Dispatches from Brazil: Part One

Friday, 4 March 2011

Spending my first full day in Brazil in a favela was something of an experience. Maré is an enormous community with, it's thought, as many as 180,000 inhabitants. And although most of them are hardworking, law-abiding people, it's drug gangs who run the show in Maré.

It was safe for us to walk around with some of the people who do community work in the favela, but we couldn't take photos or go off on our own. Maré has many invisible lines – territories controlled by different gangs which residents cannot cross without trouble.

Maré is a prime example of the enormous wealth disparity which exists in Brazil. It's not far from a university and close to some of the city's richer neighbourhoods, but its inhabitants live in poverty. Social problems are rife and educational attainment is low.

Through evening classes which help them with studying, the ActionAid project in Maré has enabled 800 young people to go to university – an amazing achievement for such a community, where only 0.8% of people end up as graduates.

ActionAid is set to begin a new initiative here, getting young people to discuss their rights, equality and sexual health. We talked to some of the teenagers taking part in university preparatory classes at the community centre and listened to what they had to say about the issues affecting them.

Samara is 18 years old and has just finished a course in multimedia. She is also passionate and outspoken about equality.

“Inequality is a problem right from when are being raised,” she told us.

17-year-old Raphael is also not afraid to speak out about gender inequality and believes that Brazilian society in general is very sexist.

“Something that really bothers me is men who beat women,” he said. “Human beings can be such animals sometimes.”

So what happens when there is a problem with domestic violence in Maré?

“There are people who like to pretend it doesn't happen,” said Raphael. “Often they will blame it on alcohol and say it only happened because he was drunk, so that's okay.”

“It depends on how you've been raised,” added Samara. “In the past women were brought up to be submissive and stay in the kitchen all day, but things are changing. In a relationship I think you should give each other space and respect – and not be jealous or controlling.”

During our day in Maré we also had the opportunity to talk to some residents who have been working at the centre for a number of years. They had a lot to say about the issue – and a lot of ideas as to how it should be tackled.

Shyrlei is 27 and started going to the centre at the age of 17. She has studied education at university and has recently been made a director of the centre.

“To create gender equality we also need social and financial equality,” she told us.

“Equality doesn't just mean women doing the same things as men. We need to create discussions about women's empowerment. Many women who suffer violence feel that they can't leave their man; this is something which is culturally inbuilt.”

We asked Shyrlei how people in her community feel about women's rights and feminism and how they react if it's brought up.

“In Brazil we are evolving – when it comes to discussing women's rights we are not as advanced as some countries,” she said.

“Some of my friends who are feminists, I think they go about discussing things in the wrong way and it just pushes people away. Here, discussing gender is like opening up a wound so we have to be mature enough to know when to fight and how.”

One issue which was often brought up by the people we spoke to was financial independence. A major factor in gender equality for them is the fact that many women lack the skills and confidence to be financially independent and therefore must rely on men to live – something which obviously becomes a problem when violence and abuse happens.

Shyrlei told us that although specialist women's police stations have been set up to deal with gender violence, they are not as effective as they could be because women are reluctant to report crimes due to being treated badly by the police. Historically, they have often not been believed if it was their father or husband who is being violent.

She feels the city needs women's shelters and ways of getting women back on their feet financially after leaving a partner.

Felipe, 31, has been running workshops teaching graffiti and breakdancing in Maré for ten years. As a teacher, he sees a lot of issues which he thinks need addressing.

“In the community where I live and work there are differences between men and women which are very evident,” he said.

“There is violence against women, which I consider a critical element. Sometimes sexism is even promoted by teachers themselves. They associate femininity with inferiority.”

When we asked him how gender inequality manifests itself in Maré, he said:

“It's domestic violence and very hidden. You don't know what's happening and who's committing it. It gets buried in a family and there is a culture of fear.”

But Felipe is positive that gender inequality can be tackled through education and culture, whether that's young people learning about their rights and taking what they've learnt back to their families, or some of the city's female hip hop artists who are making music with a positive message about women.

One thing all the people we spoke to were sure of was that things are slowly changing - attitudes, openness to discuss issues and expectations of a woman's role in society. What they'd like to see is even bigger changes and more education to make them happen.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Photo: Eduardo Martino / Documentography / Action Aid

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