Brazil’s October 26 election was undoubtedly contentious. As incumbent Dilma Rousseff edged out centrist opposition leader Aeció Neves in a runoff with only 51.6 percent of the vote, it was one of the closest elections in Brazilian history.
Ultimately, the Brazilian people opted for another four years with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT). So what does Rousseff’s re-election mean for the political representation of Brazilian women? In what way do Brazilian women perceive Rousseff to be advancing their calls for progress and opportunity in a society in which “machista” ideals have traditionally disregarded women’s political and social prowess?
Prior to the runoff, Pesquisa Datafolha published research data revealing that women were more inclined to vote for Rousseff than men. Women in the North and Northeast—where poverty is highly concentrated among the predominantly Afro-Brazilian population—and less educated Brazilians were also significantly more likely to vote for Rousseff. Rousseff’s overwhelming support in the North and Northeast led to claims that the PT “bought votes” through the conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Familia and other social programs. Meanwhile, the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil, Secção Bahia (The Bahian Section of the Brazilian Bar Association—OAB-BA) received numerous human rights complaints about hate crimes against Brazilians from the Northeast after the election.Yet twelve years of PT programs in Brazil have significantly changed the reality of many of the country’s poor. Nearly 40 million people—about one fifth of the population—have moved out of poverty. Employment is at record lows, and although the rich-poor gap remains one of the highest in the world, Brazil’s Gini coefficient measure of inequality of 0.49 is down from 0.56 in 2001. Decreased poverty has translated into greater educational opportunities for those who were previously denied access, particularly for women in Northeastern states like Bahia.
The feminist movement aligned itself with the PT in the election, highlighting the Rousseff government’s steps to advance women’s rights, including initiatives promoted by the Secretaria de Políticas para as Mulheres (Secretariat of Policies for Women) under the leadership of current minister and sociologist Eleonora Menecucci de Oliveira. The Secretaria Especial de Mulheres da Presidência da República (Special Secretariat of Women of the Presidency), for example, was pivotal in advancing the Mulher, Viver Sem Violência (Women, Live without Violence) program, leading to the Maria da Penha Law that protects women across the country from harassment, rape, and domestic violence. Even Bolsa Familia, with approximately 50 million beneficiaries, places money in the hands of women, who are considered more financially responsible than their husbands. Many feminists argue that Rousseff’s hesitation to legalize abortion undermines women’s rights, yet they recognize the political conflict that a pro-choice stance would cause with Brazil’ growing evangelist movement.
The 2014 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap analysis reinforced both the significant progress Brazilian women have experienced during the PT’s tenure and also the work that needs to be done. Brazil ranked 71st out of 142 nations in gender equality (down from 62nd in 2013); 81st for economic participation and opportunity; and 74th for political empowerment. Yet Brazil ranked first for educational attainment and health and survival. Latin American countries that ranked higher than Brazil for gender equality included Ecuador at 21st, Argentina at 31st, Peru at 45st, Colombia at 53rd, Bolivia at 58th, and Chile at 66th. Advancements in educational attainment and health and survival have yet to transfer to economic and political power for women in Brazil.
Rousseff emphasized that she intends to be a better president than she has been. Where will women’s rights fall on her list of improved governance? Many Brazilian women anxiously await her leadership, particularly as a woman, to advance their cause.