A deputy takes the podium at Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados) to deliver her remarks about Human Rights Day. Another deputy speaks after her. The congresswoman leaves the plenary and, as she walks to her office, the congressman who took the podium after her shouts: “Stay there, Maria do Rosário, stay. Stay there, Maria do Rosário, stay. A few days ago, you called me a rapist, […] and I said I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it. Stay here and listen.” Right after that, he calls her a “blatant and cowardly liar” and says he had listened to her “nonsense.”
Days later, the congressman stated in an interview: “She does not deserve [to be raped] because she is very bad, because she is very ugly, she is not my type, I would never rape her. I’m not a rapist, but if I were, I wouldn’t rape [her], because [she] doesn’t deserve it.” The congresswoman was Maria do Rosário Nunes, former minister of human rights in the Rousseff administration, and the congressman was Jair Bolsonaro, who four years later would be elected president of Brazil.
This case, which led to threats of rape and other forms of aggression against Nunes, is one of the best-known examples of violence against women in politics (VAWP) in Brazil. VAWP is a category of violence aimed at women engaged in politics with the goal of hindering their work or reducing its reach and effectiveness,1Mona Krook, “Violence against Women in Politics,” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 1 (2017): 74–88, 83. while reaffirming politics as a space for the exercise of male power. It also signals to women that those who enter this space will suffer sanctions, discouraging the political participation of other women who, instead of finding examples of representation, find in politics another space of humiliation and detraction.“In Brazil, despite the recent growth in the number of elected women in the National Congress, the presence of women remains very low.”
In Brazil, despite the recent growth in the number of elected women in the National Congress, the presence of women remains very low. This is reflected in the number of high-ranking positions they hold in both chambers of Congress. Considering that violence against women exacerbates this absence, reinforces women’s subordinate position in institutional politics, and compromises democracy, we will analyze the various expressions of violence from the perspectives of female federal representatives and female senators who served in the 56th Legislature (2019–2023). We will adopt the categorization proposed by Mona Krook and Juliana Sanín,2Mona Krook and Juliana Restrepo Sanín, “Gender and Political Violence in Latin America: Concepts, Debates, and Solutions,” Política y gobierno 23, no. 1 (2016): 125–157. who divide it into physical, psychological, economic, and symbolic, while also considering its limitations, given that some behaviors can fall under several categories and take place simultaneously.
Violence, exclusion, and impunity: The faces of the Brazilian National Congress
Research data from a self-report survey carried out with 61 female federal representatives and 12 female senators indicate that VAWP is widely experienced, affects women from across the political spectrum, and operates as an obstacle to the performance of women in Congress. Among those surveyed, 79 percent reported having experienced some instance of violence during their time in office; 90 percent think that VAWP drives women away from politics; 12 congresswomen indicated having considered giving up an election, and seven said they had thought of resigning due to violence.
The research also corroborates another theoretical distinction between VAWP and political or electoral violence: the origin of the aggression. VAWP is usually more diffuse than other forms of political violence—originating not only from opponents but also from allies, their families, and society more broadly—and it can occur in environments that are generally safe for men. Seventy-four percent of the respondents who said they had been attacked mentioned incidents online, a space in which political violence has grown, but also within the National Congress (62 percent) and their own political parties (36 percent).“We chose the CCJC’s first term under the 56th Legislature due to its relevance, but also due to its significant increase in female participation.”
For over a year, we observed the meetings of the Chamber of Deputies’ Constitution, Justice, and Citizenship Committee (Comissão de Constituição, Justiça e Cidadania or CCJC), which deepened our perception of Congress as a violent place for women. We chose the CCJC’s first term under the 56th Legislature due to its relevance, but also due to its significant increase in female participation. Our hypothesis was that, considering that VAWP can be a reaction to the political empowerment of women and is intensified when women access spaces of power,3Janine Otálora Malassis, “Participación y violencia política contra las mujeres en América Latina: Una evolución de marcos y practices,” in Cuando hacer política te cuesta la vida: Estrategias contra la violencia política hacia las mujeres en América Latina, eds. Flavia Freidenberg and Gabriela del Valle Pérez (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas-TECDMX, UNAM, 2017). we would find explicit manifestations of it in traditionally male-dominated environments that started to have greater female participation, which is what happened.
We identified 26 cases of symbolic4Krook and Sanín are anchored in Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of symbolic violence, which conceives it as a type of nonphysical violence used directly or indirectly against others, through existing social structures, to confirm their superior position in the social hierarchy. In politics, for example, this form of violence against women is expressed through the propagation of gender stereotypes that deny them competence or do not explicitly recognize or ignore their presence in political spaces. VAWP, some of which intersect with psychological violence. The most common forms observed in our case study were restriction of speech and ridicule of speech (often collectively and recurrently in the same meeting), which were also pointed out as recurrent expressions of violence by female representatives and senators.
It is important to highlight that, in the Brazilian case, violence is linked to exclusion. While legislative advances in recent decades have promoted the political inclusion of women in much of Latin America (although these have not necessarily translated into cultural transformations),5Laura Albaine, “Marcos normativos contra el acoso y/o violencia política en razón de género en América Latina,” in Cuando hacer política te cuesta la vida: Estrategias contra la violencia política hacia las mujeres en América Latina, eds. Flavia Freidenberg and Gabriela del Valle Pérez (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas-TECDMX, UNAM, 2017). in Brazil, which ranks 128th in female participation in national legislatures, the low presence of women is perpetuated over time, not having been altered even with the introduction of gender quotas in the candidate lists almost three decades ago.
In 2018, the Superior Electoral Court (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral or TSE) established the mandatory allocation of at least 30 percent of public campaign resources and free electoral advertising time to women’s political campaigns. By 2022, Brazil reached 17.7 percent of women elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Historic milestones at the national level remain embarrassing from a comparative perspective, given that the average female presence in parliaments around the world is 26.4 percent, in the Americas it is 34.7 percent, and some Latin American countries have the highest average female presence in the world.6Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico are among the five countries with the highest female representation in national legislatures in the world.
Despite improving female participation numbers, the data indicate that few elected women assume positions of power in Congress. Between 1999, the year in which the first woman occupied a seat on the Board of the Chamber of Deputies, and 2022, only seven women were chosen to occupy these positions, 2.6 percent of all elected federal representatives. No woman has ever been selected as president of the Chamber, and women make up 10 percent of the total number of committee chairs in the last 20 years.7Observatório do Legislativo Brasileiro, “Câmara dos Deputados no Brasil: Uma história de sub-representação das mulheres,” August 03, 2020. Of those positions, women mostly lead certain committees, such as the Defense of Women’s Rights or those that are considerate less prestigious, generally related to social and cultural issues associated with gender stereotypes. Women have rarely led parliamentary blocs and political parties in Congress, and currently only one performs this function in the Chamber.“VAWP makes political work even more difficult and frustrating for women, further pushing the few who gained entry into this space to leave or reducing their chances of success.”
The underrepresentation of women in the Chamber is present in practically all dimensions of legislative life. This underrepresentation is maintained or deepened in activities that require intermediation or support of the parties, such as nominations to committees or to other prestigious legislative positions. In this context marked by exclusion, VAWP makes political work even more difficult and frustrating for women, further pushing the few who gained entry into this space to leave or reducing their chances of success. Not without reason, 55 percent of the congresswomen who responded to the survey said that violence undermines the exercise of their mandates.
Impunity contributes to this continuous aggression. Updated research data on complaints sent to the Chamber’s Ethics and Decorum Council (Conselho de Ética e Decoro or Coetica)8Tássia Rabelo de Pinho, “Debaixo do Tapete: A Violência Política de Gênero e o Silêncio do Conselho de Ética da Câmara dos Deputados,” Revista Estudos Feministas 28, no. 2 (2020). indicate that none of the VAWP cases taken to this body between 2001 and 2021 resulted in punishment for the accused, with most of the cases being shelved. The episode mentioned in the opening of this essay was the first ever brought to Coetica for review.
The absence of complaints does not mean the absence of violence. While some VAWP cases have been reported in the media, the lingering fear of retaliation, added to the perception that perpetrators will not be held accountable, can be found behind such absence. There is also the issue of the habituation of violence, which for a long time has been seen as the cost of women’s political participation, which contributes to invisibility as a form of violence that only recently came to light after using the appropriate terminology in the political, academic, and media debate.“Impunity persists, allowing those who hinder the growth of women’s political careers, silence elected women, and discredit them, to continue perpetuating such violence and garnering votes and political support from this practice.”
The data indicate, however, that many steps still need to be taken. Even though all congresswomen surveyed say they know what VAWP is, 33 percent consider that it does not affect their mandate—indicating that the severity of its impact is not evident to all—and 71 percent of those who indicated having suffered some form of violence have never denounced any instance of it in the National Congress or party bodies. Thus, impunity persists, allowing those who hinder the growth of women’s political careers, silence elected women, and discredit them, to continue perpetuating such violence and garnering votes and political support from this practice.
Violence against women in politics as an electoral tool
In countries such as Brazil, where political violence is routine and impunity is rife, physical VAWP is usually not common in institutional spaces, although it’s not entirely absent, but it is present in other spheres and can culminate in death. This was the case of Councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was brutally shot dead in 2018. A human rights activist, Marielle was a black woman who came from a poor neighborhood and who was in a romantic relationship with another woman. Her case highlights how the intersection of machismo, other forms of oppression such as racism and homophobia, and challenging the patriarchal and heteronormative system can result in even more extreme expressions of this type of violence.
Federal Deputy Talíria Petrone, a black woman from the same political party as Marielle, has also been experiencing forms of violence as she’s been under constant threats. Plans for her execution and calls between people who spoke about her death were intercepted and made public, which in turn led her to flee the state in which she lived and built her political base. Threats and attacks on transgender and travesti9Travesti is defined here as a male individual who wears clothes and adopts feminine gender expressions, but who does not necessarily want to change their primary characteristics. members of political institutions are also a constant; two such cases are those of black and trans Councilwoman Benny Briolly, who had to leave the country due to the threats, and co-Councilwoman Carolina Iara,10Carolina Iara is one of the representatives of the collective mandate Bancada Feminista, elected to the São Paulo City Council. an intersex person who identifies as travesti and who suffered an assassination attempt.
In the case of Marielle, which remains unresolved, it is important to note that, even after her death, the attacks did not stop. Federal Deputy Alberto Fraga posted on Twitter that Marielle was a drug user, had been married to a drug dealer, and was elected with the support of a criminal group.11At the time, an investigation was opened against Deputy Alberto Fraga in Coetica, which was later shelved. During the 2018 campaign, candidates Daniel Silveira and Rodrigo Amorim broke a street sign dedicated to Marielle and received the support of the then-state representative Flávio Bolsonaro.
Freidenberg12Flávia Freidenberg, “La violencia política hacia las mujeres: El problema, los debates y las propuestas para América Latina,” in Cuando hacer política te cuesta la vida: Estrategias contra la violencia política hacia las mujeres en América Latina, eds. Flavia Freidenberg and Gabriela del Valle Pérez (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas-TECDMX, UNAM, 2017). states that when citizens are intolerant of violence, aggressors have less space to be violent. In the Brazilian case, what we found is the opposite scenario, given that a portion of the population supports such actions and rewards their perpetrators with votes. Theory became reality with the cases of Rodrigo Amorim, the most voted state representative in Rio de Janeiro; Flávio Bolsonaro, elected senator; and Daniel Silveira, elected federal representative.13Daniel Silveira was arrested in 2021 after threatening members of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) and had his term suspended, a case unrelated to the symbolic violence committed during the campaign.
Such situations reveal what Marlise Matos, Danusa Marques, and Layla Carvalho point out as the planned use of VAWP as an instrument to promote anti-egalitarian political careers that spread intolerance and hatred. In a country where the former president and his children are known misogynists, yet are among the most voted politicians in Brazil’s history, violence becomes a tool to both prevent women from acting politically and to gain visibility and positions of power.
The increasing number of complaints and public remarks from those who suffer such attacks contributed to the approval of Law 14,192/2021, which codified VAWP as: “any action, conduct, or omission with the aim of preventing, hindering or restricting the political rights of women.” Although its effectiveness remains to be tested and the focus on punishment can be criticized, this law shines light on a type of violence that has long been commonplace and invisible in Brazil.“Another important change was the creation of a mechanism that doubles the weight of votes from women and black people for the purpose of distributing party and electoral funds, which became a significant instrument in the fight against economic VAWP.”
Another important change was the creation of a mechanism that doubles the weight of votes from women and black people for the purpose of distributing party and electoral funds, which became a significant instrument in the fight against economic VAWP. This measure, in addition to the aforementioned TSE rule that establishes the allocation of at least 30 percent of public campaign funds to female candidates, contributed to change the strategic calculation of party leaders, who had stronger incentives to effectively support, finance, and build competitive campaigns with women and black people. The increase of elected women for a second consecutive term and record numbers of black parliamentarians reflects the impact of these policies. Among black women, the number of elected representatives jumped from 13 seats to 29, a growth of 123 percent. It is worth mentioning that the two people from the opening anecdote are now in different situations: Bolsonaro lost reelection and Nunes received the biggest vote of her life to the Chamber of Deputies.
There are multiple strategies to curb VAWP and studying and theorizing about its various expressions allows us to have a better understanding of the problem, the first step toward overcoming it. Recognizing the existence of violence against women in politics, its scope, and how a series of everyday acts impose barriers to women’s political action (and, thus, to democracy) remains fundamental.
This research was assisted by the Social Science Research Council’s Democratic Anxieties in the Americas Research Grants, with funds provided by the Open Society Foundations, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Mark and Anla Cheng Kingdon Foundation.
Banner photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil/Wikimedia Commons.