“From now on in Brazil, girls will wear pink and boys will wear blue”.
These divisive words were chanted by Minister Damares Alves, appointed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to lead the newly merged Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. Alves is an evangelical pastor, known for her radical religious views.
The election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro gained international attention due to his inflammatory declarations on women, the LGBTQ community and other minority groups. Before being appointed as Minister by Bolsonaro, Alves worked for 20 years as legal advisor to Senator Magno Malta, who is an ally to the president.
Damares comes in with radical baggage. She has called feminists “ugly” and accused them of being “jealous of the beauty of women who are not part of the movement”. In December 2018, Alves provocatively stated that women were “born to be mothers”, their most special role, and that the idea that women are waging war against men is “nothing but feminist gibberish”. She also said that “gender ideology” is a “death sentence”.
This rhetoric coming from the Minister in charge of “Women”, “Family” and “Human Rights” is concerning in a country where women only make 77.5% of a man’s salary, in average, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
Violence against women is widespread in a nation where “machismo” is culturally ingrained. According to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, 164 cases of rape were registered per day in 2017, which adds to 60,000 reports in one year. As sexual crimes are knowingly underreported, the forum estimates that the real number should surpass 500,000 cases per year.
Even though Brazil is a secular state, it is not uncommon to see the interference of religion in its laws. In Brazil, abortions are illegal, unless the pregnancy is a result of rape, a danger to the mother’s life or the fetus suffers from anencephaly.
Damares Alves herself is fiercely anti-abortion, and has said that under her leadership, the ministry will not address the issue as a public health concern. Alves claimed that she is aware that some women do die as a result of illegal abortion procedures, but that she believes that the numbers are “not too high”, even though she wasn’t sure of them.
The Brazilian Ministry of Health shared with the Supreme Court last year that one woman dies every two days as a result of an unsafe clandestine abortion. Women from all financial backgrounds abort, but there is a difference in those who do so safely and those who die as a result of it. The most vulnerable are black, young, single women, from less economically favorable backgrounds. Abortion in Brazil is a public health crisis and should be treated as such. It is estimated by the Ministry of Health that 1 million clandestine abortions happen each year in Brazil, in spite of its criminalization.
“The state might be secular, but this minister is terribly Christian”, said Alves as she delivered her confirmation speech this January.
Alves’ rhetoric and policy stances are a retrogression when it comes to women’s rights in Brazil. The minister is perfectly entitled to her own personal views, but those should be left at home. When she puts on her “official hat”, she needs to respect Brazil’s constitutional secularism and act as an advocate for the rights of all women.
By Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo