Profile of Maria “Zeca” José Rosado Nunes, Executive  Director and Founding Member, CDD-Brazil

Maria “Zeca” José Rosado Nunes, a professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo and a former nun, may not strike you at first as a rabble-rouser. But she was one of the first nuns to openly challenge the Catholic Church, and for more than two decades has used her knowledge of doctrine to challenge the Church’s positions on hot button issues like LGBT rights and access to safe, legal abortion in Brazil.

Although her country is frequently seen  as progressive, women there continue to face many challenges, including gender-based violence and restrictive abortion laws. The Catholic and Evangelical Christian churches  exert considerable influence on politicians, often blocking progressive sexual and reproductive health legislation. Zeca serves as a critical counterweight to this power.

Her passion for women’s issues and social justice started young. Zeca says her mother was “not a traditional housewife,” raising four daughters while managing a hotel. Her mother wanted to make sure the girls knew they had options. “She never pushed marriage or motherhood on any of her daughters because she didn’t believe our identities were defined by these two options.

Both Zeca’s mother and father emphasized the importance of education. Zeca thinks it was this emphasis on learning, as well as her desire to help others, that motivated her to join a convent.  She makes clear, however, that she did not lead a “cloistered religious life of contemplation” but rather one with “a strong emphasis on social justice and involvement in the local community.” Early on Zeca decided not to wear the habit because she felt that it separated her from the people she was serving.

Zeca also took advantage of social shifts and efforts to modernize the Church that were occurring at this time.  She became more directly involved in social work and teaching, first in Barra do Mendes in Bahia, and then in Acre in the Amazons, which ultimately had a huge impact on her future. She explains that while living in Barra do Mendes, she had two routes to get to the school where she taught. “One path was more circuitous and passed before the Church and another one, more direct, went through Rua da Palha.” People warned her not to take the direct path because it was “full of prostitutes.” Zeca was not fazed, insisting that “Rua da Palha is my path.”

Over time, she got to know and befriend the women of Rua da Palha. Her relationship with these women, who were shunned by society and forced to live in the shadows, led her to question the Church’s teachings on morality and women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive rights. In 1984, Zeca became the first nun to give a speech at the National Seminar of Women and Politics. Her speech resonated with feminists who were both surprised and grateful to finally have a voice within the Church challenging conservative notions about women and advocating for their reproductive rights.

Zeca ultimately decided she was no longer comfortable remaining an official part of the Church, and left the convent. “I realized I no longer belonged in that world,” she said. Nonetheless, Zeca wanted to build bridges and find common ground between secular feminists and progressive practicing Catholics. And she wanted  to offer women an alternative interpretation of the Church’s stance. In 1994, Zeca created Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (“Catholics for the Right to Decide”) to do just that.

More than 20 years later, with the rise of conservative Evangelical churches in Brazil and the growing power of a strong anti-choice bloc in Congress, the fight for women’s rights has become even more challenging. “Originally we had only one opponent to confront, now we face many,” Zeca noted. However, she suggests the growth of the opposition is testament to the success of the women’s movement, not only in Brazil but globally. “When issues such as abortion and rights for LGBT individuals gained acceptance, these rights were gradually embraced as part of a broader human rights agenda. This shift led to backlash from reactionary forces and movements within Brazil and globally.” This backlash, she goes on to explain, is “the result of a cultural shift that is, although the conservative movement is loathe to recognize it, irreversible.”

To build on such gains, there is plenty of work ahead. Zeca notes that the key may lie in mobilizing young people—the next generation—to stand up for women’s sexual and reproductive rights. In a country with a rapidly growing Internet population, social media outreach could be a highly effective strategy. And she is optimistic, “There is a resurgence of feminism among young people. This gives me hope that the struggle will endure, and ultimately triumph.”