Midway through writing this article, in Rio de Janeiro’s bohemian Lapa neighbourhood, we heard it: the sounds of tear gas as riot police repressed mass protests against harsh austerity measures proposed by Brazil’s three-month-old conservative government.
The so-called “Bridge to the Future” policy, if approved, would impose a 20-year spending cap, freezing the federal budget but for inflation-based increases. From 2017 to 2037, not a centavo more for public health, education, poverty-alleviation or childhood development, among other social programmes.
Across-the-board cuts hurt everyone, but history shows they hit women particularly hard. Tasked with feeding and caring for their families without any government support, women face double and triple burdens on their time. Austerity regimes have also been linked to increased domestic violence.
Women at a crossroads
This threat to women’s economic, social and political wellbeing comes on the heals of significant gains made during the prosperous past decade, when Brazil was proud to put the “B” in the BRICS.
In 2006, the country passed legislation protecting women against domestic violence, while the conditional cash transfer programme Bolsa Família, directed mainly to female heads of household, increased women’s economic empowerment and decision making power.
As gender researchers, we knew that true equality was still far down the road. For example, in absolute numbers, Brazil ranks 4th in the world for child marriage. But recently it’s been possible to think that we were headed in that direction, that girls and women really do matter.
As social movements in Brazil and across Latin America have forced these issues onto global agendas via street protests and hashtags, gender quality is increasingly the official message of the United Nations, governments, and the business sector.
Out with the women, in with the white men
Threats to Brazil’s improving gender equality are not just economic. They’re also reflected at the highest level of politics.
Just as the world was stunned that Donald Trump – a man who has bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” – had won the United States election over the supremely qualified former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this year Brazil, too, saw its presidency turned over to a man.
During Rousseff’s congressional trial, male legislators voted against her using patronising language (“goodbye, my dear”) and words of congratulations to the military unit that had tortured Dilma Rousseff under Brazil’s dictatorship.
Many of the male colleagues who forced Rousseff out were under investigation themselves for greater wrongdoing – including Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha, who was arrested for corruption in October.
Rousseff’s replacement, her vice president Michel Temer, is a conservative Evangelical Christian allied with Congress’s powerful religious right. After assuming power in August 2016, he appointed an all-white, all-male cabinet – the first such government since 1979. Temer also eliminated the positions of Minister of Women and Minister of Racial Equality, though public outcry forced him to backtrack.
Brazil’s mayoral elections in October and November showed a similar rightward swing. Rio de Janeiro opted for the former Pentecostal bishop Marcelo Crivella to run the famously diverse city, while São Paulo elected millionaire conservative businessman João Doria.
The past year of political events demonstrate a clear backlash to modern gains in equality and social justice. In the media and the church, in businesses as in politics, the myth of white, male, Christian entitlement persists, and it has left many citizens feeling angry and disenfranchised over the past decade.
Women’s rights and gender equality are not a priority for President Temer or mayors Crivella and Doria. Abortion, which remains illegal in Brazil except in exceptional cases, is not up for discussion. Plans are now being made to cut paid maternity leave – and this despite the country having recently extended paternity leave.
The retrenchment extends to education. Public schools in eight states have banned curricula that include lessons on gender, and the Ministry of Education’s proposed “Schools without Political Parties” policy would prohibit open political discussions in classrooms.
Such reforms would hurt any attempt to kindle critical reflections on equality and justice among young people at a time when it’s sorely needed.
A time for new masculinities
During the three years of mass protests in Brazil that ultimately led to Rousseff’s demise, it has been common to hear calls for a military-run government. Dictatorship is a not-too-distant memory here, having only ended in 1985.
Militarised models of masculinity still influence Brazil’s everyday culture, promoting aggression and violence. Nearly 60,000 people are murdered each year, the vast majority of them young black men from poor neighbourhoods. Here, as in the US, the legacy of slavery and ongoing structural inequalities mean that young black men are disproportionately incarcerated and three times more likely to be shot by armed civilians and police “in self-defense”, even when unarmed.
Militarised masculinity also contributes to mental health issues for boys and men, including elevated suicide rates, increased use of violence (such as that seen every day in Rio’s favelas) and a lack of emotionally satisfying relationships.
Women’s wellbeing hinges on changing perceptions of male identity. According to our research, men who hold more gender equitable attitudes are less prone to violence and more likely to seek preventative healthcare. They’re also more likely to be engaged fathers and to have satisfying family relationships. Such positive male achievement, perhaps unsurprisingly, improves school and health outcomes for daughters and female partners.
Like millennials around the world, younger Brazilians tend to hold more progressive views on gender. As we saw in 2015’s “Feminist Spring” protests, men are willing to take a public stand against sexism, racism and xenophobia.
That’s critical. To counteract negative dominant narrative posed by the new era of Brazilian politics, more male bosses, colleagues, friends and family members must dispute sexist (not to mention racist and xenophobic) language and actions.
The political events of 2016 have shown that Brazil still has a long way to go in challenging a culture that excludes women while conflating masculinity with domination, power, control and aggression. Ending child marriage would be one place to start.
In the medium term, Brazil’s government must ensure that its “bridges for the future” are built for women and girls, too. To quote the great American radical feminist Angela Davis, we must always attempt to lift others as we climb.
This article was coauthored by Victoria Page, an international consultant at Instituto Promundo, Brazil.