Nilcéa Freire


February 21, 2010

Nilcéa Freire

Minister of Brazil’s Special Secretariat for Policies for Women (SPM)

"The parties, whether left or right, are a mirror of what happens in society. Men are also machista in the parties; it’s difficult for them to open the area up. There is already enormous competition between them, so they don’t want to have to compete with women as well. For this reason, the change depends more on women getting involved. Increasingly more, women understand that they cannot reach positions of power without parties, and this contributes to building a critical base of women within political parties as a principal force for their transformation.” - Nilcéa Freire

iKNOW Politics: Thank you so much, Minister, for giving us your time. I would like to begin by asking you to talk a bit about your career in politics. How did it begin? What inspired it? Did you face certain obstacles for being a woman?

I have been in politics since I was very young. I began in college in a student movement and was member of the Communist Party of Brazil. During that time, there was a military dictatorship and the party was clandestine. I was in exile in Mexico (1975-1977) where I continued my studies, but I interrupted them again as soon as I could return to Brazil.

From a very early age politics has been a part of my life, parallel to my professional career as a doctor and university professor. After a few years of work, I was selected to be the rector of the State University of Río de Janeiro, UERJ (2000-2003). When my term as rector finished, I moved to the ministry upon the invitation of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (2004). My participation in political parties is limited to membership; I have never been a candidate. Since 1989, I have been a member of the Workers’ Party (PT).

I think that all of us women feel a certain isolation based on our decisions — we don’t have anyone to confide in, especially when we are in predominantly masculine environments, which is the situation I have faced since I was a student. My party’s leaders in the student movement were mostly male — only two of us were women. This has happened with both the left and right. This cultural, machista element is in all parties. In the UERJ where I have worked all of my life, there is a more progressive environment, so these issues do not explicitly appear, but they still have a subtle presence.

When I was elected rector, I was chosen by everyone, including men. But when I assumed the rectorship, it was very difficult for my colleagues to know how to treat me in a new position. I had a position higher in the hierarchy than they did, and this fostered great expectations. Later, they adjusted. There is a myth that women are very emotionally unstable, that at any time we could lose our heads. This was what they had imagined, but later they saw that it was different; that I didn’t correspond to the stereotype they had. The most important thing, however, is the fact that we women have a very large overload of work. I have done my entire career with two small children that I had to look after almost entirely alone.

I am a woman from Brazilian middle class, so I was able to afford to have domestic worker help me. But even so, it was very difficult to leave small children to do politics and pursue my profession. Many women don’t manage it; they don’t have anyone to take care of their kids or someone to help with domestic chores. This is an important obstacle because there is also a myth that women don’t like politics. But nobody asks us why we are not as present in politics.

Many years ago, a woman union leader was asked, “Why are you not director of the union? You have such good ideas, why haven’t you presented yourself as a candidate for union director?” She responded, “You know what? When my husband leaves the factory and heads toward the union, nobody asks him what he’s going to do. And he has never asked me if just one day during the week I would like him to go home and take care of the kids, to make food, for me to be able to go to the union after leaving the factory. I leave the factory, I go home to take care of the children and make meals. I don’t have time to be a union leader.”

iKNOW Politics: What possibilities do you see to make a real transformation in politics now that you are in an executive position in the ministry for government policies on women?

It is a unique opportunity to be in positions like this. Women should never forget what it has cost for us to get here. In the Special Secretariat for Policies for Women (SPM), we are working on the reformulation of Brazil’s electoral legislation regarding electoral quotas. In Brazil we have a quota law that requires political parties to reserve at least 30 percent of spaces on lists for women, but there is no sanction if the party fails to reach this 30 percent. If the party says that it doesn’t have enough women to reach the 30 percent, nothing happens.

Thus this legislation’s impact is very limited. We are currently discussing the possibility of changing this. In Brazil, voter turnout is nominal, which makes it more difficult to make quotas effective. We have to find a way to make at least 30 percent be effective. Currently, only 10 percent of Congress members are women.

iKNOW Politics: Norms and legal framework are important, but not enough. Structural changes are necessary as well as a change in society’s mentality. In this sense, what strategies is President Lula da Silva’s government developing in this area?

We are working on different fronts. The first, which to me is extremely important, is the cultural process. More specifically, this takes place in schools, where boys and girls can incorporate a different vision of the world from an early age. We have had a program since 2005 called Gender and Diversity, directed at primary teachers so that they can manage issues like gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation with children.

The program is aimed at working with boys and girls from ages nine to eleven or twelve. This is considered a program specialization for teachers, which have increased this year — we now have 14,000 in all of Brazil. We developed the course as “e-learning,” or distance learning. We are interested in impacting formal education because while education can be a tool to modernize society, it can also serve to preserve prejudices and maintain status quo. Another front we are working on is to support campaigns that organizations from civil society present us. Last year we launched a campaign called “Women in power, I accept this commitment.”

This campaign focused on a website where we collected information and analysis on women’s participation in politics. Another tool in the campaign was a political platform that we offered to all candidates for the municipal elections in 2008. This platform was supported not only by the SPM but also the National Council for Women’s Rights (CNDM), a forum of institutions for women from Brazilian political parties that we support. All of the conservative and liberal parties are there. We launched our platform, accompanied by radio ads, posters and slogans, which women candidates used for their campaigns.

Additionally, there are permanent programs and projects in the SPM and government to promote and reinforce women’s autonomy in urban and rural areas. Promoting women’s autonomy often means working on fundamental issues, such as legal documents. When we entered into government, around three or four million of these women did not even have their ID card, the principal form of civil identification. They couldn’t even access the credit programs offered by the government. Promoting autonomy means amplifying work possibilities, access to job markets and also creating the minimum conditions for quality of life. For all of this, we have held two national conferences on women, one in 2004 and another in 2007.

These are participatory processes that begin with municipal conferences, followed by state conferences and then national. In the first, 120,000 women participated and we were able to elect 1,800 delegates from all of Brazil. In the second, in 2007, a total of 220,000 women participated, resulting in 2,800 delegates. The first conference focused on deciding the principles and directors in order to make the first national policy plan for women.

In the second conference, this plan was revised, expanded, other contributions were made, etc. We are now in the process of implementing the agreements made in this revision. The plan does not involve just the SPM but all the government ministries in President Lula da Silva’s government: work, education, health, social development, science and technology, etc. All ministries are acting according to the eleven chapters in the plan, which range from inclusive and non-sexist education to women and power.

iKNOW Politics: As someone with extensive experience participating in political parties, what is your vision in relation to women’s participation in parties? What suggestions would you make for this to change or improve?

Women’s relationship with political parties and formal politics is very delicate. In its beginnings, traditional feminism — which in some aspects lasts even today — strongly questions women’s membership in political parties. For many years in Brazil, women who were members of the feminist movement wanted nothing to do with political parties. The feminist movement identified itself as a sort of libertarian movement; anything that cornered them was rejected. In Brazil there was a clear division between autonomous women from the feminist movement and those who opted to be in political parties.

In general, women who returned from exile, who were previously party members, went this route. But there weren’t many and women continued to be the minority in political parties. The parties, whether left or right, are a mirror of what happens in society. Men are also machista in the parties; it’s difficult for them to open the area up. There is already enormous competition between them, so they don’t want to have to compete with women as well. For this reason, the change depends more on women getting involved. Increasingly more, women understand that they cannot reach positions of power without parties, and this contributes to building a critical base of women within political parties as a principal force for their transformation. You can see that in many cases, pressure works.

This was the case for Michelle Bachelet, for instance. She was not a preferential candidate in her party — on the contrary. The party only accepted her candidacy when society favored her in surveys. It is then that the party says: “This woman has votes, let’s go with her.” We cannot think that the transformations within political parties are going to happen without a fight. We are not going to have results if the situation remains as it stands today: few organized women and many men. Do they not notice us? We have to use pressure. And it is not enough to have pressure from the outside on the party; we have to pressure it from the inside also.

My party, the Workers’ Party (PT) was the first party in Brazil to have quotas for women’s participation in the direction, nominations and lists to compete in the party’s direction. Whenever there is an event, there has to be 30 percent women. The fight from the inside is not easy — it’s very difficult. The basic law of physics says that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. For you to be there another has to leave; in order for a woman to achieve power, a man has to leave it. We are there to fight and the most basic strategy is to be there.

iKNOW Politics: You have worked extensively in training, how do you see the renewal of female political leaders in Brazil? What would you suggest to strengthen this process?

We have been pleased to see a renewal of leaders in Brazil. A few years ago it was difficult to see a young woman participating in activities of the women’s movement. Now we have a nice movement of young feminists that grows increasingly. They were very important protagonists in the national conference on policies for women in 2007 and they keep growing. They have formed themselves as a network in the whole country; they have representatives in all states. Last year, they held a meeting for young feminists.

On the other hand, the SPM supports the National Student Union (UNE) and within it, the UNE women that strive to have groups of women in all universities. They are doing a campaign to legalize abortion in Brazil. They work on the issue of sexual and reproductive rights. We encourage this kind of participation and political formation because we think there is a lack of governmental and non-governmental areas for training. I am not referring to light training programs, but rather consistent programs that really empower young women.

They should know that it isn’t easy, that there are obstacles, but that it is possible to overcome them. I also tell people that I have a seven-month granddaughter and for her to enjoy a more equal world, we have to work. So that women in the future do not have to pay the price for their autonomy, we older women have to pay it ourselves. Many times we have had a very high price to be more independent and autonomous and to be in the places we are.

iKNOW Politics: What importance have networks had in your work?

Networks are fundamental. At the beginning, I mentioned the sensation of isolation, whether we work in a non-governmental or governmental body or in a political party. Many times you feel lonely, many times you think that you are the only one facing problems because women always think that they are guilty for everything. There is a cultural issue here, related to the idea of the “original sin.” It is very important for you to know that problems are not just yours, nor are they provoked by you.

Rather you need to know that these problems are structural in society, that there are other women who suffer the same, that you will find escapes, you don’t have to find them alone, you will find them by sharing with others, and the escapes are not going to be individual. As long as women incorporate themselves into this conversation, a different mentality keeps consolidating itself. For me, networks serve that purpose — to amplify the possibilities that do not often appear individually.

iKNOW Politics: To conclude, as a Minister, what are the three objectives that you would assume for the immediate future and how would you like to be remembered?

One of my objectives is to consolidate the implementation of the law against violence toward women in Brazil, the “María da Penha” law. This law is an achievement for Brazilian women, endorsed by the president in 2006. Another is to increase women’s participation in politics, to modify the quota law in time for the 2010 elections. And, in third place, to consolidate the universality of gender so that a gender perspective may be truly incorporated in state policies in Brazil. And I would add, as a result of these advances, we could have a woman president in Brazil by the end of 2010.