I traveled to my home country, Brazil, during the recent Presidential elections in which, for the first time in history, two women were among the top leading candidates. After a first round in which none of them secured over 50% of the votes, President Lula’s candidate, Dilma Roussef, and opposition candidate Jose Serra, remained as contenders for a run-off that was ultimately decided in favor of Roussef on Oct 30th.
This could have been a groundbreaking election for women, not only because a first female president was elected, but also because both candidates had showed clarity about the division between state and religion. While Dilma Roussef had declared herself pro-choice and stressed that abortion was a public health matter, Jose Serra, when Minister of Health, challenged religious groups by adopting a technical norm including abortion procedures in cases of rape, which is legal in Brazil.
Unfortunately, instead of honoring their biographies, both candidates preferred to cater to religious voters by taking strong stands against abortion. During the two weeks after the first round, abortion was oddly one of the few discussed topics. Although the candidates understood the issue very well, they chose not to address its complexity: they said they were “against abortion” instead of against its decriminalization, they ignored discussions around women’s rights and only when the debate had already deteriorated a lot, Dilma mentioned the deaths and the severe health consequences caused by unsafe abortion. The focus on abortion was only dropped after former students of Serra´s wife reported she once openly spoke about having had an abortion and polls indicated that religious votes did not prevent Dilma from winning in the first round.
Brazil’s case indicates that the path towards full recognition of women’s rights is never a smooth one, even when conditions seem to be favorable. At this point, we can only hope that Dilma will go back to her original stance now that she’s been elected. As brave youth, she fought a dictatorship that did not allow dissent, being arrested and tortured. She fought for freedom, justice, and equality for all, a promise which definitely included the many poor women who die of unsafe abortions as well as those of any faith, race, income and educational level that had an abortion because they wanted to have control over their lives. Brazilian women deserve to have their decisions be respected, not criminalized or turned into an political bargain chip.