Brazil’s 2016 Olympic host city, Rio de Janeiro, is currently reeling from news of a sickening incident: on Saturday, May 21, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by 33 men, and many of the rapists posted a video of the incident on their social media accounts.
Last week, the victim was identified by someone on the street who had seen the video. Many residents are outraged at the brazen braggadocio of the rapists, who have been called “regular guys”: one worked as a camera operator for a major TV station, and another is a football player and the son of an evangelical pastor.
Less outraged were the police, who, despite a wave of over 800 citizen calls demanding investigation, were slow to respond. (This in spite of the fact that the Facebook profile of one of the attackers who posted the video includes a phone number.) Last Thursday, the police announced they had only identified four of the 33 suspects, and that the decision to jail them or not was “being evaluated.” Then, on Monday this week, the police finally arrested two suspects and filed warrants for four others. The victim, who said in an interview she felt the police blamed her for the rapes, has left Rio in protective custody.
Outrage, however, does not mean shock. Silvia Chakian, the coordinator of the Special Group For Confronting Violence Against Women within the Public Ministry of the State of São Paulo, pointed out to BBC Brasil that one of the rapists didn’t bother concealing his face in the video, adding, “What is the message that he is sending? It’s ‘I don’t believe in the law, in the police, in the courts, I don’t even care.’” Chakian is convinced that the criminals’ total disregard for discretion—along with the police’s slow response—“reveals a society that is criminal and violent against women.
“These aren’t 30 monsters together. There is no pathology in this,” she adds. “This is a cultural question.” Currently, Brazilian social media is dominated by the question of whether or not the country suffers from a “rape culture.”
The publicized rape is not the only indicator of trouble brewing for those who care about how Brazil treats women. It’s the latest in a flood of bad news for women’s rights in the country. And the negative indicators are not confined to the streets of Rio. This retrograde culture stretches all the way to the top, where cabinet appointments and new laws are hacking away at the progress women have made over the past decades.
In late April, the lower house of Congress in Brazil voted to impeach former President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, in a true spectacle: Each of the 513 Congressmembers approached the microphone and declared that for the love of their wife, or for the love of God, or even for the love of the “nuclear family”—in their words, repeatedly—Rousseff must be booted from office.
Her impeachment vote was initiated on the relatively arcane ground of “fiscal irresponsibility,” in regards to some creative accounting that may have disguised a growing budgetary deficit. The popular perception, though, was that the push for her impeachment was a reaction to the dovetailing of a historic economic crisis with a massive scandal within the state-owned oil company Petrobras that has roped in top political officials (though Rousseff herself has not been implicated, her predecessor Luiz Inacio da Silva has). Smelling blood, Rousseff’s political allies abandoned her in the run-up to the April vote, and as the momentum built, it soon became simply a question of tallying up their discontent in Congress.
Not many women approached the microphone to vote that night, because just 53 of those 513 Congressmembers in Brazil are women. In fact, Brazil ranks 115th in a global ranking of female representation in government. Brazilian women make up 44 percent of the Brazilian workforce, according to the World Bank’s 2013 numbers, and are higher-educated on average than Brazilian men. Nevertheless, according to a World Bank report, a woman’s hour of work is still worth a fourth less than that of a man in Latin America’s biggest country.
And as the Brazilian Senate also voted in favor of impeachment, and a new cast stepped up to fill interim president Michel Temer’s government—the first Cabinet since the 1970s (during Brazil’s dictatorship) that’s made up of only white men—hope for advances for Brazilian women have dimmed.
Temer’s Cabinet staff is particularly jarring when you consider that out of approximately 200 million people in the country, Brazil is composed of 107 million women and 106 million black or mixed-race people. And yet, after Rousseff was removed from office on May 12 and Temer took over, not one Brazilian woman made the cut for a cabinet position in the new administration.
The backlash came quickly. On May 15, protesters—led by a coalition of feminist and LGBT groups—shut down Avenida Paulista, the main thoroughfare in São Paulo. Scrambling in response to nationwide criticism, Temer did his best to rustle up some womenfolk for the secretary of culture position; his team reportedly called up a number of high-profile actresses and women journalists around Brazil that weekend. The plan backfired. Some of the women refused, citing institutionalized sexism: “I hope no woman accepts this invitation,” said anthropologist Claudia Leitão.
Others turned down the offer because the ministries they care about had been eradicated. The Ministry of Culture had been demoted to a secretariat after Rousseff’s impeachment, folded into the Ministry of Education as a cost-saving measure. “The extinction of the Ministry of Culture sets us back light years,” said the singer Daniela Mercury. (Temer has since promised to reinstate the department.)
Finally, there’s the concern that the circumstances of Rousseff’s impeachment make Temer an illegitimate president, and some of the women tapped don’t want any part of his government. And so back to the woman well Temer went, trudging forward with the invites, and even speaking publicly about how he was seeking input from that strange universe known as the “feminine world.” He eventually gave up in trying to find a female culture secretary, and chose a man on his sixth attempt. “We tried to look for women,” said Temer’s new chief of staff Eliseu Padilha, “but it wasn’t possible.”
As for the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights? The department was eliminated. It will now be merged within the Ministry of Justice.
Brazil will continue to suffer from this all-male Cabinet. Just days after Temer took office, the new Minister of Health, Ricardo Barros, told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo that abortion is a “problem that must be taken care of. Like crack.” He added, “the way we approach this will depend on discussions. We’ll have to talk to the Church.”
All of this has those in favor of gender parity in Brazil furious and disheartened, and the anger crosses racial and economic lines. One of Brazil’s top comedians recently “joked” that during the impeachment vote he mistook a black female Senator for a “coffee auntie” (in local parlance, a woman who serves coffee in offices). The Congresswoman announced she’ll be suing the comedian. Brazilian PhD student Kelly Tatiane Quirino, who specializes in black social issues, is concerned that, despite the fact that Brazilian black women bear the worst socioeconomic indicators in the country, “the fight of black women is not even being contemplated by this government.”
Many feminists see what’s happening in Brazil as a backslide—a retrocesso, as they call it in Portuguese. But if we look back, this cultural and political step backwards has been brewing for a while.
Thirteen years ago, Rousseff’s Worker’s Party took control of the Brazilian government, promising to attack Brazil’s disturbing poverty rates: at that time, one in every 10 Brazilians lived in “extreme poverty.” Thanks in no small part to Worker’s Party programs like minimum-income assistance and public housing construction, which coincided with high employment levels of the boom years, Brazil transformed. Thousands of families living at the brink were able to earn enough to survive, and slum residents were handed keys to shiny new constructions.
The outsiders’ view of Rio de Janeiro—sexy beaches and city slums—make an incomplete sketch of the country. 193 million Brazilians live outside of Rio, many of them digging into the ground for water, using a community phone to receive calls, and walking long distances to catch buses to banks, where they stand in line for hours while awaiting the government assistance promised by the Worker’s Party.
Many Brazilians would point to that line as proof that the Worker’s Party’s policies have created an economy of dependence. But no one disputes that the effort worked: around 30 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty since the party took office in 2002, cutting that statistic more than in half, and bringing down the rate of “extreme poverty” from 10 percent of the population to less than 5 percent. A commodities boom during the same time period helped significantly as well.
Notably, coinciding with the movement to fight poverty in rural Brazil came the evangelical movement, which has experienced stunning growth over the past 15 years. The number of evangelicals in Brazil grew 61 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Brazilian Statistics Institute IBGE, and today, at least a quarter of Brazilians now identify as evangelical. Many used to identify as Catholic but have lost interest in the stiff rituals of Catholicism, which pale in comparison to the fiery meetings at local evangelical centers and the full-throated conversion efforts of their leaders. Right after sunset, in many small towns in Brazil these days, you’ll begin to hear vibrato shouts echoing around the town as local pastors thrill their followers with God’s message.
This rise in evangelism, though, has coincided with—or caused, depending on who you ask—a doubling back to a more conservative vision of Brazilian society, one in which women are chaste and gays don’t exist (for they’ve been cured). That vision, once largely confined to the church, has thrived with its spread. And as the evangelical church has gotten richer and bishops have become billionaires, that vision has increasingly become a political one, as pastor becomes a stepping stone to financial power, and then, political office. Some Congressmembers’ names hint obliquely at their religious persuasions, such as “Pastro Eurico” and “Missionário José Olimpio.” The recently-ousted head of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is evangelical, and the former head of the Congressional Commission for Human Rights and Minorities, Marco Feliciano, is an evangelical pastor, who wrote in his 2012 book, “when you stimulate a woman to have the same rights as a man...you destroy the family, you create a society where you only have homosexuals.”
Which brings us to today, the current high-water mark for evangelism in Brazil. It’s this context that helps Temer’s Cabinet appointments make a little more sense.
Temer’s initial appointment for Science Minister, for example, was a man who does not believe in evolution (after a backlash, Temer backpedaled on his choice for the position, and ended up demoting the Ministry as a whole by folding it into the Ministry of Communications, which makes as much sense in Portuguese as it does in English). His new Minister of Foreign Affairs used his first days in office to offer a shiny new diplomatic passport to an evangelical pastor. And the Ministry of Culture, the financial crutch for Brazil’s cultural preservation organizations and film industry (that bastion of Satan-loving actors and directors), was initially eliminated entirely. Temer has since backpedaled on that as well, ordering it recreated. He has not, however, recreated the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, choosing instead to leave it in a demoted position.
As powerful political positions slide into the hands of evangelical leaders, increasingly, a new vision of Brazil’s future takes over.
Many Brazilians, of course, refuse to accept this shift, and social media is the best indicator of their revulsion with the recent changes. It was the rallying on social media that turned the rape video into an informal city-wide manhunt in Rio de Janeiro. And Brazilians are lashing out on Facebook and Twitter not just against crimes against women, but also against an image of a “woman’s place.”
A few weeks ago, the mainstream right-wing magazine Veja published a profile piece on the soon-to-be first lady, Marcela Temer. The headline read: “Beautiful, demure, and a ‘housewife’: the quasi-first lady, 43 years younger than her husband, rarely appears, likes knee-length dresses, and dreams of having a child.”
Many Brazilians found the article so appalling in its promotion of a conservative vision of a woman’s place that they revolted in the best possible way: a meme. Angry Brazilians took the headline and slapped it on images that challenged that vision: images of women leading corporate meetings, drinking beer from the bottle, and traveling alone.
“My timeline was filled with these memes,” said Helena Vitali Bello, a 27-year-old designer from Florianopolis. “Women can choose what they want to do—there’s nothing wrong with staying home. But I think this spontaneous reaction was an important moment for us. For as much as feminism is still taboo in Brazil, women unified on this issue to say, no, being told I need to be like my grandmother doesn’t work for me.”
The viral response to the article galvanized the feminist movement in Brazil, while at the same time it confirmed their fears that political conservatism—previously largely confined to a neoliberal economic vision—had blended with religious conservatism. Temer’s ministry appointments underlined that this blend has now pervaded the highest echelons of power in Brazil.
The good news is that, thanks to the Veja article, feminists were tipped off to this swing, and ready to fight against it when the bad news of the Ministry appointments hit. Which helps explain why Brazilian women are promptly refusing appointments within the government and rallying quickly in response to anything that pushes women’s progress aside. The Veja article marks two important moments for Brazil: one, the moment it became clear how a funny little social media meme can create real social power; and two, the moment the Brazilian feminist movement regained its voice. The awful rape has only amplified their shouts.
All of this comes at a crucial moment for women’s rights recognition. Brazil, set to host the Olympic games in a couple months, is currently battling the spread of the Zika virus, which is believed to be linked to microcephaly. That virus and its consequences burden women to exponential and devastating effect. Women have been instructed by international bodies to practice safe sex and postpone pregnancy, despite the fact that many women in Zika-impacted regions do not have access to affordable contraception. The Western Hemisphere director of International Planned Parenthood Foundation reports that 23 million women in Latin America and the Caribbean “want–but lack access to–modern contraceptive methods.”
On top of that obstacle, reports indicate that in Brazil, many fathers are abandoning the side of mothers who have given birth to babies with microcephaly, leaving women to deal with the emotional and financial burden of Zika alone. There is no vaccine for Zika, and Folha de São Paulo reports that diagnostic tests can cost up to $500, which insurance plans don’t cover. For those women already unlucky enough to have contracted Zika, it appears that they will suffer the price of gender disparity perhaps more than anyone. A quick resurgence of a women’s rights consciousness in Brazil might serve them well.
And then there are the troubling ministry appointments. “To put a religious person in the health ministry, this is a huge hit for those who care about women’s health,” says Bello. “To allow a person from the church to decide if women can take birth control or have an abortion is a problem, because we know the church has a conservative opinion on these issues. And it’s in these areas that we already need help.”
But, with an all-male cabinet, the resurgence of women’s rights faces an uphill battle. Women make up just a tenth of Congressmembers. Abortion is still a crime in most cases in Brazil, as has been noted in the concern about Zika. Meanwhile, pending before Brazil’s Congress is a proposal to increase the punishment for “collective rapes” and also proposal that will forbid doctors from advising women of their abortion rights in the case of rape. That is, in the midst of widespread protests against one of the most shocking rapes in Brazilian history and Brazil’s “rape culture,” the country’s Congress is considering passing a law limiting the rights of rape victims.
It’s hard to say how Brazil’s woman problem could be made any clearer. It’s also hard to imagine how it might be ameliorated without the problem being stated plainly, again and again. Last week, following the news of the gang rape, the commission for the defense of human rights within Rio’s government released the following warning: “We are witnessing a growing dehumanization and disrespect for one another. And most of the victims have been women.”
Since the rape, Temer has announced he will create a department within the Federal Police to combat violence against women and stated, “It’s absurd that, in the 21st century, we have to deal with barbaric crimes like this.” Simultaneously he appointed Fátime Pelaes, an evangelical who is openly against legal abortion, even in the case of rape, to a key role in his government. Her position? Secretary of Women’s Issues.
Shannon Sims is a law grad and former fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She has written from Brazil for the past 5 years, and her work has appeared digitally on Al Jazeera, Forbes, NPR, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @shannongsims.
Illustration by Bobby Finger.