One wouldn’t usually expect someone to gladly accept an invitation to experience something distressing. But that’s precisely what we’re offering women in Brazil when we ask them to run for political office. Running for and holding office can be a dangerous, not to say brutal experience for women in Brazil. And that is one of the main reasons why they often choose not to accept nominations. They worry for their safety both online and offline; they also have to fear attack from the opposition and even from within their own ranks. They know that trying to exercise their political rights makes them vulnerable to verbal abuse, threats, and chronic underfunding. All of that has a name: gender-based political violence.
If we are to expect constructive discussion of gender-related topics in political decision-making arenas such as the National Congress of Brazil, we must promote greater inclusion of women in politics. Although only 15 percent of Brazilian parliamentarians are women, in both the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies it is women who primarily determine the women’s rights agenda and what issues to pursue. According to data from the legislative monitoring project Elas no Congresso (“Women in Congress”) of the online platform Revista AzMina, 82 percent of the women elected to parliament in 2018 have proposed legislation on gender-related topics. Only 46 percent of male parliamentarians have done so. But it is not the quantity of such proposed legislation that matters so much as the quality. While 69 percent of destructive bills proposed since 2019 have had male authors and co-authors, only 33 percent of such projects are proposed by female authors and co-authors.
One can only imagine how the debate on gender rights would flourish both qualitatively and quantitively if more women were to gain seats in the Brazilian legislature. But there is little guarantee that they will be able to increase their numbers even if they have a right to more seats. That has to do in part with a lack of scrutiny of adherence to quota regulations and the associated funding. Despite the fact that quota regulations are enshrined in law, in very many cases violations are only revealed after elections have taken place. By that point there is very little or nothing that can be done about it. And the consequences of non-adherence have not been properly established. In 2021 a proposed constitutional amendment (No. 18) even created a loophole that allowed the waiving of sanctions on the parties involved.
The result of all this has long been pilloried in the press: the candidaturas laranjas – “token women” – appointed purely to manipulate the statistics. But in many cases those women would actually like to run for office. However, due to the gender-based violence prevalent in Brazilian politics, they do not receive sufficient funding to do so. The statistics tell a sorry tale: although women accounted for 34 percent of candidates in the 2020 local elections, they received only 28 percent of the campaign funding made available by the political parties. And yet the law states not only that 30 percent of the candidates that the parties put forward must be women, but also that 30 percent of the election fund must be earmarked for female candidates. In 2020, 22 of Brazil’s 32 political parties provided fewer resources to female candidates than prescribed.
Aside from the barrier represented by insufficient funding for campaigning, these women must face the blind fury of those who do not accept their presence in the arena of power and decision-making. Those people do not question the women’s right to be there based on their politics, but because those women are mothers, daughters and wives: they should be caring for family members, not campaigning for office. If they are young, they are too inexperienced; if they are older, they are too old. If they are single, they are losers; if they have a partner, they are responsible for his bad behaviour. If they are Black, they are presented as victims. If they are LGBTQIA+, then they shouldn’t be getting involved in politics in the first place!
Constant hate speech
In 2020, AzMina and independent research centre InternetLab monitored the profiles of 175 political candidates from various parts of Brazil, most of them women, on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. The project, named MonitorA, scrutinised posts, comments and other user interactions and compiled a list of frequently used words and descriptions from the misogynistic hate speech found on those networks, linking them to the profiles in question. During the first round of elections, the project determined that a group of 123 female candidates received more than 40 insults each day on Twitter alone.
The insults were classified according to type: comments about the candidates’ physical characteristics (clothing, hairstyle or general appearance); intellectual, sexist and moral insults; defamation; body shaming, transphobia and racism. Besides being attacked for simply being women, the candidates were exposed to political violence of a misogynistic nature in both the types of insult and the context in which the abuse took place.
In the second round of elections, the attacks were extended to other female public figures who were not running for political office themselves but who had publicly supported the candidacy of other women. For example, former environment minister Marina Silva (Sustainability Network Party, or REDE) received at least 150 offensive messages in just two days because she had declared her support for Manuela d’Ávila (Communist Party of Brazil, or PCdoB), the candidate subject to the most abuse on social media. Silva was getting an average of three offensive tweets per hour. She was described as “old” and “ugly” and called “a mummy”, “a tortoise” and “a hypocrite”. And the situation was no different for former president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party, or PT).
The misogyny became even more apparent when the project analysed attacks on a group of male candidates during the second round. The findings showed that the women were being attacked for who they are – or allegedly are – i.e. for their physical, intellectual and moral characteristics. Men, on the other hand, are attacked for what they do – i.e. for their actions in the past or their stance on a certain issue. The only exceptions were older men and LGBTQIA+ men, who were also exposed to hate and aggression on the basis of personal characteristics.
It was also shown that the violence differed according to region, not only depending on gender and skin colour. In Bahia, it was primarily Black candidates that suffered abuse. In Minas Gerais the attacks were based on age, sexuality and parental status. Questioning the ability of a woman because she is a mother or has reached a certain age counts as an example of gender-based violence. Older men are considered experienced, while women are seen as past their prime. In Pará the violence went beyond virtual networks to actual physical attacks and the firing of shots.
Gender-based political violence as a criminal offence
At that time, gender-based political violence was not yet considered a criminal offence in its own right. Attacks of this kind were categorised with other offences such as slander or defamation of character. But particularly after the murder of councillor Marielle Franco in 2018, the debate became so heated that in 2020 the National Congress finally decided to tackle the issue. Until that time there had been just five pieces of proposed legislation in this area, and all of them were languishing in a drawer.
Following debate in the House of Representatives and the Senate, in August 2021 law 14.192/2021 was passed, amending the electoral code, political parties law, and electoral law. A new criminal offence was added to the electoral code, alongside other reforms, providing for fine and imprisonment for “anyone who harasses, embarrasses, humiliates, or threatens a candidate for elective office or the holder of an elective mandate, by any means, or employs contempt or discrimination regarding the gender, colour, race, or ethnicity of a woman to prevent her from campaigning or hindering her election campaign, or performing her elective term.”
The law also prohibits “advertising that detracts from the status of women or encourages their discrimination on the basis of their gender, or in relation to their colour, race, or ethnicity”. It also amended the law to punish – alongside other corrupt practices – the crime of disseminating information containing untrue content in election advertising and during the electoral campaign period. But of course there are loopholes. The text of the law does not directly address the casually brutal behaviour towards the political activities of women and it does not contain any administrative penalty that might help prevent those behaviours. Transsexual women have only limited protection due to the fact that the word “gender” is not used in the text of the law. However, it unquestionably represents hope for the upcoming election campaign in late 2022, which will be a tough one but will hopefully result in the election of increased numbers of women.
We spoke to many women in politics who doubted the scale of the problem although they knew that they personally were confronted by it. They had experienced attacks but whenever they attempted to complain about the problem they were criticised for painting themselves as victims. They had been told to be strong and to quit moaning, or informed that they were not suited to political life. They felt isolated because they didn’t know that this problem has a name: gender-based political violence.
The data and analyses confirm the lived experience of those women. Female representation in Brazilian politics cannot be increased until the conditions are improved under which they stand for election and hold office. They must be able to do that in safety and freedom – without having to fear for their lives. Gender-based violence against political candidates must cease before Brazil can have more female councillors, mayors, representatives, senators, governors and presidents.
Achieving that requires larger numbers of allies in the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government, political parties, civil society organisations, and social networks. Those platforms should prioritise the verification of digital violence against women and other political minorities during the electoral campaign period, simplify reporting of such instances of violence, improve the response rate, and make the action taken and its reasoning transparent. To tackle gender-based political violence both online and offline there must also be coordinated interaction between the authorities that are handling the reports and conducting the investigations. A diverse range of positive action must be taken because, after all, the biggest loser of gender-based political violence is democracy itself – and then we all lose.
Translated from Portuguese into German by Kirsten Grunert, and from German into English by Todd Brown
The article originally appeared on the website of the Brazil office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation