Panmela Castro: Saving Lives Through Graffiti

In the new book 'Vital Voices' by Alyse Nelson, graffiti artist Panmela Castro and 31 other women describe how they change the world.

Panmela Castro was a 25-year-old graffiti artist in Brazil—using the streets of Rio de Janeiro as her canvas—when she realized she could turn her artwork into a radical public forum for change.

The year was 2006, and the country had just passed a landmark law. The Maria da Penha law, named for a woman who was left paralyzed by domestic violence, recognized the physical abuse of women as a violation of human rights. It was the first law against domestic violence in Brazil—a country where such abuse was so deeply ingrained, many people simply accepted it. It had taken nearly three decades of advocacy before Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had passed the law.

Yet as we’ve seen throughout the world, a law’s passage is no guarantee that it will be implemented. In Brazil, many women didn't even know the new legislation existed.

That's where Panmela came in. She realized she could use her graffiti to help spread the word, and so she took to the streets of Rio's hillside favelas, partnering with human-rights organizations to turn underground public art into messages condemning domestic violence. Panmela wanted women who suffered abuse to know that they have rights, that there are legal protections.

As a discipline, graffiti is fiercely competitive, territorial, and dominated by men. But Panmela’s talent quickly won respect.

I was introduced to Panmela through Jimmie Briggs, the founder of Man Up, which uses sports and the hip-hop culture to engage young men in combating violence against women in their communities. When I traveled to Rio to see Panmela's work firsthand, I could see that she is at the same time unassuming and intensely passionate and focused.

“I just knew I could use my art as a way to communicate what I strongly believed: violence is never justified, never right,” Panmela said. “I thought I could help others see that they have the power to change their situation.’’

Her bright, vibrant murals are impossible to ignore. They show strong women breaking free from oppression, as she wants women to feel empowered to break their silence. She explained, "The pictures say, ‘My life isn’t just on a wall. Learn to respect me, hear my voice. I’m not afraid to speak.'"

Panmela is proof that no matter how young you are, you have the power to make change. She founded an organization called Artefeito to transform culture through art and social projects; through the organization, Panmela is carrying her message beyond Brazil to women across the world.

She works in collaboration with other artists, and holds workshops for girls to give them the opportunity to express themselves. Artefeito has developed a following and has become a platform to empower girls to speak out against injustices and understand their power.

"We discuss the law, talk about equality, and about their rights," Panmela said of the workshops she holds. "We talk about what the murals represent. Always, I tell them that they do not have to be oppressed. The art says what I believe. A woman can be and do what she wants. I represent that idea, and I think that the walls have had an impact—even saved lives."

In these last few years, we’ve seen old orders upended all over the world. Calls for accountability, fairness, and openness have set off phenomenal, irreversible shifts in politics, economics, and culture. I think one of the root causes of this mass unrest is a sense of disempowerment. We’re living in an ever-more connected world, but people feel removed from the decisions and systems that shape their reality. There’s a tension between the instant connection and democratized agency that technology makes possible for all people, and the reality of economic and social inequities that continue to alienate and disadvantage most people.

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Therefore, we need to reconsider our assumptions about power and shift the way we relate to our leaders. If we want to successfully navigate this new world, we need new thinking, new partners. We need leaders who leverage power to inspire collective empowerment. We need leaders who understand that we are interconnected, interdependent—leaders like Panmela Castro.

At the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a group that works to train women leaders worldwide, we work with more than 12,000 women like Panmela in 144 countries. We have learned that women are adept at socializing a distinct model of leadership—one that we believe can be uniquely effective in tackling many of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

Women lead differently. The strengths they possess, the behaviors that set them apart, are the ones that will lead us forward in the coming years: inclusiveness, conviction, creativity, mentorship, collaboration. For 15 years, we have invested in women’s leadership because we believe that their leadership is a force that can be harnessed for the global good.

Through the stories of the 32 remarkable women in my new book Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, you will see that leadership is a relationship, and part of being an effective leader means connecting and collaborating with and including others. The women that Vital Voices supports pursue leadership not to amplify their own power, influence or wealth, but rather as a means to promote positive change.

Women have been emboldened by their recent leadership of the events and institutions that will reshape the 21st century—from Tahrir Square to the IMF, a tipping point has been reached in women’s continued, systematic, and sustained participation in public life.

Leadership—global women’s leadership—is a force that accelerates development and promotes the common good. This paradigm of leadership we are putting forward is exemplified by women but not exclusive to women.

In a complex, interlinked world of economic inequality, women’s global leadership, with its unusual combination of collaboration, transparency, and boldness, is one of the most powerful and transformative movements that can help accelerate sound economic development, promote political stability, and transform communities.

We may never be presented with the perfect formula or situation to lead change; we must be pragmatic and seize opportunities as they arise. My conversations with international leaders have reinforced that conviction. They have made me realize that these lessons and this leadership model needed to be shared more broadly, because it is a model anyone can follow—and one our world desperately needs right now.

Panmela Castro is one woman who represents an emerging shift in leadership. Her message and her medium ask us to re-imagine our conception of power.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World by Alyse Nelson. Copyright (c) 2012 by Vital Voices.