We were not invited to the party: Women and the World Cup

Women at the seminar "World Cup 2014 – What Role do Women Play?" in Salvador (Bahia)

In 2011, Ângel, Elisangela Sena's 17-year-old daughter, was visited by city workers and men from the Municipal Guard. The reason was that their house, on Pavão-Pavãozinho hill, in the south of Rio de Janeiro, was to be demolished, allegedly for being in a landslide-risk area. "They asked for the owner of the house and I said my mother wasn't home. Then they said they were going to tear down the house there and then. And I said, 'No, you can't, my mum's not here.'"

Ângel's panic was justified. When Elisangela got home, the demolition was underway. "When I got here, the house was already flooded.… They had removed the plumbing, those city men with sledgehammers. I tried to negotiate an extension with them, so I could get out, so I could get a new place, because we had nowhere to go. Where were we supposed to stay? In the street? And he told my daughter: 'You talk to your mother, she's too stubborn. She'd better calm down, or she'll end up getting hurt.' At that moment, I got really scared, because there were a bunch of policemen there, from the Municipal Guard. He said that I could get out the easy or the hard way. Then I realized that what was going on was something shady. That was not something lawful."

"When I got here, the house was already flooded"

Elisangela's story is one among many from women heads of families who live in favelas (slums) in the outskirts of Brazilian cities, and who are suffering with the forced removals being carried out in order to give way to World Cup-related construction works. According to data from the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute, 37.4 percent of families in Brazil have women as heads of the household – the person associated with the authority and responsible for the family business and, in most cases, the provider of the main source of income. That number is even higher among the poor. Studies on the female condition and poverty point out that the low educational and professional qualification levels, together with the precariousness of life conditions, are the main factors that give rise to female leadership roles in the home.[1]

Officially, the mayor's office of Rio de Janeiro states that the removals have no relation to the World Cup. They are supposedly taking place due to a new urban plan and to safety-driven removals of residents from risk areas, except for the Vila Autódromo community, in the west of the city, which has been partially removed for the building of the Olympic Park. From 2009 to this day, around 21,000 families have been removed from Rio's communities, according to the city. Relocated to housing projects as far as 37 miles away from their original homes, they find out that they are even more neglected by the state.

With limited slots in public schools near the new locations, and with precarious health, sanitation, and transport services that are too far from their workplaces, the removed families have their lives upended. The basic services in their new neighborhoods have not been renovated or expanded to attend to the new residents. Women and children are the most affected. It is women who mainly take of the new workloads that the bad living conditions entail, because they are usually responsible for minimizing the removal effects, such as the rupture of relationships among other mothers and neighbors, who had previously made it possible for them to provide care for children and the elderly. Those relationships are vital, since the Brazilian deficit regarding children services, such as daycare centers, is one of the biggest problems for lower-class parents. In Brazil, fewer than 25 percent of children up to age 3 have access to daycare centers, and the lack of slots for them in the public network is up to 8 million.[2]

Many have lost their jobs due to the removals

The breaking of solidarity ties is a serious risk factor, since they are the mechanisms families use to help alleviate their precarious living conditions. Together with other forms of family resilience, those resources make it possible for them to overcome the hardest survival challenges.

Many of the women who live in poor communities work as housekeepers in middle-class homes. That means moving them also has consequences for their jobs. It takes them hours to get to their workplaces, after struggling with crowded buses and trains. Many of them have lost their jobs due to the removals. Luisa, 42, a former resident of Vila Recreio II, in Rio de Janeiro, was relocated to a one-bedroom house in a federal government housing project from the program “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (My House, My Life), in Campo Grande. “There [in Vila Recreio II], I walked out of my door and was practically already at work. There was transportation going everywhere. I didn’t have to walk for miles just to get to a bus stop.” Actual improvement in urban mobility would be a significant benefit, not only for the people who have been removed from their homes, but also for all of the residents in the surrounding areas of Brazil’s largest city, as they spend an average of five hours of their day commuting.

Housekeepers are a substantial workforce for Brazilian families. As a remnant of the slavery system that lasted for 300 years in the country, domestic workers have only very recently been granted labor rights. Brazil has 7.2 million domestic workers[3] – more than any other country in the world. The overwhelming majority are women: 17 percent of all Brazilian women workers are housekeepers.

Elisangela lost her house, but kept trying to obtain some compensation or to get relocated to somewhere closer to her former home. “They promised me another house. After a month and a half, almost two months, during which I was going there [City Hall] almost every day, they said they would give me a house in Campo Grande. Two months later, we got the address and went over there, to see this place where they built the houses. It took us two and a half hours to get to Campo Grande, and once there, in order to get to the house we had to take another bus … There is only one line that goes there. There are no shops, there is not one school around.”

Women keep meeting difficulties in the promotion of their rights and economic autonomy

Sarcastically called “My House, My Removal” by the housing rights movements, the “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” program has become an alternative given by the government to the people who have had their houses torn down. Nevertheless, the housing projects built for them are mostly in areas very far from the city, in an obvious move to “cleanse” the geography and remove the undesirable.

Elisangela kept going to City Hall and waiting by the door to the Municipal Housing Office room for the secretary, Jorge Bittar, to listen to her. “When he got out for lunch, I grabbed his arm and said: ‘I’m a resident of Pavão-Pavãozinho. Your people were there and tore down my house, without any notice, with no compensation, without giving me another house, and they gave me this paper here, stating that in a month or two, three months at most, they would give me a new house. It’s been a year since they promised me a relocation, and so far they gave me nothing.’” Elisangela’s daughter lives with her grandmother, at Pavão-Pavãozinho, so she can keep studying. Elisangela does not see her daughter every day anymore. Elisangela’s resistance and her fighting for her rights illustrate yet another example of those who are having their rights violated: Women are at the forefront of resistance and empowering initiatives, especially those with less funding and few political allies.

A survey conducted by the Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in 2010 shows that the female percentage of the 2.1 million workers in Brazilian NGOs is 62.9 percent. Even so, the average salary paid to women (R$1,489.25, approximately US$658.34) amounted to only 75.2 percent of the average salaries of men (R$1.980,08, approximately US$875.32). Nalu Faria, head of Sempreviva Organização Feminista, says that this trend is directly related to the growing precariousness of Brazilian NGO work over the last years. The less funding that flows from international cooperation agencies to Brazilian organizations, the lower the salaries and the worse the general working conditions become. Thus, the workforce will become prevalently female; men seek and find better-paying jobs with more visibility, and leave the worst positions for women.

A mistrust of institutions, most of them controlled by men, is another factor of female resistance. With inferior paychecks, even among social movements and NGOs, the last political refuges for resistance to violation processes, women keep meeting difficulties in the promotion of their rights and economic autonomy. From the public power perspective, in spite of projects and initiatives, their social vulnerability condition has not yet been significantly changed.

"What is left for us?"

The preparations for the World Cup have also brought consequences to informal workers. Anxious to be among those who would profit from Brazil’s World Cup, they had their dreams destroyed by the news that a 2 km radius would be kept around the stadiums during the games. Inside that radius, only products by FIFA World Cup sponsors can be sold. That is not a sanitary or otherwise urban-order related question: The reason is to keep profits and visibility reserved for those who paid for advertisements during the mega-event.

The most notorious disagreement took place between FIFA and the ladies who sell acarajé (a typical Bahia delicacy: bean fritters deep-fried in dendê oil and stuffed with shrimp and spices) on the streets of Bahia. Brazilian cultural patrimony, the baianas, historic vendors of afro-Brazilian delicacies, were banned from Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador, one of the host cities for the Cup. They had always sold their goods inside the stadium, but the famous “FIFA Standards” would not allow that during the Cup matches. The entity selected six baianas to sell food, and only outside the stadium, near one of its entrances. Everything, down to their cooking tools and utensils, has to follow standards, in a stark contrast with the variety of colors that normally give the vendors their uniqueness. Norma Ferreira, who worked at Fonte Nova for 60 years, until the stadium was closed for renovations, in 2007, says: “I raised 12 children and five grandchildren with the acarajé I made and sold here.” The initial prohibition by FIFA was due to their fear of competition between the acarajé and the hamburgers sold by McDonald’s – one of the entity’s sponsors. Protests organized by the city population and the baianas have caused FIFA to retreat, but some people still doubt that it will allow the presence of the baianas at the games.

The baianas’ struggle has also shown the lack of public policies for including informal workers in the World Cup event. More than 44 million people in Brazil are part of the informal[4]workforce, and there was not even any governmental suggestion of training them or improving work conditions for them. Aside from the stadiums and their surroundings, other areas of the host cities are going through a social “cleansing,” with street children and teenagers being removed, informal workers being forbidden to trade, and junkies being submitted to compulsory internment.

Initiatives are being forwarded to build and spread the “corporation city,” which is the new model for success for Brazilian cities, one that only deepens the inequalities between the rich and the poor, women and men, black and white people. The poor, expelled from the cities’ “noble areas” by the forced removals, give way to real estate speculation and to the building of new shopping malls and luxury condos. The residents who manage to stay suffer a gentrification process, with urban changes, the prices of goods and rents rising, etc. The removal of the undesirable to help develop that kind of city has already begun.

Translated by Fal de Azevedo and Marli Tolosa.


[1] Siele Brazil: "Condição feminina de mulheres chefes de família em situação de vulnerabilidade social", accessed March 15th, 2014.

[2] Globo.com: "No Brasil, falta creche pública para 8 milhões de crianças de até 3 anos", accessed March 15th, 2014.

[3] Globo.com: "Brasil tem o maior número de domésticas do mundo, diz OIT", accessed March 15th, 2014.

[4] Valor.com: "País ainda tem 44,2 milhões de trabalhadores informais, estima o IBGE", accessed March 20th, 2014.