-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
In recent weeks, the case of Beatriz has gained international attention. Beatriz is a pregnant Salvadoran woman who suffers from lupus whose baby has a lethal condition. Though the baby, which only has a brain stem, will not survive, carrying the pregnancy to completion also puts Beatriz’s life at extreme risk. However, thanks to El Salvador’s total ban on abortion, Beatriz cannot save her own life.
In an attempt to protect her own life, the case had reached El Salvador’s highest court. Sadly, the news was not good for women’s health and the basic right to survive, as the court ruled that the complete ban on abortion stands, even in Beatriz’s case, and that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over newborn’s,” even when that fetus will not survive birth. The five court members said that, while lupus would probably kill Beatriz eventually, they said there was no imminent threat to her health. The court thus ordered Beatriz to go through with the pregnancy in spite of the physical toll it will take on her (to say nothing of the mental and psychological toll of giving birth just to have the baby die). Perhaps not coincidentally, all five judges are men (with only one of them dissenting) who ultimately determined the trauma and fate of Beatriz without according her any control over her own life, even in the face of the risks to her life and the certainty of the inviability of life in the fetus. Suffice to say, it’s a terrible ruling for equal rights, reproductive freedom, and women’s health, and it offers yet another devastating reminder of the cost of total bans on abortion.
This ongoing series has recently looked at the political activism of women who mobilized against the military dictatorship and fought for democracy. However, it did not take military repression for women to mobilize, and women’s struggles significantly predated the dictatorship. This week, we look at a feminist and key figure in the history of Brazil, a woman who played a vital role in fighting for women’s equality for nearly fifty years: Bertha Lutz.
Bertha Lutz was born in 1894 in São Paulo in 1894 to Amy Fowler, a nurse from England, and Adolpho Lutz, a Swiss-Brazilian who specialized in tropical medicines. Given her parents’ international backgrounds and professions, Bertha had opportunities both in travel and in education that only wealthier Brazilians could enjoy. Indeed, she first attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris, finishing with a degree in biology in 1918. She returned to Brazil, and in the 1930s, she enrolled in the National Law School in Rio de Janeiro (today a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), earning her law degree.
In both of these professions, Lutz was an anomaly. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Brazilian politics and the professions connected to politics were overwhelmingly male-dominated. When Mirthes de Campos served as a defense lawyer in 1899, she became the first woman ever to work in a courtroom in Brazil. Though it was an important symbolic movement, it did not exactly destroy the barriers of women in white-collar professions, and there were only fourteen women lawyers total in Rio de Janeiro (9 women) and São Paulo (5 women) combined. Such gender-inequalities spread to other white-collar professions, like medicine and accounting.
It was in this context that Lutz began to push for feminist causes. While studying in Europe, she had been exposed to feminist movements and writings from European women, especially from the suffrage movement in England. She brought these concerns back to Brazil with her, writing feminist tracts in Portuguese by 1918. She had a vision of feminism that maintained that women should have equal access to educational opportunities and to professions beyond the home. Indeed, she insisted that women had important contributions they could make to society, and that they should not be bound to the home, “taking advantage of animal instincts of man.”* In 1919, Bertha became the head of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the first woman appointed to that position. That same year, she also formed the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman). Her position at the National Museum allowed Bertha to have contacts with a variety of politicians and elites, to whom she could express her ideas on women’s equality. In 1922, Bertha officially formed the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Femenino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress), which affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, a clear marker on the impact of Bertha’s experiences and time in Europe. As for her own organization, the name change alone signified how Bertha and the Liga’s members were broadening their struggles beyond mere “intellectual” pursuits to the broader pursuit of “progress.”
The Federação met with some successes early on. Pressure and lobbying led the government to allow women to enroll in the Colégio Pedro II. The federally-run public school was one of the best institutions of primary and secondary education in Brazil, and had often trained those who would attend the few public or private universities in Rio de Janeiro (then the national capital) or elsewhere in the country. Previously male-dominated, the Colégio had played no small role in perpetuating the domination of men in politics and white-collar professions; in that regard, the opening of the school to women marked a subtle but important shift.
Lutz continued to work both nationally and internationally in women’s movements. She attended a number of international conferences and meetings regarding women’s suffrage and feminism, representing Brazil in organizations such as the League of Women Voters in the US and the International Conference of Women in Berlin in 1929, and even being elected Vice President in the Pan-American Society of the League.
However, as was often the case with the “first-wave” feminism that was erupting in much of the Western world at this time, Lutz’s vision of feminism was not inclusive of all women, nor did it demand full equality everywhere. Lutz’s views on women’s labor were still gendered; she believed women were best-suited to work in fields like social welfare, which was an appropriate arena for their feminine morality and their natural caring abilities. Additionally, the appeal her demands and her tactics were limited to middle- and upper-middle class women living in urban centers. There was little applicability or attention to women in rural areas, or to women from lower social classes in the cities. With its emphasis on issues like access to higher education and white-collar professions, Lutz’s Federação and the issues it adopted often had little relevance to the majority of working women who were usually illiterate (after all, when the Federação formed, slavery had only been abolished 34 years earlier). Even Lutz’s ideas on “appropriate” contributions and jobs for women and their status as moral beacons drew on middle-class ideals that had few parallels with the lives of the poor in the cities and the countryside alike. Though fighting for women’s equality, Lutz’s vision was still an inherently class-based feminism that drew from and built upon her own upper-middle class background.
That is not to take away from Lutz’s accomplishments and her sheer force of personality in pushing for women’s rights. Indeed, the 1930s saw rapid transformations taking place. Shortly after the Constitutionalist Revolt in São Paulo that challenged the presidency of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s government began work on a new constitution. Though Lutz was not elected to the assembly, she drew on her years of activism and her connections that she’d made with Brazilian politicians to push the issue of suffrage. Her efforts won out, and the 1934 constitution granted women the right to vote, making Brazil only the third Latin American country to grant women’s suffrage.
With these new rights, Lutz herself ran for office, but was unable to win election. However, in 1936, she became one of several women to serve in Congress. Though this was an important step, politics nonetheless continued to be a male-dominated world. Indeed, as a congresswoman, she was elected president of the congressional Special Commission on the Status of Women, but she was the only woman on the committee, reflecting the ongoing inequalities and struggles women faced. Adding to the challenges, in 1937, Vargas closed Congress, indefinitely banned elections, and ushered in the Estado Novo; now, Brazilian women had the right to vote, but no significant national elections in which they could exercise the franchise.
Although shut out of electoral politics in 1937, Lutz continued to work both in women’s rights and in the sciences. She became the head of the Botanical Sector of the National Museum, and continued to make a name for herself as an accomplished botanist and herpetologist in the academic community. She also remained politically engaged, resigning her post at the National Museum in 1964, just as the military came into power. Although she continued to fight for women’s rights, she was also often isolated from her constituents, due both to her professional life and to her own personality and background. Nonetheless, Lutz remained an important figure, both politically and symbolically, coming to be seen as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism. Indeed, when the United Nations declared 1975 to be the “International Year of the Woman,” Brazil’s government invited Lutz to be the Brazilian representative to the International Conference on Women in Mexico City. It ended up being her last major public act in her nearly fifty-year struggle for feminism; in 1976, she passed away at the age of 84.
Though Lutz’s feminist visions had limits for women in other classes, her central role in Brazil’s feminist movement cannot be denied. Certainly, she was far from the only feminist, and hundreds and thousands of other women were involved in fighting for equality for women in Brazil throughout the twentieth century. Still, Lutz’s importance absolutely cannot be overstated, and her status as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism and the equal rights movement is well-deserved.
A recent report on abortion in Brazil has revealed the impact on women’s lives and health when their reproductive freedoms are restricted. Unlike El Salvador and Nicaragua, Brazil allows abortion in the rare cases of rape, anencephaly, or when the mother’s life is at risk. However, in what is an all-too-common pattern throughout much of Latin America, criminalization of abortion has failed to eliminate the practice, instead forcing it underground, reducing women’s reproductive freedom even while greatly increasing the risk to their health.
Despite its illegality, Brazil’s Ministry of Health estimates that about 1 million abortions are performed in the country annually, and that about 200,000 women die every year from infections, vaginal bleeding, and other complications from illegal abortions. Other estimates put those numbers even higher.
A 2010 University of Brasilia study found that 1 in 5 Brazilian women under 40 — more than 5 million women overall, or about 22% of Brazil’s population — had had at least one abortion. According to the report, at least 50% of those women were hospitalized for complications. Abortion is the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality. [...]
A disproportionate number of women who seek illegal abortions in Brazil are poor, young, and uneducated. According to the 2010 study, about 42% of women have their first abortion between the ages of 12 and 19, and about about 23% of women with less than a fourth-grade education have had an abortion.
“If you are older and you have money, there are private clinics that are reasonably good,” Barroso said. “But if you are young and poor, you are really at the mercy of this terrible situation.” [...]
In addition to the health threats, women who seek an illegal abortion in Brazil are under the constant threat of criminal action.
While prosecutions are rare, women who are hospitalized for abortion complications frequently face criminal and civil action, and even run the risk of spending up to three years in jail. Police raids on abortion clinics have also become increasingly routine, and authorities often take thousands of medical files of women, exposing their private medical histories to the community.
Of course, these risks are problematic in a number of ways. Although anecdotal, I spoke with an upper middle-class woman who openly admitted to having two abortions, and the ease, safety, and relative security she had in the process. Thus, she had a far greater sense of health and safety in her procedures than poorer women would, a fact she herself was cognizant of. And by her own admission, she was not proud of the fact, yet was also aware that, given where she was in life and the issues she confronted when she had both abortions, they were probably the best choice for her and for her family (she later had children, once her personal and professional life had settled down and she was older). Yet even she, like poorer women, faced the very real risk of serving up to three years in prison, merely for trying to control some sense of autonomy with regards to her own body. And though the wealthy women could face prison as well, the likelihood that personal connections, wealth, and a skewed legal system treats them better than the poor reveals that even that risk is unequal along class lines. All the while, the illegality of abortion fails to curb the practice, even while hundreds of thousands have died from it due to their inability to secure safe, healthy options in exercising control over their bodies, their lives, their futures, and, oftentimes, the futures of their eventual families.
And again, this is in a country that is not as restrictive on abortion as other countries in Latin America. When those who support reproductive freedom in the US comment that criminalization does not eliminate a practice, they aren’t just speaking philosophically. There are far too many examples throughout the hemisphere that reveal what happens when governments impinge upon women’s freedoms. What happens to women in Brazil is, sadly, just another reminder of that reality.
While the issue of abortion continues to be a hot-button topic in the US, in Central American countries, there are plenty of tragic examples of what happens when women are denied reproductive freedoms. El Salvador, which also has a total abortion ban, even in the case of saving a mother’s life, provides another painful reminder of the fallout from denying women the right to determine their own body’s fate:
Doctors recommend that Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman with Lupus, terminate her 19-week pregnancy due to the associated risks of morbidity or mortality. Her doctors are worried that because Lupus has damaged her kidneys and caused other health issues, she is at high risk of preeclampsia, pregnancy related hypertension, and other life-threatening complications. Also, her fetus has a lethal anomaly that, aside from any of Beatriz’s health issues, will result in its eventual demise, either in utero or immediately after its delivery. [...]
In 1998, El Salvador completed a series of reforms, which included changing the constitution, resulting in an absolute ban against abortion. As reported by the New York Times Magazine in 2006, the ban is so restrictive that doctors cannot remove ectopic pregnancies (when a fertilized egg stays is implanted in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus), which have no chance of survival and put the mother’s health at risk.
Of course, Salvadoran politicians have not covered themselves with glory in the matter, as both the Ministry of Health and the Supreme Court have refused to address Beatriz’s case. And of course, the “total ban” is anything but. As is the case elsewhere, abolishing abortion does not eliminate the practice, but instead merely makes it safer for some women over others.
To be clear – this is an issue that affects poor women. Salvadorans who need to terminate a pregnancy and have money can go to private doctors and have an abortion without the risk of being arrested. They also have access to information and contraception that is not readily available in public schools or health clinics.
Poor women who can’t pay for a private doctor and have to rely on state facilities do not have any options available to them, other than trying to terminate their pregnancy at home.
This is not just the case in El Salvador. In countries throughout Latin America where access to abortion is legally restricted, the wealthier still manage to get safe, healthy, under-the-table access to abortion through personal connections, while the poor are denied safe treatment. El Salvador’s laws are some of the most restrictive in the hemisphere, but even banning reproductive freedoms for women on a more limited basis doesn’t get rid of the practice; it simply further denies some sense of equality to those who are already socioeconomically disadvantaged.
While women like Vera Sílvia Magalhães and Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro played key roles in the radicalism and student activism that challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, theirs was not the only way in which women could and did mobilize to challenge the military regime. Even as the dictatorship entered its most repressive phase under presidents Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Médici, students found new ways to organize and mobilize, and new issues to confront, throughout the 1970s. Comba Marques Porto is an example not only of the role women students continued to play in challenging the dictatorship in the 1970s, but also of the struggle for women’s rights during military rule and in the post-dictatorship context, both in student movements and in society more generally.
Comba Marques Porto was born in 1945 in Rio de Janeiro. Her father was a journalist, and her mother a housewife, as was common in many urban middle class families at the time. Comba Porto seemed destined to be an elementary schoolteacher, another profession that women, especially single women, dominated (or were limited to, depending on one’s perspective). In Brazil at the time, teachers at the elementary level could be certified based on their performance and training in high school. And like many young women from her background, she remained relatively apolitical, in spite of the political context of the dictatorship and of some of her own family members participating in the student movements. However, after finishing her secondary schooling and getting her teaching certification, in 1966 Comba Porto decided to take the entrance exams for university. She passed, and began to attend Guanabara State University (UEG, now called Rio de Janeiro State University) in the city of Rio.
By the time she had enrolled and begun studying in UEG, the political and social atmosphere was intense, as the semi-illegal National Students Union (UNE) was gaining strength and becoming a key voice in challenging the military regime and its increasing use of repression. Thus, the already-strong history and tradition of student mobilization was only intensifying when she began attending classes.
However, things had changed significantly by the end of her second year of studies. In the face of growing protest not only from students but from parents, white-collar professionals, artists, and others, the hardliners were getting increasingly uneasy. In October 1968, the arrested around 900 students at the semi-clandestine UNE Congress in the interior of São Paulo state; Comba Porto, one of the delegates, was among them, and briefly served time in jail. Perhaps more importantly at the national level, in September 1968, Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves gave a speech on the floor of Congress a few days before Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations. Known retrospectively as the “Lysistrata speech,” Moreira Alves called on women to protest the regime by refusing to dance with, kiss, or date soldiers. Though the public paid the speech little attention, the generals were outraged (or feigned outrage). They demanded Congres strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that the military could prosecute him for offenses to the nation. On December 11, Congress not only voted to allow Moreira Alves to retain his immunity; they sang the national anthem, openly defying the military’s attempted monopolization on nationalism. The military acted swiftly. On Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva, with the support of other hardliners in the military, issued the Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), indefinitely closing Congress, intensifying censorship, escalating the use of torture, and ushering in the most repressive phase of Brazil’s dictatorship.
Given its central and vital role in challenging the dictatorship for its first four years, the student movement was an obvious target of this new political silencing. Indeed, as if AI-5 had not made the situation clear, in February 1969, the government also issued Decree-Law 477, which specifically focused on students by prohibiting political expressions or organization on campuses, with the threat of stripping students of funding, expulsion, and even arrest. The fact that many of the prohibitions and punishments outlined in Decree-Law 477 were also in AI-5 made clear just how determined to abolish all student mobilization the military was.
However, the regime’s power was not absolute, and already in 1969, students were finding new ways to organize at the local level as the regime went after UNE. Comba Porto was one of these figures, joining her campuses University Committee in the hopes that she could convince students to join the causes of the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). She continued to work in new organizations and agitated to challenge the regime, including its educational policies. In one instance she attended a conference at the Ministry of Education where she challenged the regime’s educational policies and their failings to the Minister of Education. Speaking before high-ranking officials, she pointed to the failings in the educational system and talking about the opportunities and future she hoped awaited her daughter.
While Comba Porto and other students found ways to mobilize, the fact remained that the political and social atmosphere was greatly limited to all students, as the regime placed plainclothes police officers in classrooms and had them regularly report on student activities and pamphlets distributed on campuses. Further compounding the problem was the fact that, by this time, Brazil’s student movement itself had increasingly fragmented, as some activists from the late-1960s joined guerrilla movements in the cities or countryside, others went into exile, and still others split over what type of revolution should remove the dictatorship.
Yet even this fragmentation did not lead to an end of mobilization. By the mid-1970s, students shifted from party-based alliances that drew on shared ideologies, and instead moved to professionally-based alliances. Comba Porto’s experiences were again instructive of these new forms of mobilization. Upon finishing her degree at UEG, she enrolled in the National Law School at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). While there, she participated in an official Week of Juridical Debates; though ostensibly about legal issues in Brazil, the conference doubled as a means for students from other law schools from throughout the country to gather, discuss the issues each faced on their campuses, and work together to reconstitute a new, more national student voice. The regime’s officials were aware of this threat, but they could not stop it; although the rector (whom the military dictatorship had directly appointed) called her to his office and condemned the conference, even threatening her, she continued to organize and mobilize at similar types of events, and she never was expelled.
Comba Porto’s activism was part of a broader nascent trend in student mobilizations. Whereas student leadership had by and large been dominated by men in the 1960s, both in Brazil and in much of the rest of the world, by the 1970s, women were not only taking a more prominent role in mobilizing, but also beginning to fight for the issues that affected women directly. Challenging the male-dominated hierarchy was a part of those issues. And it was not an imaginary struggle; though she had been a regular participant and activist in a number of student organizations on campuses, she had never reached a position of leadership in any of these organizations, reflecting the ongoing trouble women activists had in gaining the respect and support for official leadership positions.
As she finished her schooling, Comba Porto took her experiences as an activist and as a woman to her professional life. By the mid-1970s, she was working on cases of political prisoners. Even while working to defend prisoners (including many who were her former colleagues in the PCB), she also began to work in feminist causes, participating in the Seminar on the Brazilian Woman, where she met other politically engaged women and feminists. Coming into contact with a community that was limited in the student movement but with which she strongly identified, she herself became increasingly tied to fighting for women’s juridical and social rights in Brazil as well.
Although the dictatorship ended in 1985, Comba Porto, like many activists of the 1960s and 1970s, remained active in politics in the new democratic regime. In spite of this new context, however, she continued to run into obstacles as a woman politician, losing in her campaign to be mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 1982 and in her run for a seat in the Federal Chamber of Deputies in 1986, revealing in part the ways women still had trouble gaining access to positions of political leadership. Yet Comba Porto was not without her own triumphs, as she found other ways to shape Brazilian politics. As Brazil prepared to write a new constitution (to replace the military constitution of 1967), Comba Porto was a key figure in the constitutional hearings, adding an important voice to the debates and playing a key role in shaping the language and laws of the 1988 constitution as they pertained to women, including the fact that “men and women have equal rights,” that the government ensure equal protection for women in employment, and that the rights and opportunities of mothers and pregnant women be upheld. In the 1990s, Comba Porto became a judge, working in the Regional Labor Court in Rio de Janeiro. And though no longer involved heavily in party politics, she continues to provide a strong voice for women’s causes, even periodically writing on feminist issues facing Brazil in the 21st century (as well as writing on opera). Comba Porto’s path provides not only another way in which women were involved in student activism during the dictatorship, but insight into the ways in which politics and feminism merged for many students shut out of leadership in the 1970s, feminist struggles that Comba Porto, like many other women, continued to fight for in the post-dictatorship era and indeed continue to fight for even today.