Chauvinistic Brazil adjusts to women being in charge

Thu, Feb 16, 2012, 00:00

Coolly, calmly, Brazil’s first woman president is presiding over a gender revolution – and is hugely popular for it, writes TOM HENNIGAN

WHEN MARIA das Graças Foster took charge of Brazilian energy giant Petrobras on Monday, she did not just become the world’s first woman chief executive of an oil major.

The 58-year-old chemical engineer is also the latest high-profile female appointment in a gender revolution that has shaken up the traditionally male-dominated heights of Brazilian public life since Dilma Rousseff was sworn in as the country’s first woman president a little over a year ago.

Back then, President Rousseff promised to “open doors” for other women in a society where male chauvinism has deep historical roots.

In little more than a year, she has gone far in fulfilling that promise. Already 10 of the 39 ministerial-level posts in her government are held by women, a record for Brazil and just shy of her promise to have women make up at least 30 per cent of her cabinet.

Even more importantly, of the four key “political” ministers who work out of the presidential palace and form Rousseff’s inner circle, three are women, including Gleisi Hoffmann, who holds the key post of cabinet chief which Rousseff herself used as a launch-pad for the presidency.

This revolution in Brazilian politics has spread from the executive to the legislative, where women are still chronically under-represented.

“The election of Dilma has made a huge difference,” says Senator Marta Suplicy, one of Brazil’s few high-profile female politicians before the president’s rise to prominence.

“Its symbolic impact is astonishing. I think it would have been very difficult for me to be elected vice-president of the senate last year and for us to have a woman as vice-president of the lower house if we had not had a woman elected president.”

As important for feminist advocates as Rousseff’s election has been her calm competence once in power, skilfully managing a fractious coalition, several corruption scandals and a cooling economy. After 12 months in office, approval ratings for the rather uncharismatic president outstripped those for her hugely popular predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, at the end of his first year in power.

Rousseff’s performance is changing the perception of what women can accomplish in Brazilian politics, says senator and woman’s rights campaigner Ana Rita Esgario.

“When Dilma was elected, some people, especially some men, believed a woman could not run Brazil,” remembers Esgario. “But now a year later you can see men are showing her respect. And with women in strategic ministries people are looking differently at the question of who can be in charge.”

But activists warn that, despite such advances, the first year of Rousseff’s administration also witnessed setbacks to the feminist agenda.

An effort initiated by the president to reform the political system so as to enforce rules requiring that at least 30 per cent of candidates for political parties are women was defeated after conservatives, including elements of the president’s own coalition, threatened to include the removal of proportional representation in the reform, forcing the shelving of the measure.

“At 12 per cent we have one of the lowest rates of political representation by women in Latin America, and Dilma said she would tackle this. But it was not possible to bring the reform to congress,” says Silvia Camurça, a national co-ordinator for the Articulation of Brazilian Women, an umbrella organisation for Brazil’s feminist organisations.

“It is not a lack of will, but we have a woman president in a very conservative political environment and very often she is required to retreat.”

The strength of conservative opinion on women’s issues was demonstrated by the controversy that followed the president’s appointment last week of a former cellmate from her days as a militant fighting the military dictatorship to be minister with responsibility for women’s policy.

Eleonora Menicucci immediately came under fire from evangelical Christian groups over her backing for the decriminalisation of abortion, banned in Brazil except in cases of risk to the mother’s health, and rape.

In her presidential election campaign in 2010, then candidate Rousseff was pressured into signing a Letter to the People of God renouncing her previous stand calling for the decriminalisation of abortion, which is opposed by a majority of Brazilians.

“The forces that pressured the president into signing the letter have spent the last year attacking public policy on reproductive rights,” says Camurça, who says lack of access to emergency contraception is one of the reasons women undergo clandestine abortions, the second biggest cause of maternal mortality in Brazil.

“Now these same forces are attacking Menicucci. Hopefully, her appointment means the president is not going retreat from the rights women currently have in cases of health risk and rape. But with the conservative forces as they are in this country, there will be no advance in the debate about women’s reproductive rights, even under a woman president,” predicts Camurça.