“We have more or less gotten used to the new normal, which is no funding,” said Sueli Carneiro of the black feminist group Geledés, when I met her and her colleagues in São Paulo a few weeks ago. “Groups are basically surviving virtually, by using online communication as a tool for mobilization.”
Geledés was in fact a pioneer of that approach. In 1995, the group created its web portal featuring news articles and commentaries on a wide range of issues that impact the lives of black women. Today, it is visited by a staggering 2 million people a month.
For more than 20 years, IWHC has supported key women’s organizations in Brazil –an engagement which has helped advance women’s health and rights in that large, complex country. Yet I confess I was anxious about this recent trip. My previous visits in 2012 and 2014 had left me and my IWHC colleagues worried about the current state of the feminist movement, the rise of religious conservatives in Congress, and the unwillingness of the governing party and President Dilma Rousseff to take a courageous stand on sexual and reproductive rights. Rousseff−once lauded as a champion for gender equality−has consistently distanced herself from this agenda, doing nothing to stop the tragic deaths of women from unsafe abortions, and going so far as to censor sex education materials and HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns.
Meanwhile, pervasive, high-level corruption and the unfulfilled expectations of Brazilians for quality government services have created a severe political and economic crisis. Government funding for women’s organizations that provide critical services, such as counseling and support for rape survivors, have been dramatically cut. Without government support, nonprofit organizations have limited fundraising opportunities in Brazil, since individuals do not get a tax deduction for charitable giving. What little philanthropic giving does exist is focused on charitable projects such as building hospitals, not advocacy work.
Unfortunately, foreign aid has also dried up. As Brazil rose economically, many international donors to Brazilian social movements made for the exits, assuming that civil society groups in a middle-income country needed no external support. That was the theory.
The reality is feminist groups have been hanging on by a thread. Well-established organizations have had to let go of experienced staff, and their ability to pressure government leaders is much diminished at a time when it is most needed.
IWHC is a catalytic donor, but we are relatively small and have to be strategic in our grantmaking. So we asked ourselves: Is there any point for IWHC to continue supporting Brazilian feminist groups in this dire context?
What we found this time were new but still tentative paths to different forms of activism. Brazil is the second largest market for social media in the world, after the U.S., and civil society organizations have seized this opportunity to continue their work in a time of scarce resources.
Groups like Geledés that long ago mastered this medium are still going strong, despite economic constraints. And new, younger activists have emerged. The Blogueiras Feministas−a network of more than 1,000 feminist bloggers−are gathering in informal collectives to mobilize action for women’s rights, such as the regular and hotly debated Marcha das Vadias (“Slutwalk”). They have begun to join forces with more established feminist organizations, in arrangements that are not always comfortable, but which both sides value and want to continue.
To bridge the gap between these new and veteran activists, IWHC’s longtime partner CFEMEA launched an innovative, free online university called Universidade Livre Feminista (“Free Feminist University”). Originally envisioned as a place for learning about feminist history and theory, CFEMEA shifted to a more dynamic model that appeals to younger activists. Here one can find a feminist TV channel, an “artivism” gallery to share feminist-inspired artwork, an interactive streetmap of feminist collectives out in the real world, and yes, even actual courses on feminist activism.
Together, these veteran and new feminists are planning significant action on abortion rights. In September, Brazilian feminists will make decriminalization of abortion a central rallying cry at the Marcha Mundial das Mulheres (“World March of Women”). Activists are tearing down abortion stigma by collecting testimonies of women who have undergone an unsafe, clandestine abortion. The women featured in the video and blog Clandestinas are boldly exposing themselves, challenging the silence that for too long has allowed the country’s elites to turn a blind eye to the estimated one million abortions that take place every year in Brazil, the vast majority considered unsafe.
Later this year, Brazilian feminists plan to hold the country’s first ever national march of black women. Sueli and Geledés are playing a leading role in organizing the march. It’s safe to say that if even a fraction of the 2 million monthly readers of Geledés’s website turn out, the march will be a huge success.
This bold activism in the face of staunch opposition is why IWHC will continue to fund feminist groups−young and old−in Brazil.
After all, as Sueli told me with a broad smile, “IWHC gave us our very first grant for $5,000, back in the early 1990s, so your investment was really worth it!”
Who could argue with that?