Brazil: New President’s First Steps Fuel Optimism of Women’s Movement

(IPS) – The initial steps taken by Brazil’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, have confirmed that a stronger female presence will indeed be a hallmark of her administration.

After taking office on Jan. 1 and naming nine female ministers, a record in Brazil, Rousseff announced that her main social goal is to eradicate extreme poverty.

To achieve that, a gender focus will have to be adopted, because extreme poverty is largely a phenomenon with a female face, which withstood the successful policies against poverty and inequality implemented by her predecessor and former boss Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The poorest families are made up of “women on their own with children under 10,” said Hildete Pereira, an economy professor at the Fluminense Federal University who researches gender issues.

That is due to a number of factors, such as the fact that women earn less than men for the same work, own less property, and tend to inherit less. They also generally assume responsibility for their children when they separate or get divorced, Pereira told IPS.

With less income, more responsibilities and extra obstacles to finding work, single mothers often quickly fall into abject poverty.

The Extreme Poverty Eradication Programme announced by the new administration, to be launched in March, will require that the women beneficiaries of the programme receive skills training, and will offer broad child care coverage, Pereira said.

Unless the conditions are created to give poor women better opportunities in the labour market and enable them to earn higher incomes, it will be very difficult to eliminate extreme poverty, experts say.

The number of people living in extreme poverty in this country of 191 million dropped from 32.4 million to 15.8 million between 1993 and 2008. But if only female-headed households are taken into account, just 300,000 of the 5.5 million people in that category in 1993 were pulled out of extreme poverty by 2008, according to official data cited by the Institute of Studies on Labour and Society (IETS).

The situation is even worse in the country’s 10 largest cities, where the number of female-headed households in extreme poverty rose from 1.6 million to 1.8 million in the 15-year period in question.

“The face of extreme poverty is that of a black single mother,” Pereira summed up. She stressed that in this segment of the population, racial discrimination also counteracts the positive effects of economic growth, the generation of millions of jobs, and the successful cash transfer policies that marked the left-wing Lula’s eight years of government.

During her campaign Rousseff, who belongs to Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) and was elected to continue his policies, promised that her government would build 6,000 public day care centres. Although a tiny number in a country this size, it is nonetheless noteworthy as a goal set by the national government, which is not in charge of that area of social policy.

The problem is that city governments, which are in fact responsible for increasing the number of child care centres, are not doing so, even though they have been assigned money to that end from an early childhood education fund. Nor has the question of preschools and child care centres been a major campaign issue in municipal elections, Pereira lamented.

The president’s challenge is to “induce” local authorities to live up to their end of the deal, she said.

“The most obstinate struggle of my government will be to eradicate extreme poverty and create opportunities for everyone,” Rousseff said when she was sworn in.

For that task, she named Tereza Campello to head the Ministry of Social Development and the Fight against Hunger, and Ana Fonseca as her executive secretary. Both women have experience in designing and running social programmes, such as the renowned Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer programme, which reaches 12.8 million poor families.

Although Rousseff’s push for an increased female presence in the government fell short of the announced goal of 30 percent of the 37-member cabinet, nine women is double the average number during Lula’s two terms.

Since Brazil became a republic in 1889, there have been only 17 women ministers, and none before 1982.

The appointment of nine female ministers “is an important new development,” even though the target of 11 was not met “because the parties didn’t designate women” to represent them on the cabinet, said Jacira Melo, director of the Patricia Galvão Institute, a Brazilian women’s rights organisation.

All of the women ministers combine “technical qualifications with a commitment” to gender equity, she added.

And “For the first, time, social policies will be coordinated” among ministries that tend to have lower budgets, like the ministries of women’s policies, racial equality and human rights, whose voices will thus be strengthened in projects aimed at reducing inequality, Melo said.

The government’s first initiatives have fuelled the optimism of the women’s movement, she said. Rousseff’s decision to refer to herself as “presidenta” rather than the gender-neutral “presidente” preferred by the media and society at large has “extraordinary symbolic value,” the activist said.

By contrast, the presence of women in politics was not boosted by the legislative elections, held in October along with the first round of the presidential vote.

Only 45 women were elected to the 513-member lower house of Congress, the same number as in 2006. And in the Senate, the number of seats held by women only increased by one, to 12 out of 81.

“We have to question the political parties, which are the big hurdle” to greater representation of women in Congress, because they block women’s access to positions of power within the parties and deny them campaign financing, Melo said.

Although Rousseff has not embraced key feminist demands like the legalisation of abortion, if the government manages “to address the issue with serenity, without giving in to pressure from the Catholic Church,” by expanding health and prevention services, that in itself will be a major stride forward, she said.