The suppression of debates on gender and sexuality in Brazil

Brazil struggles with increasing violations of women's and LGBTQ+ rights.
Photo by Mídia NINJA / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Source: Flickr

The topic of gender has become more than a hotbed for debate in Brazil – it has become dangerous. In November 2017, not only was the famous American philosopher Judith Butler harassed during a visit to the country, but local researchers have also had to contend with security issues and even death threats. This poses a serious threat not only to freedom of speech, but for anyone involved in discussions about the rights of women or LGBTQ+ people in Brazil.

November in Brazil: a recap

It has been widely discussed in the international media that Judith Butler was harassed in her visit to the country in November, both during a protest in which an effigy of her (dressed as a witch) was burned, as well as during her departure, when she was verbally harassed by protesters at the airport. The protest occurred outside the building that held the conference she helped organize – “Os fins da democracia” (loosely translated as “The objectives of democracy”), which had nothing to do with gender. Nonetheless, those demonstrating against her presence were referring extensively to her work on gender, holding placards stating “Boys are born boys” and “Go to hell” as well as crosses and Brazilian flags.

This incident is not an isolated case in Brazil’s struggle with discussions about gender. On 21 November 2017, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia received death threats because of her research on the sexual division of labor in Brazil. This happened soon after a Masters student had to have security detail present during a presentation of his work on pedagogical discussions of gender and sexuality. In a communication regarding the incident, the university council pointed out the increase in rates of persecution against research on feminism, gender, and women.

These are not the only instances in which progressive discussions on gender have been threatened. Last month, the Senate started to analyze a proposal to remove feminicide from the Brazilian penal code. The proposal was related to an initiative to bring forth popular opinions to the House. Feminicide only became part of the penal code in 2015, under the government of ex-president Dilma Roussef, as a way to fight the violence against women in Brazil, which ranks fifth in the largest number of feminicides per year in the world.

What does this mean for human rights?

According to Exame, a woman is killed every 2 hours in Brazil, and the country ranks the highest in the world in terms of the ranking of LGBTQ+ murders. In a country with such staggering rates of violence against minority groups, the current scenario is not only dangerous for researchers and activists, but also influences the daily lives of those affected by these human rights violations. Vocal opposition to the basic rights of minority groups emboldens the perpetrators of the violence. Further, the removal of mechanisms for identifying this violence puts the victims at even greater risk because this opposition is also evident within the government itself. In March 2017, the federal government reduced the funds for supporting domestic violence victims by 21% – even though the number of calls coming through the main helplines increased by 51% in the past year.

These circumstances reveal the distinctive challenges for human rights activists focused on the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people in Brazil. Opposition to public policies such as the removal of feminicide from the penal code and a recent judicial decision validating conversion therapy, is now made alongside opposition to studies and academic research. This shows that it is not only in the public sphere that human rights are being disrespected, but that there is an overall opposition to emancipatory movements in the country. Human rights are under threat in Brazil and those who support them are also at risk, especially as the country gears up for its presidential election in 2018. 

GenderHuman Rights
Joana Midena Perrone

Joana Perrone is a PhD candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where she researches feminicide in Brazil. She has a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex and an MSt in Women's Studies from the University of Oxford. Her main research interests are gender-based violence and human rights, especially in Latin America. You can find her on twitter at @jollyjellyfish_
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