Brazil’s Strong Stance on Women’s Rights

Women’s Affairs Minister Eleonora Menicucci is at the forefront of the fight to end violence against women. Julia E. Sweig meets a woman obsessed.

04.24.12 8:45 AM ET

A 2010 photograph of a dozen women surrounding a newly inaugurated president might well depict the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. But these 60-somethings share more than the bonds of suffrage. They share a history of suffering and survival: they are the women whom the Brazilian military in the 1970s jailed and tortured at São Paulo’s Tiradentes prison along with their friend, comrade, and now president of the world’s sixth-largest economy, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff.

Standing at the center of the beaming group is a curly-haired woman in a purple silk blouse, a lifelong women’s-rights advocate and activist, once a member of Brazil’s Communist Party, and now the cabinet member and minister who leads President Rousseff’s Secretariat for Women’s Affairs: Eleonora Menicucci. Recently dean of her faculty at the University of São Paulo, she talks with the authority of a professor, has the expertise of a world-class political scientist (her research on women’s health is highly respected), and conveys the savvy of a political activist who’s seen it all. Menicucci is a lifelong feminist. She now runs a ministry in Brasília whose top priority she describes as an “obsession” of hers and President Rousseff’s: ending violence against women.

I met Minister Menicucci during her recent visit to Washington for a meeting of the Inter-American Commission of Women at the Organization of American States (OAS). That same week, the U.S. Congress had taken up reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a law once supported by bipartisan majorities but that today’s GOP leadership is angling to defund.

So it was not without a bit of envy that I listened to Minister Menicucci extol what she described as a “historically unique” sign of the “maturity of Brazilian democracy” when in 2010, more than 56 million Brazilians elected their first woman president. What’s more, President Rousseff’s commitment to gender equality seems to go well beyond her appointment of 10 women as members of her cabinet.

Building on her predecessor’s legacy, President Rousseff has channeled substantial political and financial resources into the implementation of the Maria da Penha law. Enacted in 2006, the law is named after a pharmacist whose husband subjected her on a daily basis to what can only be described as torture—assault with a deadly weapon, electric shock, suffocation—ultimately leaving her a paraplegic. Brazil’s legal protections for victims of domestic violence were at the time so porous that da Penha’s judicial efforts against her aggressor languished in court for 19 years. The final judgment sent him to jail for just two years.

While Dilma Rousseff was serving as President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva’s chief of staff and principal domestic policy guru, Maria da Penha filed a complaint with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and with Lula and Rousseff’s championship the Brazilian Congress passed what the United Nations and a host of legal experts describe as the most robust and comprehensive domestic-violence law in the world. The law establishes a municipal, state, and national web of courts, shelters, police training, and health-care facilities to prevent and prosecute violence against women and girls. One unique aspect: it gives legal standing to claims made anonymously against perpetrators, as a further way to protect victims and clear a path to justice.

President Dilma and Minister Menicucci’s gender-equality portfolio goes well beyond stopping violence against women. It encompasses health, especially maternal, pre-, post-, and neo-natal care, including an effort to reach diverse populations, vis-à-vis race, class ethnicity, and sexual diversity. It includes equal pay, or what the minister calls “economic autonomy,” wage protection for women working in private- and public-sector jobs, and a major push to formalize job protections for domestic workers.

But in our discussion, Minister Menicucci repeatedly returned to the inroads she hopes to make into changing a culture that tolerates violence against women. Four decades ago the women who now lead Brazil cut their political teeth in clandestine movements to overthrow Brazil’s military regime. They have clearly decided that the best revenge against their own torturers, those who abused state power literally to break them, is to use the tools of democratic government they now lead to create the legal and institutional framework for justice for all Brazilian women, especially victims of sexual, physical, and psychological violence.

Despite widespread access to contraception, abortion rights remain limited in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, and one that also boasts a growing and politically powerful evangelical church. But the next time some American foreign-policy pontificator berates President Rousseff for not taking a strong enough position on human rights, I suggest taking a look at the example Brazil is setting for girls and women worldwide.