When Women Speak

Photo by Dylan Gunn.

by Anna Chamberlin

My immersive Brazilian experience began on a jam-packed Boeing-747 in New York, well over 3,000 miles from São Paulo. I boarded last, frustrated to learn that the lipsticked middle-aged women ahead of me had packed the overheads so full of Chanel and Louis Vuitton shopping bags that there was no room for my carry-on. I waited patiently for these strangers’ resentful, “it’s-all-your-fault” banter to fizzle out before shuffling to the front of the plane and wishing my bag a quick goodbye. 

Ten sleepless hours later, I touched down in São Paulo-Guarulhos with three peers. The saída (exit) arrows guided us through a blinding room of luxury-brand mini-shops. Beautiful women in advertisements mocked our tired eyes. Outside, the click-clack of the rich women’s heels faded as they slipped into tinted SUVs; my attention shifted to the roar of local traffic and angry car horns. 

Whatever lavish snapshot of the business capital of Brazil I had gleaned from the airport soon evaporated. Like any city, there is more to São Paulo than meets the eye— and more to unpack than one could ever achieve in an edition of The Globalist, let alone a 2,000-word article. 

The least I can do is correct a single assumption: the women of Brazil are fabulously rich and entirely free. 


“Would you say that, in your lifetime, and given your experience, there has been a change in public attitudes towards women?” I asked Mariana Della Barba, an internationally-acclaimed journalist who recently resigned from her editorship at Repórter Brasil magazine to pursue a graduate degree in Women’s Studies. We sat contentedly in a coffee shop near the heart of São Paulo. Mariana had been gracious to welcome us in conversation on our first day in the city. 

“Yes, in a good way, yes.” Her smile faded, though, and her eyes fell behind her red wide-framed glasses. “If you asked me, the same person, a year ago, I would say no: the same nightmare.” 

“The election—” I began my next question, but she cut me off:

“Yes. Because we lived through hell for four years.” 

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Deemed “Trump of the Tropics” by Brazilian journalists, he navigated a neo-populist wave to victory, promising to eliminate deep-state corruption. In portraying himself as a sort of colloquial revolutionary, he satisfied some people’s desire for lasting change in what felt like a broken system. Revolution has its caveats, though, and Bolsonaro’s track record on women’s rights is nothing short of jarring. 

“I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” he once spat at Mara do Rosario, a congresswoman in Brazil’s lower house, in 2014. He followed up on his comments in a later newspaper interview: Rosario was “not worth raping. She is very ugly.” 

Then, in a speech at Rio de Janeiro’s Hebraica Club in April 2017, he remarked: “I have five children. Four are men, and then in a moment of weakness the fifth came out a girl.” 

Bolsonaro tried to dig himself out of the trenches of his deep-rooted misogyny to swing undecided female voters in 2022 but ultimately failed. He could not help but continue to slip sexist and vulgar comments into his speeches and comments to reporters. 

His legacy, though, is a series of explicitly discriminatory policies and a loyal swath of bolsonaristas who feel empowered to continue to make women’s lives a living hell—in the workplace, in the courts, and at home. 


The right to abortion in Brazil? 

“It’s not even a discussion,” Mariana told me. The Catholic tradition, she implied, still defines and restricts women’s freedom and modes of self-expression in Brazil. 

Last July, a 10-year-old rape victim in the country’s south was impregnated by her assailant and, with her family’s support, sought an abortion. Abortions are legal in cases of rape, incest or severe fetal abnormality in Brazil. 

Yet the judge and prosecutor in the case encouraged her not to terminate the pregnancy, painting adoption—and thus enduring the full length of the pregnancy—as a comparable and preferable alternative. Officials even pushed to separate the girl from her family until the trial was settled allegedly to protect the fetus, but in reality to bar her family from pursuing an abortion in secret. 

In a country intrinsically hostile to women’s right to choose, her story is no exception. Mariana told me of a case involving another 10-year-old who was repeatedly raped by her uncle. As she awaited an abortion in a hospital bed in Recife, a city along Brazil’s eastern coast, anti-abortion activists chanted obscenities outside. After surgery, and in response to the hospital protests, she joined Brazil’s witness protection program and changed her name and address. 

Implicit in Bolsonaro’s aforementioned discontent with the birth of his daughter is a sentiment that appears widespread in Brazil: the lives of men are more important than the lives of women. The possibility of a male heir denies women their right to choose, their right to shape their lives and partners and career trajectories. Scared into silence, many women retreat to the outskirts of the public eye: to the home, where, in traditional households, their husbands reign supreme. 


The UN Global Database on Violence Against Women estimates that 16.7% of Brazillian women (about 1 in 6) aged 16 and older will experience intimate partner physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes. That proportion amounts to over 35 million women. Even despite recent legislation aimed at protecting them, from police stations specialized for domestic abuse victims to the first-ever penal classification for psychological violence against women, many remain defenseless against abusers who feel entitled to use violence: the cruelest and truest weapon of the patriarchy. 

Intimate partner violence is especially prevalent among women living in the still densely-populated outskirts of cities like São Paulo, Brasília, and Rio de Janeiro. Brazilians call these areas the “periphery,” says Jessica Moriera, a producer at TV Globo, one of the most prominent TV and news networks in Brazil. 

São Paulo spans over 500 square miles (200 square miles larger than New York City, or about 25 New Havens). Nearly 650,000 of the 12 million individuals living and working within the city’s bounds are what Jessica and her collective of female colleagues and journalists have deemed “mulheres de periferia”–– women of the periphery. The women of Brazil’s periphery live outside the city’s center and commute to work. They are more likely to be Black or Indigenous and less likely to have reliable access to healthcare, high speed Internet, higher education, and professional opportunities. They are also less likely to find domestic violence resources when machismo culture threatens their safety at home, Jessica explained. 

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated rates of domestic abuse. Quarantined at home, women had nowhere to turn when their intimate partners began to oppress them. A recent report by the Brazilian Public Security Forum found that the number of attempted femicides increased by 9.3% in 2022, the final year of his term. The report found that all other indicators of violence against women showed growth in 2022, including cases of rape and verbal threats. 

It would be naive to think that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric did not affect or enable violence. But Bolsonaro made sure that his policies empowered male oppressors, too. “When you need to change a tire on the road at night all alone and you see people coming towards you, what would you rather have in your bag: the Maria da Penha law [a piece of domestic violence legislation passed under Lula]? Or a gun?” Bolsonaro asked a crowd of women during a campaign event in 2022. He liberalized gun laws during his term, equipping even more men to harm women in a country where nearly half of all murders of women involve a firearm.

Put simply, the pandemic, combined with Bolsonaro’s marked backwardness on women’s issues, seemed to tighten the bondage of patriarchy in Brazil. 

That is not to say there are no mechanisms to protect women. Although four provisions in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution call for the creation of laws to suppress violence in the family, a gaping loophole remains. Brazil’s 2010 “parental alienation” law disallows the “interference in the psychological development of the child or adolescent” by one parent or relative with the intention of “refuting” another parent or relative within the family. Traditionalists in family court apply parental alienation theory in cases of domestic abuse to redirect blame towards mothers and children as opposed to their abusers. In cases of domestic violence perpetrated by husbands, these courts have stripped mothers of child custody. 

Ironically, current and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), who faced backlash for framing abortion access as a public health priority during his 2022 campaign, approved the parental alienation bill when it appeared on his desk when he was president in 2010. Whether intentionally or not, he unveiled a powerful defense for abusers to wield in court. And now, in blaming women for tearing families apart, patriarchal court systems protect serial abusers and amplify existing physical and emotional tolls on children. 

It is no wonder, then, that Brazil has one of the highest measures of femicide in the world. In a 2017 nationwide survey, one-third of Brazilian girls and women reported that they had experienced violence—ranging from threats to beatings to attempted murder—the previous year. More than half of the attackers were their current or former romantic partners. Brazil is ranked 94th on the Gender Inequality and Global Gender Gap Indexes, leagues behind their neighbors in Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Nicaragua. On paper and in the streets, the noose of Brazilian patriarchy is on full display. 

Historically, it is in precisely those environments that anger and hope and change begin to brew.


I spoke to four empowered women while in Brazil. Each was a champion of women’s rights in her own regard. 

from left to right, top to bottom: Mariana Della Barba, Jessica Moriera, Maíra Liguori, Jessica Santos. Watercolor illustrations by author. 

Jessica Moriera, who spoke of the mulheres de periferia, is a woman of the periphery herself. After pursuing a journalism certificate in São Paulo and a number of courses focusing on civilian journalism, she landed a job at Fohla de São Paulo—the largest newspaper in Brazil. But she still lives in Perus, a district in the city’s northern outskirts branded by inner-city journalists as a crime-ridden favela. But she has learned to love her place.

“I found out, in my place, that they created the first cement factory in Brazil,” she mused, delineating a sort of rediscovery of her childhood town that occurred as she began working in the heart of the city. The dichotomy of her two worlds seemed to encourage reflection: How did my home shape my identity? Why lie about my origins to seem more poised and credible when I could embrace them? In her work, she highlighted the stories of women and men of more suburban and rural backgrounds rather than the wealthy and famous that populated the urban center of the city. 

“I wanted to talk to people in neighborhoods because life happens in neighborhoods” (emphasis added). As it turns out, her human-centered approach was a recipe for success. Community members began to approach her with stories—eager to tell and be heard. 

Jessica frames her journalism as her method of activism. By sharing the stories of low and middle-class individuals—especially low-income Black women and girls—she found she could offer them the representation that she never received as Black girl trying to find her place in a stratified world. 

Black women comprise 27% of Brazil’s population, making them the country’s majority group by race and gender. 

Jess Santos, a membership editor of Ponte Jornalismo, a non-profit aimed at broadening human rights discussions via journalism, argues that Black women’s voting power has been a game-changer in Brazil as of late. 

Jess is not the only one with this perspective. Many attribute Bolsonaro’s loss in 2022 to the broadening liberal-female voter base. But feminism, and particularly Black feminism, is not a new venture in Brazil, Jess told me. While some source the movement to the 1960s, Jess argues that Black resistance has its roots in the slave trade. As early as the 1530s, a portion of African women kidnapped by the Europeans opted to conduct abortions in secret rather than doom their children to a life of enslavement. 

“We understand this as the first movement in trying to be resistant,” she says. And the resistance has not ceased. In a country where one Black person is killed every 23 minutes, there is no choice but persistence. Black people had—and have— “no time to cry,” Jess says. 

Despite entrenched stereotypes and discrimination, Jess remains hopeful for the advancement of Black women in Brazil. “Because of this strength, because of our strength… I think the future can be very positive. Because nothing is happening in this country without a good fight.” 

Similarly, Maíra Liguori is no stranger to a good fight. She graduated with a journalism degree in 2002 and quickly started work in newsrooms in São Paulo. There, she began to question the status-quo portrayals of women in the media. What was with these hackneyed stereotypes about women? 

She later pursued her master’s degree in Digital Planning—a degree encompassing branding and marketing—in Barcelona. Unfortunately, in Spain, she encountered the same misogynistic stereotypes and the tendency to box women up into useful categories she saw at home. Was the culture of journalism really like this everywhere? 

At the pinnacle of her frustration, she came across Think Olga, a blog founded by her friend Juliana de Faria. Juliana wrote about women’s social and political status in Brazil, compiling women’s stories from the U.S. to Iraq to encourage the advancement of women back at home. But the blog had even bigger potential, Maíra thought. Why not expand and monetize it, using profits to conduct research on female progress in Brazil and provide resources to those facing discrimination and domestic abuse? 

“Now we have the organization Think Olga, that is spreading the word of feminism in society… mak[ing] feminism more easy for people to understand and to assimilate in their lives.” Working with researchers, Maíra and her colleagues monitor rates of female employment, advancement, sexual harassment, and even sports participation. 

Think Eva, Think Olga’s sister organization founded by Maíra and advertising executive Nana Lima, provides consulting services to brands and companies seeking “gender equity and social impact for women.” Both companies have won an array of international awards, and Maíra was selected as one of the BBC’s 100 Most Innovative Women in the World in 2017. 

While Juliana is no longer affiliated with the NGO, she and Maíra remain friends. Their work is a testament to the irrefutable power of women supporting women against the generational tides of the patriarchy. 


Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Mariana Della Barba about motherhood. She mused on the question for a little, then explained that motherhood was more or less her entryway to feminism. As a “privileged white woman,” she explained, it really opened her eyes to the unequal demands society levies on women. She said she felt alone, unsupported, and upset in her quest to balance childrearing and a professional career. 

“There’s this quote…” she remarked, “It’s something like: first you’ve got to be pissed, very angry, but then it gives you power. You know, it gives you courage. And I think that’s the thing from motherhood—you have to become a more brave person.” 

Motherhood does not define women. But what Mariana seems to recognize is that no matter where one sources their feminism, anger is justified. The system is broken, and it is unforgiving to its victims—it takes, and it hurts, and it degrades. 

But without courage and hope, anger is nothing. Maybe the future motivates these forward-thinking women. Maybe they are driven to ensure a more equal world for their daughters and sons. Maybe they are doing it for their sisters or mothers—their friends and their colleagues. 

Regardless, it is their anger and courage that liberates them. Together, the women of Brazil are inching their way towards real freedom.

Anna Chamberlin is a sophomore in Silliman. She can be contacted at anna.chamberlin@yale.edu.