Black Brazilian Women and the Lula Administration

April 10, 2008

This piece was published in the March/April 2007 issue of the NACLA Report.

The social sciences produced by black intellectuals that developed in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s[1] showed us that without the implementation of public policies for black citizens, no theory of development can be sustained as a model for overcoming socioeconomic inequalities.[2] After more than 30 years, with the arrival in January 2003 of the Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva administration, the fight for racial and gender equality that took to the streets and intervened in the national policy agenda beginning in the 1980s now faces limits imposed, in part, by institutionalized racism.3 This racism takes the form of a lack of understanding of the strategic meaning of confronting racism and sexism as a fundamental step in development.

In the 21st century, the development planned for Brazil—a country with 187 million inhabitants, an estimated 46% of them black, of whom 52% are women[4]—must begin addressing racial and gender inequities in dealing with poverty. Without this, there is a serious risk of others seeing Brazil as failing in its regional mission. That mission is to be a partner in solidarity with the Latin American nations, all of them, like Brazil, multiracial, matrifocal societies, and home to strong grassroots organizations based on local economies that are not incorporated into the national market (this is true just as much for black communites as it is for indigenous ones). Given this context, public policies should be developed in an “intersectional”[5] manner, in the sense of intersectionality introduced by the African American legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw:
Intersectionality is a concept that refers to double or triple forms of discrimination. It tries to capture the structural consequences and dynamics of the interaction between two or more axes of subordination. It deals specifically with the way in which racism, partriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create basic inequalities that organize positions relative to women, races, ethnic groups, classes and others.[6]
The conceptual development of intersectionality—which is necessary for articulating policy, and key to understanding government action in implementing public policies that confront simultaneous racism, sexism, ageism, classism, regionalism and other prejudices—must take into account all the accumulated identities that burden black Brazilian women, who rank among the lowest in the Americas on the Index of Human Development.

In the 1980s, the central task of the black women’s movement was to organize black civil society to expose the racial and gender brutality naturalized by colonized relations, which have been resignified in contemporary legislation. It was time to break the windows of indifference and denounce the legacy of slavery. By strengthening black female identity through the formal organization of feminist and women’s groups, we black women intervened in the national political agenda, turning our reaction to indifference and invisibility into a powerful instrument with which to mount a national struggle. We strengthened ourselves at regional and national meetings of black women in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In this way, we began to realize that we are united in the Americas by three fundamental principles: ancestry, identity and resistance. And from here we established new dialogues with feminist and feminine movements made up of middle-class white women, who were generally organized out of the universities and other urban institutions. For widely discussed reasons, middle-class white feminists frequently objected to and could not understand the necessity of black women having their own organizations.

In the 1990s—from the 1995 Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing to the 2001 Third World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where we completed the series of UN conferences—our task was to demonstrate the roots of “Brazilian-style racism.”[7] We showed domestic and international audiences the implications of the Brazilian state’s tendency to create public policies that generally benefited only part of the country’s population and created disadvantages for blacks and other marginalized groups. Brazilian public policy today represents the accumulation of institutionalized racism, which needs to be demolished by the very state that created it.

Throughout the last decade, the actions of the black women’s movement consisted of dismantling the myth of “racial democracy,” which maintained the belief in “whitening” and the supposed absence of racial conflicts. Meanwhile, it was time to organize the struggle born in the streets, in the periphery, in the countryside, and to bring the demands silenced for many long years to the tables of established representative powers.

During the preparatory process for Durban, the emergence of the Articulacão das Mulheres Negras Brasileiras (Coalition of Black Brazilian Women)[8] provided a space for institutional dialogue where black women were not under others’ political guidance. This dialogue produced political papers during the process of Latin American pre-conferences, and in the process of the World Conference Against Racism itself, where black Brazilian women were the first in the Americas to internationalize the debate on reparations. Illustrating the force of the movement, the Brazilian activist Edna Roland was named moderator of the conference despite the always politicized cross-national negotiations over representation.

Development has been the guiding principle of President Lula’s administration, but if economic approaches don’t recognize the social reality of black women, there will be no way to develop Brazil—neither for the black population nor for any other segment of the country’s interior (considered Brazil’s poorest region). Back women now monitor President Lula’s actions with all the politics accumulated over the last three decades of social movements.

Our demands concern all the basic areas of a country that must reinvent itself. Social development and economic development now need to be treated as indivisible factors; dividing them will not strengthen Brazil’s economic transformations. In this way, affirmative action policies, which have already been introduced in more than 50 Brazilian universities, will be instrumental in greatly improving education, and will allow Brazil to enter the world of scientific production with new results. There are, however, controversies within and outside government on how to implement these policies—even when everyone involved knows that a country with a strong educational system for all segments of the population can improve its standing in the international sphere.

In the area of health, we show that the three biggest risks facing the black population are cardiovascular illnesses, which greatly affect black men; maternal mortality, which particularly affects black women; and gun-related deaths, which affect, by an overwhelming majority, black youth. There is also the problem of domestic violence, which represents a serious public health problem with a serious impact on development, but which is beginning to be resolved through law-enforcement and health policies, following the principles of universality, equality and integration. But with respect to black women, we need to deepen the understanding of race-gender equality[9] in public policies.

In September 2006, the federal government created the Maria da Penha Law, which could be the light at the end of the tunnel for Brazilian women in dealing with domestic violence. But therein lies the question of how to enforce the law for black women who live far from access to services.

In education, black women are the most affected by illiteracy and poor education; this directly impacts their insertion into the Brazilian workforce, which has historically been marked by inequities of race and gender. The 10.639/2003 Law, which mandates the teaching of Afro-Brazilian and African history and culture, was the first law created in Lula’s administration to challenge racism in education. But once again we find ourselves having to pressure the educational bureaucracy all over the country, because those responsible for implementing the law do not have the qualified personnel to do so.

Since 2003, two important organizations have been created in the federal government: the Special Secretariat on Policy for Women and the Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Policies for Racial Equality. These secretariats, as consulting bodies to the presidential office, rank above the ministries and create policies that the ministries should implement across the board. But in practice, these policies are not treated this way in the daily operation of the federal ministries that deal with economic policy.

Despite the contradictions of a government with wide popular approval implementing structural adjustments made to sustain a free-market economy, the demands of black women (who form the center of existence for all black people in Brazil, in other parts of the diaspora and on the African continent) multiply. Because of this, community organizations continue to emerge in quilombos (communities originally founded by runaway slaves), in the peripheries of urban centers of the country, in the fight of landless female rural workers, in industry, in the world of domestic workers, in the popular economy markets—and in all the centers of long-standing black feminist and women’s resistance.

Movements of organized black women are critical of the Lula administration, taking into account what is relevant and reflecting publicly on controversial issues. There is criticism, for example, of the absence of resources to implement public policies carried out by federal organizations, and there is the still-crucial issue of whether the economic and social arenas of government actually interact with each other.

For this reason there are various struggles led by black women, because even at a time when Brazil wants to make meaningful social changes, thereby transforming the lives of women in general, black women are not reaping the benefits of social policy. This has to do with the perception—omnipresent in the Brazilian imaginary—of black women as people without rights, placing us at the bottom of the social, political and economic pyramid, a phenomenon that is treated as natural and acceptable.[10]

The following are the most important policy demands that should be discussed along with some fundamental courses of action, involving civil society’s oversight:

  • Public policy that confronts racism and sexism in the workforce, because nonemployability based on race-gender is the main factor that negatively impacts the lives of black women in their efforts to mobilize.
  • Public policy of inclusion of black youth and also of social control over the police, which by and large victimizes this segment of the population.
  • Affirmative action policies in higher education and investment in other levels of education, because illiteracy, like the absence of social tools in education for the children of black women, has a serious impact on our survival as a social group.
  • Public policy for rural communities and quilombos to counter violence in rural Brazil and also to strengthen black women’s citizenship in the countryside, because many still do not even have official identity documents, which makes it difficult to obtain agricultural credit.
  • Public health policy that focuses on the health of the black population, with particular emphasis on black women’s health.
  • Policies concerned with the production of new images of black women in national media, because television and other media continue to be among the most racialized in the world.

The same critical potential that informs our thoughts with respect to national policy guides us in assessing Brazilian international policy toward some blocs of Latin American and African countries. Because we understand that if policies created by the Brazilian government for developing countries are not good, their first impact will be contrary to the interests of black and indigenous women outside of Brazil, and this is not good for black Brazilian women.

To black women, removing the obstacles that have long been imposed by racism means promoting development, but this still seems far from happening in our country. Overcoming racism in Brazil could come about through a much-needed decision-making process in the Lula administration on racism coupled with sexism. But the administration’s current position is manifest in the near absence of black women in influential positions in the country and in the low number in the executive, legislative and judicial branches. During the last term of the National Congress, there were only three black women representatives among 513 federal deputies and 81 senators.

In the era of the Lula administration, we still suffer from blindness to racism in the institutions responsible for implementing public policies, especially outside of social areas. This aggravates the level of disputes within the government itself once universal provision becomes the epicenter of approaches to development. This is to the detriment of focusing on policies dealing with race and gender, which could be extended to other identities, such as handicapped or rural people. Brazil, a country of continental dimensions, is full of contradictions and diversity, which instead of being a master key to development, presents itself as an obstacle to the ideologists of a new country. And the price for this lack of vision about the potential contributions of diversity and of multifaceted identities extends from science to the economy.

For this reason, in President Lula’s second term, which has differed from the great laboratory experiment that was his first term, I think public policies that promote racial and gender equity and include black women as consequential citizens must be made a priority. Without them, Brazil will progress but not develop. The suggestions introduced here are not conclusive, but can serve to establish a dialogue with women of the African diaspora, whose principle for political action is to act without political guidance, be it from their governments or corporations or any other strangers to our black-feminist, autonomous and liberation-oriented political organization.

In this way, the Brazilian black women’s movement continues on its trajectory with a critical, participatory and purposeful approach, fulfilling the role of monitoring the paths to development, with social control or oversight as the basis for its orientation, acting both within and outside of the government, producing discourse and understanding outside the zone of control of the slave master’s house. Making Brazilian society a space for the celebration of plurality with mechanisms to incorporate all of its contradictions and diversity is always the goal.

May the orixás protect us, and may justice be done!

Vilma Reis is a sociologist, educator and the Executive Coordinator of Education and Professionalization for Racial and Gender Equality at the Center for Afro-Oriental Studies, Federal University of Bahia. She is an activist in the black women’s movement in Salvador, Bahia.


I dedicate this article to all of my sisters, the black women of Brazil, who, in all of our ways—in the quilombos, in the centers of Candomblé, in the universities and in other trenches where the resistance continues—keep fighting to guarantee our enduring existence in the African diaspora.

  1. Most notably, the work of anthropologist and black activist Léila Gonzalez and others in black feminism who moved through the doors opened by Gonzalez’s pioneering ideas, such as Luíza Bairros and Sueli Carneiro.
  2. See Sueli Carneiro, “O medo da raça,” Correio brasiliense, April 24, 2006.
  3. The concept of institutionalized racism here is from the Program to Combat Institutional Racism, Human Development Report: Racism, Poverty and Violence (United Nations Development Program, 2005), which treats it “as a collective failure of an organization or state in providing professional and adequate services to people because of their color, culture, religion or ethnic origin. Institutional racism can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes or behaviors that denote discrimination resulting in inadvertent prejudice, ignorance, lack of attention or racist stereotypes that place ethnic minorities at a disadvantage.”
  4. Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística. Brasília, 2006.
  5. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Document presented at a meeting of specialists on racial and gender discrimination, Dossiê III Conferência Mundial Contra o Racismo, Revista Estudos Feministas 1 (2002): 171–188.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Edward Eric Telles, Racismo a brasileira: Uma nova perspective sociólogica (Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará/Ford Foundation, 2003).
  8. Jurema Werneck, Desigualdade racial em números 1 e 2 (Rio de Janeiro: Criola, 2003).
  9. Equity: the principle of creating concrete and symbolic advantages in a distinct manner for people who do not find themselves in conditions of equality so that secure relations with respect to human rights, social justice, participation, nonviolence, self-sustaining development, high self-esteem, a sense of belonging to a community and nation, the formation of social capital—in other words, relationships without inequalities—can be built. UNICEF Brasil, Relatório da situação da infância e adolescência Brasileiras. Diversidade e Eqüidade—pela garantia dos direitos de cada criança e adolescente (Brasília: Seminário Igualdade na Diversidade, UNICEF, 2003).
  10. Luíza Bairros, “Nossos feminismos revisitados,” Dossiê Mulheres Negras—Matilde Ribeiro, Revista Estudos Feministas, 3 (1995): 458–463; Dossiê III Conferência Mundial Contra o Racismo, Revista Estudos Feministas 1 (2002): 169–235.
Tags: Brazil, race, women, Lula, Benedita da Silva, politics, elections, organizing

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