Last month, leaders of Brazil’s rural women’s movement met with their country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in Brasilia to press for new national policies addressing domestic violence in Brazil. The Primeiro Encontro Nacional do Movimento de Mulheres Camponesas (First National Encounter of the Rural Women’s Movement) brought together approximately 3,000 activists from 22 Brazilian states. “Honoring the women of my country is my way of expressing what I owe to rural women, women workers, and what I owe to all of Brazil’s women,” Rousseff told the audience.
As Brazilian activists mobilize for International Women’s Day today, they know that this moment has been long in coming. In the 1980s, while women including Rousseff worked to overthrow a military dictatorship and lay the foundation for enduring democracy, young women in southern Brazil founded the Movimento de Mulheres Trabalhadoras Rurais (Movement of Rural Women Workers—MMTR) while still in their teens. Many of them had been forced to quit school after fifth grade to help with the housework, and they refused to accept lives in which women didn’t have the same legal rights as men.
The MMTR activists convinced their mothers, who were accustomed to isolation and submission, to join them on the streets to fight for women’s rights. Together, they also took on the place most resistant to change—their own homes—by fighting for an equal voice and trying to persuade their husbands and sons to help with the housework.
Twenty-five years into this expanding struggle for women’s rights, laws promoting women’s equality are part of Brazil’s constitution and the federal government pays social security to rural women. The women responsible for these changes could have moved away to larger cities, in search of a different reality. Instead, they took on the hard work of changing their own communities and transforming Brazil’s rural towns into places where women can enjoy economic rights and have their voices heard.
The struggles these women began years ago are far from over. Their stories show the mixture of pain and tenacity that propels activism forward:
Gessi Bonês went from leading the women’s movement to running the local health department: from taking over government buildings to working inside one. Gessi’s health department colleagues asked what someone who spent her life mobilizing outside official buildings was doing inside one. “You have no education,” they told her. “You only know how to protest and make trouble, so what are you doing here?” Meanwhile, other leaders of the women’s movement told her, “If you work in the institutions, you’re not part of the movement.”
Even after she had transformed the health department, Gessi continued to wonder how she could most effectively make change, by caring for individual families or pressing for bolder goals through mass protest, and why no one around her seemed willing to let her do both. “I have two hearts,” she said.
Mônica Marchesini also struggles to balance two realities, going to women’s movement meetings even as she works from dawn until after midnight doing farm work and caring for her family. Though she believes that boys should help around the house, she also says she can’t wait until her daughter, her youngest child, grows up, so she’ll be able to help with the housework. Mônica says that she works late into the night, but that her husband needs to rest on the couch and watch TV when he gets home from work in the fields.
Monica manages to hold onto an image of the way she wants the world to be while facing daily the realities of her life as it is now.
Ivone Bonês and Vania Zamboni, a lesbian couple, say that joining the women’s movement gave them the courage to change their own lives, creating a new way of living for themselves. The two women live together in a red and white house in their small Catholic town. But even at their women’s movement meetings, Ivone and Vania say they cannot speak openly about being lesbians, though everyone knows about it. When they have suggested addressing the topic in the group newsletter or at meetings, the other leaders have been unresponsive and the conversation has ended.
Like many women’s activists, Ivone and Vania face the paradox of silence amidst speech. They have learned that speaking out is not enough to change reality—the speaker bears a responsibility to carry the speech forward.
In Brazil as in the rest of the world, reforming gender roles remains as difficult as ever, even after years of struggle. Though the women’s movement in Brazil has achieved important inroads in the fight for greater equality, it continues to struggle with paradoxes and inconsistencies even from within. Fortunately, women like Gessi, Mônica, Ivone, and Vania are learning to face these paradoxes and fight their way through them—the only way political change and equal rights for women can become a reality.
Jeffrey W. Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin are coauthors of Sustaining Activism, A Brazilian Women's Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration (www.sustainingactivism.com).
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