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Using a Needle and Thread, Women Sew the Darker Side of Dam Construction in Brazil

Art made by Brazilian cartoonist Vitor to the Arpilleras project. (Image: Arpilleras: Bordando a resistência/Facebook)

Art made by Brazilian cartoonist Vitor for the arpilleras project. (Image: Arpilleras: Bordando a resistência/Facebook)

Back in the days when Pinochet ruled over Chile, there were stories that couldn’t be told. Until one group of Chilean women — mothers and wives of political prisoners — found a way. Using scraps of old clothing and working by candlelight, they started to denounce what was happening in the country through needlework, just as singer and composer Violeta Parra did before them. Years later, the canvas made by las arpilleras has appeared in museums around the world as a document of life, abuse and torture in Chile under dictatorship.

It was at one of those exhibits — at the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo in 2011 — that the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil discovered the arpilleria technique. The exhibition, created to encourage embroidery as a tool for empowerment and resistance, fit perfectly with the MAB's women's collective. As they told Global Voices in an email, after getting support from the European Union to document and denounce human rights violations in areas affected by dam construction, the groups started to give workshops in 2013 teaching arpilleria throughout the country.

In Brazil, as in many countries, the more benefits that construction companies claim their dams will bring, the more damage they seem to cause. In a statement released by the National Human Rights Council, 16 human rights violations were identified in dams zones in Brazil.

And, as stated by the MAB, “for women, violations are even greater”:

With the arrival of thousands of workers in small towns where hydroelectric construction sites takes places, for example, there is an extension of the cases of sexual harassment, women trafficking, prostitution and rape.

These are some of the stories that a crowdfunded documentary produced by the movement wants to tell. The project has already achieved 20,000 reais of its 25,000 reais goal (approximately 8,000 US dollars) on crowdfunding platform Catarse, with only two days left to get the rest.

Little stories, not so little women

The documentary intends to follow the stories of five women from the five regions of Brazil and how their lives were changed with the arrival of energy companies and their giant construction projects. The producers still haven’t defined who the subjects will be, but as they shared with Global Voices, they already know dams tales only change addresses:

Temos escutado todo tipo de histórias. O leque das perdas é muito grande e vai desde o caso da Maria, que foi ameaçada pela empresa caso não aceitasse a carta de crédito; a Fernanda, que perdeu a fonte de renda porque trabalhada fazendo doces para festas; a Damiana, que não conseguiu mais deixar a sua filhinha ao cuidado da vizinha; a Jose, que, com 15 anos, engravidou de um operário, dando à luz a mais um “filho da barragem”, porque aquele operário voltou a casa com a sua família; a Lucenilda, que conseguiu escapar do “boate Xingú” (na barragem de Belo Monte), onde estava presa, em regime de cárcere privado e escravidão, sendo obrigada a se prostituir várias vezes ao dia.

We have been listening to all kinds of stories. The scope of loss is wide and goes from Maria’s case, who was threatened by the company if she didn’t accept the credit letter they offered; to Fernanda’s, who lost her income because she used to work doing party pastries; from Damiana’s, who couldn’t leave her little daughter with her neighbour anymore; to Jose’s, who at age 15 got pregnant from a worker, giving birth to yet another “dam baby” because the worker had to go back to his home and family; and Lucenilda’s, who managed to escape “Boate Xingu” (Xingu’s nightclub) where she was being kept in conditions of a private prison and slavery, being forced to prostitute herself several times a day.

In its 30-year existence, the Movement of People Affected by Dams has noticed a pattern in energy companies’ installation of power plants from north to south. Reparations and resettlements, for instance, are always issued by the companies under men’s names, leaving women out. The numbers on violence point to a gruesome picture:

(…) são inúmeras as evidências de aumentos das ocorrências de assédio sexual, tráfico de mulheres e prostituição nas proximidades dos canteiros de obras das barragens. Porto Velho (RO), município que abriga a hidrelétrica de Santo Antônio e Jirau, registrou um aumento significativo nos índices de violência após o início das obras. Segundo pesquisa da Plataforma Dhecas, entre 2008 e 2010, o número de homicídios dolosos subiu 44%, e o índice de estupros cresceu 208% em três anos após a chegada dos empreendimentos.

[…] there is much evidence of an increase in sexual harassment, women trafficking and prostitution around the dam construction sites. Porto Velho, Rondonia, where the Santo Antonio and Jirau plant is located, registered a significant rise in the violence indices after construction work began. According to research from Plataforma Dhecas, between 2008 and 2010 the number of premeditated homicides went up 44%, and the percentage of rapes grew 208% in three years after project arrived.

In a research conducted by a Special Commission investigating Dams zones, 16 human rights violations were identified in several Brazilian regions. (Image:

Research conducted by a special commission investigating dams zones, 16 human rights violations were identified in several Brazilian regions. (Image: Vitor/Arpilleras: Bordando a resistência/Facebook)

Sewing through

Enter arpilleria. A skill that women from the areas affected by dams are already familiar with — sewing and needlework — has helped create a safe space for them to share their experiences with and opinions on the situation they find themselves in, according to MAB:

As mulheres são as que mais sofrem com a construção de barragens, mas também elas possuem uma força extraordinária para se unir, se empoderar coletivamente e ir para frente na defesa dos seus direitos e os direitos da sua família e comunidade.

Women are the ones who suffer the most with dam construction, but they also possess an extraordinary strength to unite, empower collectively and move forward defending their rights and their family and community rights.

In the two years that the MAB's National Women's Collective has been working with arpilleras throughout Brazil, 100 workshops have taken place in 10 states with 900 women. As Neudicléia de Oliveira, an MAB member, said in an interview with Brasil de Fato newspaper, sewing used to be a way for many of these women to make a living. Now, it's a political weapon.

While there is still very little political willingness to do something for communities violated by giant energy projects in Brazil, for MAB the arpilleras could be the beginning of a revolution:

Violeta Parra definia as arpilleras como “canções que se pintam”. Para as chilenas, foram uma forma de luto e de luta. Arpillera para nós é como um grito escancarado em forma de bordado. Arpillera é transgredir o significado histórico da costura, que apenas corroborava que o lugar da mulher era no ambiente doméstico, privado. Arpillera é a revolução costurada.

Violeta Parra defined the arpilleras as “songs that are painted”. To Chilean women, they were a way to grieve and to fight. Arpillera to us is like wide-mouthed scream in the form of needlework. Arpillera is to offend the historical meaning of sewing, which merely corroborates woman's place as being in the domestic, private sphere. Arpillera is a revolution, sewn.

To support the making of documentary on the Brazilian arpilleras, visit the project's Catarse page here

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