What Will the Pope’s Visit Mean for Women and Young People in Brazil?

Pope Francis’s visit to Brazil this week comes amid mass protests against wasteful government spending and social inequality. The high price tag of the papal visit has already drawn criticism from protesters (security for the pope is estimated at more than $50 million). What remains to be seen is whether the pope will stand with Brazil’s women, youth and marginalized populations such as sex workers and men who have sex with men, who make up the vast majority of the poor in Brazil.

Pope Francis has said he will make the plight of the poor a focus of his papacy. This is welcome news. While the middle class in Brazil is larger than ever before, poverty remains widespread. The poor are the most impacted by the repressive policies and cuts to health and social programs that are being pushed by Brazil’s Evangelical leaders, who have been driving a far-right social agenda in recent years. Unfortunately, there is little indication that Pope Francis will break step with his Evangelical counterparts.

The election of Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first female president, has paradoxically made women more vulnerable to the federal government’s far-right movement. Rousseff won the election with the support of Evangelical leaders by promising to not loosen the country’s strict restrictions on abortion. With Rousseff in office, Evangelical politicians have assumed positions in important congressional commissions and continued their assault on women’s rights. A recent example, the bill Estatuto do Nascituro (“Statute of the Unborn”), would grant rights to fetuses. If enacted, this law would disallow the already limited legal grounds for which abortion is currently allowed. It would, for example, force women who have been raped to carry the resulting pregnancy to term.

This bill is just one of many recent attempts to curtail women’s reproductive rights, ignoring the reality that an estimated 1 million women have illegal abortions in Brazil every year. Earlier this year, the national Council of Medicine, which represents 400,000 doctors in Brazil, urged lawmakers to legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In its official statement, the council pointed to a study showing that 243,000 women were hospitalized over the course of a year due to unsafe abortions performed in Brazil. As the council’s president Roberto Luis d’Avila explained to the Associated Press, “Rich women are getting [abortions] in safe conditions and the poor, completely unsafe … with complications, losing their uteruses, losing parts of their intestines, dying… This inequality is unacceptable from a medical point of view.”

IWHC partner Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide) noted in a letter to Pope Francis how the church’s policies are hurting Brazilian women:

We want a new morality for human sexuality and reproduction that acknowledges the moral value of the decision by Catholic women to discontinue a pregnancy. Research data indicate that the majority of women who undergo an abortion in Brazil are Catholic. They do it not despite their faith but supported by their faith, with the certainty that God understands them […] Keeping abortion illegal has led thousands of women to death. Our lives have been misused politically as a bargaining chip for the purpose of ensuring electoral victory. The Church must combat this type of situation. This is the fight for life that the Church must embrace.

The Brazilian government might heed the lesson from Uruguay, another majority Catholic Latin American nation. Earlier this year, Uruguay passed a law allowing abortions in the first trimester. Religious right groups attempted to mobilize voters to repeal the law after it was passed, but failed.

Later this week, Pope Francis will visit people living with HIV while in Rio de Janiero. This visit will be a good opportunity to examine why Brazil has taken some especially alarming steps when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention of late, such as weakening the Ministry of Health’s HIV/AIDS Department and suspending HIV prevention campaigns targeted at high-risk populations. Most recently, the Human Rights Commission introduced a bill that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as a disease, with an aim to “cure” them. While the “gay cure bill” was withdrawn by its sponsor after its imminent defeat became apparent, this type of anti-gay sentiment fosters the stigma and discrimination that pushes gay men further underground and makes them more susceptible to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

The rest of the pope’s trip will focus largely on youth. Pope Francis will take confession from four young people, then meet with young inmates on July 26. And on Sunday, July 28, he will hold an open air mass in celebration of World Youth Day, before a crowd of 1.5 million young people. Will Pope Francis offer a bold, new vision based on social justice and human rights for young people, or continue the legacy of his predecessors by railing against contraception? As the Pulitzer Center recently noted, “the Roman Catholic Church’s once powerful voice against artificial birth control is largely ignored [in Brazil] across the socio-economic spectrum.” This is especially true among the country’s youth—96 percent of whom believe in the use of condoms to prevent pregnancy and STIs.

In 1970, Catholics accounted for 92 percent of Brazil’s population. In 2010, that number was down to 65 percent. This should be a wake-up call to the Vatican. With this trip, Pope Francis has the opportunity to reach millions of Catholics in Brazil and beyond to announce that the church under his watch will be different. Will his message reflect the realities faced by women, young people and marginalized groups, or will the church continue to march out of step with its followers?

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