“Together we can do a lot (and more) to combat inequalities”

Luna Borges, scholar, lawyer and feminist. LLM’19, Harvard Law School; PhD Student at UnB; Senior Officer at International Planned Parenthood, Western Hemisphere Region (IPPFWHR).

1- Why is it important to be a feminist nowadays?

There are inequalities in the way men and women live. It is easy to see this inequality in Brazilian politics: only 15% of the Brazilian Congress is made up of women. Another dimension is the impact of the covid-19 pandemic: health professionals on the front line are black women affected by the lack of equipment and training. Inequality is therefore unfair because it oppresses freedom, usurps women’s rights, weakens protections.

Feminism, or feminisms to embrace the diversity of lives, is a practical policy and critical thinking tool for identifying injustices. And the feminist discourse is incomplete if it focuses only on gender oppression, as shown by Sueli Carneiro in her writings. In this sense, Black feminism teaches us that the impedments to the possibility of democracy and in the exercise of rights in a minimally just society are not only posed by sexism, but also by racism. Racism is structural in our society and works in many forms. An example is that, in 2018, every two hours, a woman died in Brazil, as a victim of femicide. In the past two years, this tragic situation has only improved for non-black women. As Djamila Ribeiro says, if there are black women, there are trans, indigenous, women with disabilities, and so on. They are women who remain in a situation of vulnerability in this country and have been silenced for a long time, so they must be at the center of the feminist struggle. Carla Akotirene is one of the Brazilian authors who talk about intersectionality as a matrix to understand who are the people injured by different oppressions.

I really like Debora Diniz’s definition that a feminist way of looking at the world broadens as understandings about how people live their lives, about which bodies are most vulnerable. If you are against the unjust inequality caused by the sexism and racism that causes the violent death of women and the lack of access to health care for black women, gender violence, and obstacles to women’s participation in politics, you defend feminist values. If you live these values, you are a feminist. Although feminisms alone are not capable of transforming the reality of inequality, they are essential to the dispute over political space and the discussion of values ​​in our society.

2- What are the necessary actions for Brazil to establish itself as a country worthy of the lives of women and girls?

Our neighboring country, Argentina, has just given us a clue. The Argentine National Congress decriminalized abortion, paying off a historic debt of democracy to Argentine women. This happened after a long struggle that began at least fifteen years ago when the Campaign for Safe and Free Legal Abortion was created in the country. The history being made by girls taking the streets in Argentina in recent years was based on an understanding of citizenship: the civilizing condition of women and girls in society is linked to the ability to control their own reproduction. The control of biological and social reproduction is very powerful, it is not just a matter of feminism or women. There is no other reason for some governments and churches to be so obsessed with the issue of abortion. What feminism does, then, is fundamental: it points out that it is not fair that women’s lives are at the mercy of biological and social reproduction, controlled by laws and political systems that do not represent them.

But the question mentions and idea of dignity and in the geographic region of Brazil. Here in Brazil, we could have learned from the Zika virus epidemic that the impacts of epidemics and pandemics are never on abstract bodies portrayed in most epidemiological data. Race, gender, class, disability, Region are decisive in the impacts generated by crises in public health, regardless of the magnitude. The poorest women, from Regions with higher incidence of Zika cases, as in the Northeast, still need to take fulltime care of their children who were born with microcephaly or other complications derived from the syndrome. The State still fails to offer the services and material support that these women and families need to have a dignified life. Zika virus never ceased to exist in Brazil, it was only forgotten in the post-epidemic.

3- Does the Brazilian legal system have sufficient legal resources to guarantee the rights of women and girls? What are the challenges in enforcing the laws?

To a large extent, yes, we have legal resources. Like other countries in Latin America, Brazil has one of the strongest constitutions in terms of the protection of rights. We have the Maria da Penha Law, the legal recognition of feminicide as a phenomenon of gender inequality, responsible for the killing of women. But the data still shows us a huge lack of protection for women and girls, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation much worse. In addition, today we have a government that is openly opposed to talking about gender inequality and this has practical effects on the implementation of laws, ranging from reducing public investments in policies to combat violence to weakening fundamental social protection policies for the survival of women in poverty and extreme poverty.

The challenge for compliance with the laws is the failure to understand and combat inequalities. Latin America and the Caribbean is the most unequal region in the world, and Brazil consistently ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. The diversity of our existences embodied as women and girls determines what is necessary for a more just Brazil. The justice system, political representations and civil society need to understand the effects and dynamics of this inequality and operate in a way that protects those who are in fact most vulnerable.

Failures to comply apply even to laws that are not as advanced as the Penal Code of 1940, because access to legal abortion services in Brazil is already extremely precarious, especially for the most vulnerable girls and women, and the current government wants to make access to that right even more difficult. The ordinance published in 2020, imposing more bureaucratic barriers to access the legal abortion service, practically prevents access to a health service, a right that was conquered more than 80 years ago.

If you are against the unjust inequality caused by the sexism and racism that causes the violent death of women and the lack of access to health care for black women, gender violence, and obstacles to women’s participation in politics, you defend feminist values.

4- Brazil, like other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, has very high numbers of rape of young girls, ranging from abuse in their own homes to sexual exploitation. What has corroborated for the numbers to keep growing?

Brazil has the second-worst index in the world in sexual and child exploitation and records 6 abortions per day in girls between 10 and 14 years of age, raped. Most of them are girls who suffer violence, but also boys. 70% of cases of sexual violence against girls and boys happen at home and have a member of the family as a perpetrator. When asked why these numbers are growing, the case of the 10-year-old girl raped at home in Espírito Santo – and harassed by institutions that failed to uphold her rights – help us to think about possible causes for the deprotection of this population. During the pandemic, schools were closed, girls lost a channel of communication for possible cases of violence. So this case shows us that we need families, schools, jurisdictional bodies, public bodies like Guardianship Councils, operating to work with comprehensive sexuality education. And for that, we will, yes, need to talk about gender, masculinities, etc.

Children and girls in social vulnerable situations are more exposed to the crime of sexual exploitation. So combating this situation involves social, economic, but cultural issues, because they are subject to various types of violence. The 1988 Federal Constitution clearly states: it is the duty of the family, society, and the State to ensure fundamental rights for children, adolescents, and young people, with absolute priority. The family, although important, is not the only responsible. Education, again, plays a central role here. Girls at age of 10, 12, 14, need to be in school and in schools that are prepared to deal with cases where families are unable to protect them. So it generates a lot of aversion to me when they say that sex education is a topic for controversy. On the contrary. Comprehensive sex education is a theme for well-done, evidence-based and urgent public policy to protect girls and boys.

5- Considering border movements, migration, and similarities between countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, are there effective international cooperation actions to strengthen the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls in these contexts?

Latin America and the Caribbean are facing a growing migration crisis with multidimensional causes, in addition to the most restrictive policies around sexual and reproductive rights. Unfortunately, it is not necessary to go far from Brazil to understand the impacts of a humanitarian crisis. Who speaks and works with the theme is Andreza Jorge, one of the leaders and activists for rights in the Complexo da Maré, in Rio de Janeiro. What is happening in some regions of our country, and in the case of some favelas, is a situation of humanitarian crisis, due to violence, control of territories by armed groups and the lack of access to basic services.

Restrictive policies and laws on sexual and reproductive health and rights have a major impact on women and girls in general, especially those on the move, as migrants and refugees, or in situations of extreme precariousness. An important case for talking about the health of migrant and refugee people was decided by the Colombian Constitutional Court in 2019. A 14-year-old Venezuelan girl migrated to Colombia, was a victim of sexual violence, and was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis. In the first attempt, care by the Colombian health service was denied, and an organization called Women’s Link Worldwide brought the case to the ultimate court of appeals. And the Court’s decision was very important, as it stated that health services for women and girls cannot be denied due to their migratory status. On the contrary: being a migrant or refugee puts them in a situation of even greater vulnerability and therefore they need to be taken care of.

In early 2021, the administration of the Biden government rescinded the Global Gag Rule, and now the money that leaves the United States for international health or humanitarian policies can be used for abortion services, which is very important for organizations that are working, for example, with girls and women in countries at war. During the Trump administration, this rule greatly affected the funding of organizations in the South, which were hostage to a cooperation policy dictated by the incumbent U.S. President.It is very important that international humanitarian cooperation understands that sexual and reproductive health, including the right to abortion, is essential and must be part of our protection responses to women and girls.

To be in favor of decriminalizing abortion is to be in favor of life because we no longer want any women killed or imprisoned by a procedure that should be regulated as part of public health policy.

6- What is the status of the right to legal and safe abortion in Brazil, what does this right represent for the country, and what should be the facilitating actions for the establishment of this right in a broader way?

Today, in Brazil, abortion is still treated as a crime. The 1940 Penal Code allows termination of pregnancy in the event of rape and if there is no other way to save the woman’s life. And, by the decision of the Federal Supreme Court (STF), pregnant women gestating anencephalic fetuses have the right to terminate the pregnancy. But the existence of the procedure as a crime does not change the fact that women have abortions, it only puts them at greater risk for doing so. A key argument for decriminalizing abortion comes from science. In Brazil, with the National Abortion Survey, we have reliable data on the magnitude of the practice of abortion: one in five women have an abortion before the age of 40. Of the women who had their reproductive trajectories marked by abortion, 9% were white, 15% black, and 24% indigenous. Again, the greater the woman’s unprotected situation, the higher is the risk she faces because abortion is still a crime.

Also based on these data, in March 2017, a petition(ADPF 442) was presented before the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF) asking for the decriminalization of voluntary termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks. In the lawsuit filed before the Supreme Court, the organizations argue that the fundamental rights of women are violated because aborption is still criminilized, especially the rights to dignity and citizenship. The violation of the fundamental principle of dignity is understood as the denial of the autonomy of women to make their own decisions and the violation of citizenship as the impediment of having the necessary conditions to living a dignified life.

To be in favor of decriminalizing abortion is to be in favor of life because we no longer want any women killed or imprisoned by a procedure that should be regulated as part of public health policy. Decriminalizing abortion is so important that Argentina did so in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that is why when abortion is decriminalized in some parts of the world, photos are published with the following caption: “life has won”.

7- What is it like to be a feminist, lawyer, and activist for quality access to sexual and reproductive health in Brazil?

Today I work in a place that is undergoing an intense process of transformation, from a family planning organization founded over half a century ago to an anti-racist, feminist organization. I had the opportunity to meet many women and girls from Latin America and the Caribbean Region. People like Kari Guajajara, Artemísia Xakriabá, Andreza Jorge, Lita Martínez, Giselle Carino and others, inspire me a lot to continue studying, working – even in the chaos in which we currently live – and fighting for rights. So, in response to the question, it is a place of mutual learning and collective action. I have less belief in personal descriptions of individual successes and merit. I prefer to look at the strength of these women and organizations that care for other women and girls and have hope. Together we can do a lot (and more) to combat inequalities.

If you are against the unjust inequality caused by the sexism and racism that causes the violent death of women and the lack of access to health care for black women, gender violence, and obstacles to women’s participation in politics, you defend feminist values.

Luna Borges, scholar, lawyer and feminist. LLM’19, Harvard Law School; PhD Student at UnB; Senior Officer at International Planned Parenthood, Western Hemisphere Region (IPPFWHR).