Black and poor women may decide who will be the next president of Brazil

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This time round, the electronic voting machines will show the names of just two candidates, as decided by the first round of the election on October 2nd: former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ PartyLh and current president and candidate for the Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro.

In the first round, Lula da Silva received 57.2 million votes (48.4% of the total), 1.8 million less than what was needed to reach the 50% threshold for victory. Bolsonaro got just over 51 million votes (43.2% of the total), and in a distant third place came the most prominent woman to run in the election: Simone Tebet of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party, with almost 5 million votes.

Polls had predicted Bolsonaro’s performance to be lower ahead of the first round, but they were, within the margin of error, accurate in the percentage of votes that Lula da Silva could receive. Now, in this final stage of a deeply polarized contest, some of the research institutes that conduct these polls are drawing attention to the choices being made by women voters.

Women make up 51.1% of the Brazilian population and represent 53% of the electorate. Put another way, there are more than 8 million more women voters than men.

Jair Bolsonaro Fast Facts

In previous years, experts say this difference would have mattered less to presidential candidates. According to anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado, Professor in the School of Geography at University College Dublin in Ireland, the core of Bolsonaro supporters remains men and until recently, Brazilian women were less engaged in politics and often simply voted as their husbands did.

“That started to change since the feminist spring in 2015, with the internet and the popularization of feminism on TV, on the radio, in schools, when politics became a topic talked about among all women,” says Pinheiro-Machado, who researches both the growth of the far-right and feminism in Brazil’s marginalized communities.

The result of this growing political consciousness among women, Pinheiro-Machado explains, is growing opposition to Bolsonaro from women and especially poor women, following the rise in hunger and poverty during his presidency.

“The resistance to Bolsonaro is the women of the poor neighborhoods,” she tells CNN.

Pinheiro-Machado’s analysis is supported by polling data. In a poll conducted by the Datafolha Institute between October 17 and 19, Lula da Silva leads among women. The institute conducted more than 2900 face-to-face interviews with voters over the age of 16 in 181 municipalities across all regions of the country. Among those surveyed, 51% of women said they intend to vote for the former president, compared to 42% who said they will vote for Bolsonaro.

The need to attract women voters — and the displeasure with Bolsonaro among certain groups of women — is reflected in both Bolsonaro’s and Lula da Silva’s campaigns, where prominent women are being brought into the spotlight in order to appeal to voters.

Bolsonaro’s campaign counts on the participation of the first lady Michelle Bolsonaro and the evangelical pastor Damares Alves, who is the former Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, and was recently elected senator. Lula da Silva’s, in turn, has the backing of Simone Tebet and has increased the visibility of his wife, sociologist Rosângela da Silva (known as Janja), who has played an active role coordinating the campaign agenda and engaging in dialogue with supporters.

Even among women, class and race will divide voters

While polling data can be flawed, there are other socio-economic and cultural trends that can help illuminate how women might vote on Sunday.

According to the Marielle Franco Institute, created to expand the legacy of the Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman murdered in 2018, Black women are the largest demographic group in the country, mainking up more than 25% of the population. This group is mostly made up of the descendants of enslaved people (Brazil had the highest enslaved population of any country that was involved in the transatlantic slave trade, according to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, which mapped data on the movement of enslaved people around the world). This demographic is also overwhelmingly poor — and became even more so during the pandemic.

As such, anthropologist Pinheiro-Machado points out that, though it is difficult to say with certainty, it is highly likely that this group will support Lula da Silva. The Datafolha Institute poll also found Lula da Silva to be ahead with people on the lowest family income, with 57 % saying they will vote for him, compared to 37% for Bolsonaro.

From 2003 to 2011, during his term as President, Lula da Silva introduced Bolsa Familia, a government cash transfer program for low-income families based on certain conditions, such as keeping their children in school and making sure they are vaccinated. Through this and other government programs, Pinheiro-Machado believes he changed women’s lives in a “multidimensional way,” by enabling female empowerment at different levels, from self-esteem to improving the options available for their daughters. A UN Women report states that of the 50 million people who benefitted from Bolsa Familia, 92% are women responsible for their family.
Bolsonaro introduced a monthly benefit for low-income households known as Auxilio Brasil with restrictions on the profile of families who could access it and this month brought the payment dates forward, which some critics see as politically motivated.

Pinheiro-Machado adds that Bolsonaro also continues to give misogynistic speeches and postures, which further distances him from these voters.

A low-income woman who was already an adult during Lula da Silva’s tenure would have the memory of everything that the Bolsa Familia did for her: the financial autonomy she gained, how much the family’s health improved, the fact that her children stayed in school, and the fact that her children could go to college,” the anthropologist tells CNN.

If Black and poor women are more likely to vote for Lula da Silva, Pinheiro-Machado believes Bolsonaro’s campaign will count on the support of two other demographic groups.

The first consists of equally poor and many Black, but older, evangelical women who support Bolsonaro as a result of his moral agenda, particularly grounded in a fear of the decline in traditional gender roles.

The second group are women who belong to Brazil’s upper-middle class, who, according to Pinheiro-Machado seek to follow a more elite and conservative lifestyle, based on neoliberal and religious values.

Investment to tackle gender-based violence eroded

While the outcome of the election will matter to all Brazilians (Latin America’s largest country faces a range of crises, most notably economic and environmental) there is much at stake for women.

First is the issue of femicide. A woman is a victim of femicide — defined as the killing of a girl or woman on the basis of her sex or gender — every 7 hours, according to the Brazilian Public Security Yearbook 2022, which states that more than 1340 women were killed for this reason in 2021.

Despite this tragic statistic, the Bolsonaro government recently cut the budget to combat violence against women by 90%. The government program intended to promote gender equality and to confront gender-based violence was also cut and replaced with one that focuses on “strengthening the family” and on the “defense of life from conception”.

There were also cuts in investments to the Brazilian Women’s House (Casa da Mulher Brasileira, a public institution which provides services for women) and in the Women’s Call Center (which keeps a record of complaints, provides guidance for victims of violence and information on laws and campaigns).

To justify the changes, the Bolsonaro government claims that it is providing more resources for the area through budget plans. These plans, however, are not included in the official budget as resources specifically intended for this sector or for combating gender-based violence, as stated in a report by the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc).

Liliane Machado, a researcher in the field of feminist and gender studies and professor at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília, recalls that Alves was called to the Senate in 2020 to explain the cuts and explains that the Public Ministry of Brazil is investigating why they were made.

“After all, violence against women has not decreased, on the contrary, an increase was recorded during the pandemic, and more and more is needed of political policies to end this violence.” Machado tells CNN.

Brazilian philosopher Djamila Ribeiro, a renowned researcher of Black and decolonial feminism in Brazil, believes the current government has not only introduced policies that have set back the fight against gender-based violence but also the fight against poverty and inequality, with cuts in social programs that economically empowered women.

“All these policies affect women, whether in the economy, health, housing, education, we don’t think of gender apart from these debates,” she says.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Fast Facts

Inesc’s report supports Ribeiro’s view, showing that policies for women — and resources allocated to them — in the first three years of the Bolsonaro government did not adequately address gender violence in the country.

Using federal public budget data released by the Brazilian Senate, Inesc also found that in 2022 the Bolsonaro government allocated the least amount of resource yet to combating violence against women.

Lula da Silva has pledged to change this in his government plan, which includes proposals to prioritize gender inequality by focusing on fighting hunger and unemployment and promoting wage equity.

The former president proposes the creation of the Ministry of Women, the restoration of a specific program to combat gender violence and the strengthening of the Femicide and the Maria da Penha laws – which aim to protect women from domestic and family violence.

He has also proposed creating a housing program aimed at women, mainly single mothers, Black and peripheral women, and to expand the network of day care centers, elderly centers and full-time schools in the country.

Bolsonaro, in turn, has not outlined specific proposals for women in his next administration, but has vowed to continue paying the monthly Auxilio Brasil payments to low-income families and spoken on the importance of inserting young people and women in the job market and investing in entrepreneurship for various groups, including women. Any changes for women are linked to those for families, with the government plan stating that “the Bolsonaro government understands the family as the cell or base of society.”

Yet a win by Lula da Silva doesn’t automatically translate into gains for women.

The existence of a deep-rooted far-right population and the fact that Bolsonaro’s party and allies won 14 of the 27 Senate seats contested in 2022, (giving the current president’s party a plurality in the legislative house) is likely to make any possible Lula da Silva administration in 2023 more difficult by challenging plans to invest heavily in the environment; and programs for women and combatting other progressive agendas. He will also be limited by the state of the nation’s economy.

Still, there is some optimism about the future of equity and gender policies in Brazil. The legislative elections, which took place at the same time as the first-round presidential vote earlier this month resulted in a record number of Indigenous, Black and Trans women being elected to the National Congress.

“For the first time in the country’s history, we managed to elect people from groups that, a few years ago, would have been unimaginable to elect,” Ribeiro tells CNN. “I look at the context from this perspective of hope … [there are] people who we know will be in power fighting for us and making a mandate of the people.”

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