Where are the women from peripheral areas in Brazilian politics?

Image by Magno Borges/Agência Mural, used with permission.

This article was written by Ana Beatriz Alves, Egberto Santana, Isabela Alves, Kethylyn Mieza and Paulo Talarico, and originally published on March 8, 2024, on Agência Mural's website. It is republished here under a partnership agreement with Global Voices, with edits. 

São Paulo witnessed a historic change in the 2020 municipal electionsFour Black women were elected as councillors — over 72 years, the capital of São Paulo state has elected only six Black women councillors in total. 

However, the proportion of women among the 55 members of the City Council — the largest in Brazil — is still below that of the general population. In São Paulo, for every 10 councillors, two are women. When taking into account all of the metropolitan region, the average falls to one woman councillor for every 10 deputies in the town halls.

When looking at municipal councils, the situation seems even more difficult: only three of the 39 cities in Greater São Paulo have women mayors.

According to the platform TSE Women, of the High Electoral Court, women comprise more than half (52 percent) of the electorate in Brazil. However, the number of votes won by women candidates between 2016 and 2022 was 33 percent, with 15 percent of them being elected. 

A few months before new elections in the 5,565 Brazilian municipalities, scheduled for next October, Agência Mural talked to councillors, community leaders, and experts about why it is so difficult for women, especially from peripheral, poorer areas, to enter institutional politics, and also about the journeys of those who were elected.

Movement for change

A former resident of Grajaú, in São Paulo's South Zone, Luana Alves is an educator and health worker. She was elected in the capital of São Paulo with 37,550 votes, bringing objectives and experiences to the job that were already part of her personal life.

“I understand that I am part of a historic movement to change the world. Things don't [simply] change from one generation to the next. There are processes that accumulate to break with the system [as it is],” Councillor Alves said.

Her entry into politics was motivated by what she experienced at home. Her mother worked as a social worker and her father was imprisoned during the military dictatorship (1964–1985) for being part of the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party) — he was considered a “subversive” by the regime. Both parents worked in grassroots organizations.

“Witnessing these struggles educated me positively,” she said. At 19, she joined the PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party) and the following year became a student at USP (University of São Paulo) where she graduated in psychology and specialized in public health and primary care. 

During her studies, she got to know several Black and student movement collectives supporting racial quotas for Black, Brown and Indigenous students.

Luana sees the legislature as a place that is still “very macho” and that defends the interests of the ruling class.

“I know the limits of this place and that things are not solved only there. The great historic changes have always come with large, mass movements. We have to organize ourselves collectively so that we don't feel alone in the battle,” she noted.

Councillor Elaine Mineiro, part of the collective Quilombo Periférico, was also elected in 2020 in São Paulo, with 22,742 votes. An educator and activist with cultural movements in peripheral areas, she explained that her first contact with politics was in the Black movement and with her mother, who was active in the Catholic church in the neighbourhood where she grew up, Tiradentes City, in São Paulo's East Zone.

“The church was the first place where I heard about antiracist movements and, in a certain way, it connected with the history of some political parties and groups, such as the Uneafro (Union of Centres of Popular Education for Black People and the Working Class),” she recalled. 

Speaking about their first term, the councillors highlighted that recognition is a constant struggle and that there are still many barriers and prejudices. One example was the revocation of Councillor Camilo Cristófaro, who was investigated for racist comments in parliament.

Overall, the women councillors say they have supported each other, as Black women, to resist and continue the work. They also say that, in order for changes to actually occur, collective and grassroots organization is necessary, just as it was for their ancestors during the era of slavery in Brazil.

“Our oldest [predecessors] taught long ago that our comfort zones are among us. Black women need to find tactics for protection and care among themselves,” Mineiro concluded.

Imagem: Magno Borges/Agência Mural

One woman for every 10 councillors in Greater São Paulo. Image by Magno Borges/Agência Mural, used with permission.

No women councillors

Between the 2016 and 2020 local elections, the cities of São Paulo's metropolitan region saw the number of women councillors grow, albeit slightly: with 71 women elected, the increase was 26 percent. This represents only 10 percent of the total seats in the chambers of the 39 cities in the region.

The town of Cotia has not elected women since the 1980s. Ten municipalities currently do not have any female deputies, even though women make up over half of their population.

With almost half a million inhabitants, Mauá it's one of those parliaments with no women at all.

Maria Clara Ribeiro is a young artist engaged in politics and a resident of the Cerqueira Leite neighborhood, on the city's outskirts. She is part of the UP (Popular Unity party) and the Olga Benário Women's Movement, which works primarily with victims of domestic violence, and organizes women politically so that they know their rights.

In the city, Casa Helenira Preta, where Maria works, is one of the initiatives that houses women and provides support to them. Being a Black woman and from the peripheries, Maria highlights that representation is important, but that in practice it is still very difficult for women in vulnerable situations to participate in municipal councils .

For Shisleni de Oliveira Macedo, a researcher at the Centre for Studies of Peripheral Areas at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), two of the barriers for peripheral women to participate politically are sexism and capitalism.

“Somebody works 8, 10, 12 hours a day and it takes two hours to go [to work] and two hours to return, [so] it is also difficult for them to engage as a political activist,” she explained.

“She needs to find time, [and] space in life. Remembering that women also have other things to do. They are the ones who take care of children, the elderly, they even take care of things for men to enter politics,” she said.

“Political parties have an important role. If parties do not prioritize the inclusion of women on candidate lists or do not offer significant support, female representation in politics will stay low.”

Under Brazilian law, parties need to have women as at least 30 percent of their candidates and also allocate the same proportion of the electoral fund resources to their campaigns.

Rare female mayors

Women mayoral candidates also face difficulties. Poá is one of the rare municipalities in Greater São Paulo with a woman in charge: Mayor Márcia Bin, elected in 2020 with 23,446 votes, the first in the municipality of 103,000 people.

In the electronic balloting system, the candidate's name appeared in a peculiar way: Márcia Bin “wife of Testinha,” the nickname of Francisco Pereira De Sousa, former mayor of the city.

In 2009, ”Testinha” (a nickname that means “little forehead” in Portuguese) appointed his wife to the post of Secretary for Social Promotion. Both were convicted of administrative misconduct. In 2022, the STF (Supreme Federal Court) annulled the convictions, keeping the mayor in office. 

The mention of their relationship in her candidacy was the subject of criticism. “In no way does it represent what we talk about regarding the representation of women in politics. Quite the contrary, this represents what structural machismo does to women in politics,” said Gisele Magalhães, a teacher and representative of the Permanent Forum for Culture of Poá.

She says she believes that the political representation of women should go further, electing those who actually fight for this cause in the municipality, with projects, laws, and overseeing issues such as available places in daycare centres, healthcare and cases of gender violence.

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