlines, leading demonstrations opposing the removal of President Dilma Rousseff (which many characterize as a coup), and denouncing the damaging new policies of the interim government led by Interim President Michel Temer.
To better understand the situation for women in Brazil, in advance of the Olympics, we spoke with KK Verdade, Executive Director of ELAS Fund—the only women’s fund in Brazil and a longtime Global Fund for Women grantee partner. ELAS currently supports dozens of grassroots women’s groups throughout Brazil. With years of experience in the women’s movement, KK provides an honest, on-the-ground perspective about how women are taking to the streets, making their voices heard, and mobilizing social movements for change. Women’s groups like ELAS Fund and the organizations it supports are shining a spotlight on the crisis to highlight the urgent need to invest in women in Brazil.
Global Fund for Women: What is the reality like in Brazil right now—especially for women?
KK Verdade: It’s complicated, the political scenario here is just overwhelming. It’s a very unique situation. Gender equality is being attacked very strongly. My generation has never experienced such a break from democracy. [Interim president Michel] Temer and the congress are extremely conservative, it’s such a backlash on human rights, on women’s leadership and women’s rights, on public services, on so many things. On his first day in power, he closed the women’s ministry, he closed the human rights ministry. He fired all the women in the Cabinet and replaced them with conservative, white men.
A lot of people around the world had the wrong idea that democracy was stable in Brazil—this was proven so wrong. Now, we’re in a crisis where 20% of people are unemployed and economic inequality is growing.
Can you describe how women and the women’s movement are leading the resistance, and what solution the women’s movement is striving for?
The solution we are looking for is to strengthen the women’s movement because this is the movement that is leading other social change movements in the resistance. We need to strengthen the leadership of women because what [the conservative political leaders] did with President Rousseff’s impeachment and the changes in political leadership by removing women from power, is they tried to make us silent—they tried to silence women leaders. Brazil is seen as a leader in the Global South, and it was really hard to get to this place. And we had a woman as President so women were leading the process for Brazil to become a powerful, respected global voice and women were driving cooperation among countries in the Global South. And then Dilma Rousseff was stripped of her power. All of the women ministers were fired and they named only white men. All ministries—imagine!—are led by men now.
It’s not representative of the population in any way—beyond the issue of gender equality, about 52% of Brazilians are black.
The message I want to get across from the women’s movement is that we have a goal for 2018: to have a feminist, progressive political agenda and to have women in leadership. And in order to get there, we all need to support the women’s movement.
The Summer Olympics start on Friday in Rio, which means the international spotlight will be on Brazil. What does this moment mean for the women’s movement which has been mobilizing and demonstrating?
We want to tell the story that the media is not telling. We’re talking about using this moment of the Olympics—with the international media here—to make the coup visible and to show the dissatisfaction of most of the population with the interim government.
But right now, already, the army is in the streets. I’ve never seen this in Brazil. We are not a military country, so this is really rare. There are tanks and army members in the streets with huge guns. They say it is for increased security with tourists coming for the Olympics. But the local, municipal police are in the streets too.
It’s horrible, and the repression is really severe. As far as I know, the army is also in São Paulo and it’s in full force here in Rio—especially where the demonstrations were happening, downtown and also in Copacabana, for example.
This is a smart move for the Conservative government, because they can say that the army is in the streets not because of the coup but because of tourist security. But we know it is to repress demonstrations.
So how is the presence of the military on the streets impacting plans for demonstrations?
It’s very bad because many of the demonstrations are being cancelled, people are afraid to be beaten, people are afraid of the guns. It’s very hard right now.
What does the women’s movement in Brazil hope to achieve through these demonstrations, and what message are you trying to send?
The message we want to send to the international community is that this is a very serious situation. It’s not something that was happening before and it’s not a situation like we’re mostly moving forward and progressing, but then we sometimes have a backlash that rolls back rights a bit. It’s nothing like that.
It’s a very unique moment and it can lead us into a very bad scenario for the next 10 years—or, if we can support the women’s movement, we can be in a much better situation. In 2018, we have Presidential elections. So, right now, this is not a party conflict. This is not about right wing and left wing. It’s nothing like that. The solution for this economic and political crisis is not about our political parties—politicians are accused of corruption on both sides.
How is the women’s movement working to get Brazil to a better position by 2018? To ensure that the threats to democracy and rollbacks in rights end, and that there are more women in leadership?
We are building a program to support the women who are leading the resistance—for example, young women, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender women, Black women, women who are working to advance reproductive rights.
What’s most important right now is to support all of the key fights that women are engaged in across Brazil. The other piece is about advancing women’s political participation. We need to have young women, Black women, LBT women empowered to join in politics and to have their voices heard in the political process—and to feel represented. We need to empower them to be political leaders if they want to be. Imagine how women could build a really strong progressive agenda not only in terms of women’s rights and human rights, but also in terms of economic development for Brazil in 2018.
We want to support political engagement and leadership to get more women in politics. And it’s so important in 2016 to start supporting women’s groups. We can’t wait to support women in 2018 for the next elections. We need to start supporting them now in order to have some strong movements, women leaders, and a women’s rights agenda in 2018. We need to start now.
Yes, 2018 will be a critical moment and we can tell from what’s happening now with the interim government in Brazil just how important it is to influence elections and have people in power who not only look like, but are truly representing, the population on the whole. Let’s talk a bit more about the current political crisis and the types of rollbacks of human rights that are happening with the new conservative government. You’ve painted quite a frightening picture of the current situation.
We’re worried that the gap between rich and poor people—which was decreasing with the popular government but is still very high—will start to increase again. There are policy changes moving forward that are so blatantly against the best interests of the majority population and will only exacerbate our current economic reality. For example, they want to increase the retirement age for women and they want to reform worker’s rights to entirely favor corporations, in order to make it more flexible and cheaper for companies so that they don’t have to pay for benefits.
They want to reduce the penal age from 18 to 16—and that is extra complicated because Brazil is very racist so what that means is putting more young, Black men in prison. The police state of Rio de Janeiro has killed more than 8,000 people in the past decade—imagine, 8,000 people in a single state and there is no war here. And most of those killed are young, Black men. Since 2011, we’ve had civil unions and same sex marriage has been legal. They are about to approve a new Family Institute, which restricts the union to only between a man and a woman.
There are too many things to even discuss in one sitting—they have a whole agenda and they are really moving through it fast—and because of the coup, they have the majority of votes in the Congress. So they are passing and approving all of the programs and laws and policies that they want. They are changing the Constitution of Brazil. So we need women in the streets resisting, standing up, fighting against this rollback and fighting against this conservative wave.
And then there’s the Zika virus. How is the political situation impacting this health crisis?
This President has forbidden to speak about Zika. You know, it makes you feel like Zika is not a problem because no one is talking about it. But then you see the numbers—there are more than 8,000 reported cases. These numbers are from research that ELAS supported. If we didn’t have the money for that, we wouldn’t know about these things—no one would know about these things and the magnitude of issues like the Zika virus, because the government is not doing anything. It’s terrible—it’s just too much.
But women are talking about it and making Zika visible.
Yes, who is in the streets in Brazil? Who is doing the research? And who are the people affected by Zika? Women! Its women who are demonstrating around Zika and reproductive rights, developing and leading public campaigns to educate people, and they are doing research. This is how they keep fighting. Women are trying to engage with as many public hospitals and doctors as possible.
Before, when President Rousseff was in power, the government itself had resources dedicated to Zika—they were working to educate the public about Zika, they were talking with doctors, discussing solutions with women’s groups. But now, everything has been closed and all of this has stopped. The public money for this was all cut.
It’s full of mosquitoes here and all of these tourists are coming—it’s very dangerous. We now know that Zika can be sexually transmitted, and people have no information about it—they don’t know how to prevent it. There is no distribution of repellent let alone brochures. And people cannot afford repellent.
We need to talk about Zika. We need to make it visible. We need to work to contain this because this is going to be a disaster. Imagine athletes from all over the world, mostly of reproductive age—men and women—here for the Olympics, for example. I think it’s going to be a disaster.
And everyone in the international community must recognize that it’s not only Zika that will have—and is having—repercussions around the world, but this political and economic crisis on the whole is illuminating global issues. Brazil was an important political, global voice leading a lot of progress in the Global South and now all of that progress is being undone.
Brazil is illuminating global issues and showing why we need to invest in women not just in Brazil but around the world. You’ve talked about the power of women and the women’s movement, but this current situation is truly unique. What gives you hope for the future?
What gives me hope is that the women’s movement in Brazil is very experienced and very powerful. It’s a very vibrant movement and it has a lot of experience in advocacy. Over the past 20 years, we were able to achieve so many policies to make women’s lives better in this country and we were on our way to gender equality. It’s a really powerful and gifted movement that has been very successful. And beyond that, you have a young feminist movement that is really powerful. Young women are driving campaigns with hashtags that are engaging millions and millions of people. They are so good at social media campaigns, it’s impressive. They’re making all of these issues visible, showing all of the harassment and the situations that women experience daily.
On the other hand, you have an amazing mixture of women in Brazil. The diversity—Black women, young women, rural women, women in politics—it’s so powerful. And they’re all together in the streets leading demonstrations and mobilizing other social movements. It’s fantastic. Their power is fantastic and their resistance is incredible.
Women are the face of the resistance right now. When I see these diverse women leading powerful demonstrations in the streets, mobilizing everybody else, and saying “We can do it! We can do it!”—I really doubt the power of this conservative wave and don’t think we can have a backlash in terms of women’s and human rights! Because these women are so strong.
Women in Brazil are why I feel so hopeful. I feel like the conservative movement has no chance against us!
How can the international community support the women’s movement in Brazil?
I think that the international community and international leaders must look closer at Brazil. They must put more attention on Brazil and they must support Brazil right now. There was this wrong understanding that Brazil had a strong democracy and strong institutions. This was proven so wrong. We can be very authoritarian and very anti-democratic. Brazil plays a very important role in the world, in a progressive way and a democratic way, but it has to be supported.
This is a problem for all of us. We need support to help us make this situation visible on an international level, and we need resources and support to continue our fight here in Brazil. This is what I know because of the experience of supporting women’s rights in Brazil for 16 years. We need women in the world to stand in support with women in Brazil, to support the women’s movement.
And they need to stand with us right now. Not tomorrow, not in 2018. Right now, we can really make a difference. Right now, we can win this fight.