Afro-Brazilian women take to the streets. How about also taking up seats in parliament?
27 Nov 2015 by Carolina Azevedo, Communications Specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean, UNDP
“The power structure [in our region] is macho, white and old,” said Creuza Oliveira, President of the National Federation of Domestic Workers of Brazil. Creuza’s speech during the ECLAC-UNDP Regional Conference on Social Development brought many ministers and country delegates – men and women – to tears.
Her words give witness to the experience of African descendants, who make up around 30 per cent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean. Throughout the region Afro-descendants face discrimination and experience disproportionate levels of poverty and social exclusion. Often they face multiple and intersecting forms of inequity based on other factors such as gender, religion or disability.
Creuza became a domestic worker when she was only 10 in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. Working long hours during the day and studying at night “whenever the boss allowed”, she managed to finish elementary school by age 16 and high school by 32, she told me in an interview in Lima, Peru.
Black women compose 62 percent of the domestic work force in Brazil, according to official figures. More than 70 percent do not have a formal contract. Moreover, 60 percent of women who die giving birth are black. And in the last 10 years the number murders of black women increased 54 percent, according to official data.
To draw attention to these alarming figures, over 20,000 women took to the streets during the March of Black Women on 18 November in Brasilia, calling for the protection of human rights and encouraging society to value the Afro-Brazilian culture. UN agencies including UNDP backed the march, and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka joined the event, calling for the protection of women’s rights.
Creuza Oliveira has a point about the power structure in the region, including in Brazil. While the average proportion of women in parliaments in Latin America and the Caribbean is 27 percent (higher than the global average of 22.5 percent), in Brazil less than 10 percent of members of parliament are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Taking to the streets is an important step. But beyond the street level, it is also crucial to boost the participation of women in decision-making at all levels. This means empowering women to change the game, make policies, improve rights and help guarantee opportunities and rights for women, men and families, particularly from the most vulnerable populations, including Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples.
As UNDP Administrator Helen Clark said, when women are “out of sight, out of mind”, meeting their needs does not get prioritized. Conversely, when there is a critical mass of women decision-makers, the issues that previously went unaddressed can become priorities.
It is no coincidence that in 2002, at a time when Costa Rica’s numbers of women in Parliament exceeded 30 percent, a Law on the Protection of Adolescent Mothers was passed to provide young women with free health services and education.
I asked Creuza if she would like to join politics one day. She said she tried once, spent all her money in a campaign for the lower house of parliament and failed. “Breaking the glass ceiling is hard,” she said. “For a black woman it’s even harder.”
With the declaration of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), UN member states have recognized the importance of combatting racism. UNDP is working with governments and civil society organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean to tackle this lingering, yet urgent challenge in a region that still faces the legacies of centuries of slavery.
Societies need more women in power at all levels, more women leaders like Creuza, and more black women in decision-making positions. As women take to the streets in Brasilia, we’re working toward a future in which more women—including indigenous and Afro-descendants— will take up seats in Parliament too.