Sexuality Policy Watch

How women can decide the Brazilian election

By Isabela Oliveira Kalil[1]

An article published by The New York Times, on September 24, examined the Brazilian presidential election scenario and defined Jair Bolsonaro, the leader in the contest as “the politician who has publicly called women ignorant, too ugly to be raped and not deserving of the same salaries as men“. [2] It also underlines the sharp disparity in the intention of votes between men and women in Brazil, comparing it with the split across male and female votes occurred in the 2016 US elections after Donald Trump directed a series of misogynistic comments to Hilary Clinton. Just as in the United States, Brazilian women have been mobilized to contest and resist Bolsonaro’s candidacy who represents the country´s extreme right in both its religious and secular expressions.

The candidate, who is the father of four adult sons  (all active in politics), in one of his public statements went as far to say his youngest daughter was a failure, the outcome of a moment of weakness. The mobilizations against the candidate include a group of women on Facebook with almost 4 million participants, the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim) that became viral globally and a series of acts that were carried out simultaneously in several Brazilian cities, on September 29th   as well as in various places outside Brazil.

Many factors explain why Bolsonaro candidacy has grown. One of them is the troubled conditions prevailing over the electoral scene. Until the beginning of September this year, the candidate of the left party PT (Workers’ Party) was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who was a pre-candidate, despite being arrested since April accused of corruption in an action, which is seen by many national and international observers as a coup to prevent his candidacy. [3] In August, even from prison, Lula was ahead of the polls with 40 percent of the votes, followed by Bolsonaro with 20 percent. In September, the Brazilian electoral court rejected the registration of Lula’s candidacy, and in his place, Fernando Haddad, was appointed.

One striking element of the current elections is therefore that while Lula was campaigning from a prison, Bolsonaro made a large part of his campaign from a hospital, after having been stabbed in an attack in early September, in a public act. But even being distant from the streets and TV the last poll indicates that he has 35 percent of intended votes,  while Haddad now the second contender has 22 percent. [4] In this electoral turmoil the female vote is being intensively disputed because a sharp gender disparity is registered in the intention of votes. In July, out of every four potential Bolsonaro voters, three are men. [5]

These figures also explain the rapid propagation of the #EleNão campaign and the scale of recent demonstrations. In the city of São Paulo, it is estimated that around 500 thousand people, mostly women, have taken the streets. The protests were supported by artists, intellectuals and politicians including other presidential and female vice president candidates. Unexpectedly, however, the polls performed right after these events have shown that rejection of Bolsonaro had fallen among women and the number of his female potential voters had slightly increased. When this data was published a controversy erupted around the potentially negative effects of #EleNão mobilization. Ciro Gomes, one of the presidential candidates (thirdly placed in the surveys) delivered an ambiguous statement that seemed to blame the # EleNão for an eventual Bolsonaro victory. It is vital, however, to understand that the increase of women’s adhesion  to the extreme right candidate is the result of many combined factors,  such as shifts in the candidate’s campaign and media strategies, the declared support of powerful Evangelical leaders and perhaps most importantly, the fact that Bolsonaro, was released from hospital exactly on September 29th.

The current election is just another illustration of the huge challenges implied for women participation in Brazilian politics. Even today, 65 percent of Brazilians declare to prefer to elect a male president. [6] Dilma Rousseff, the first woman elected president, who succeeded Lula, was deposed, in 2016,  through an impeachment process laden with elements of misogyny. This included the tribute made by Bolsonaro himself to a  well-known torturer of women during the dictatorship.

On the other hand, however, the priority of PT administration since 2002 was the reduction of inequality and extreme poverty and this has positively impacted on poor women.  The extension of the income transfer program created in the previous government and renamed Bolsa Familia has extracted 36 million people from extreme poverty. Currently, Bolsa Familia covers 21 percent of Brazilian households of which 93 percent are headed by women. One in four Brazilian women receives the benefit.

The program has not just reduced extreme poverty but expanded women’s decision-making capacity.  Qualitative studies have shown the expansion of the autonomy of the poorest women in the context of decisions about the body and the family (as in the choice of contraceptive methods), but also in decisions of the public sphere. Not less importantly, since 2015, middle-class women have taken the streets to fight for the expansion of rights expansion but also to prevent the loss of rights already guaranteed, such as in the case of abortion in the case of rape. Women have also been increasingly active in social networks to report and fight against harassment and other forms of violence.

On the somber side, however, we should not forget the murder of councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was executed in Rio de Janeiro in March 2018. She was a black woman, a lesbian, a human rights activist and a member of a leftist party. So far, the circumstances of this crime have not yet been clarified and no suspect has been indicted, raising suspicion of a political crime.  In light of these paradoxical elements,  it is not only the female vote that is being disputed in these elections. What is at stake are the conditions presiding over the personal, economic and political life of women in Brazilian society.

[1] Professor at São Paulo School of Sociology and Politics (FESPSP) and coordinator of the Urban Ethnography Group in FESPSP.

[2] See here.

[3] The Brazilian court’s decision contradicts the recommendation of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which understands that Lula cannot be barred as a candidate “until his appeals before the courts have been completed in fair judicial proceedings. See here.

[4] See here.

[5] See here.

[6] See here.

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