(Brazilian presidential candidates Dilma Rousseff and Jose Serra gesture after voting at their polling stations on October 3, 2010. REUTERS/Edison Vara and Nacho Doce)
Brazil’s upcoming runoff election the day after I leave after a series of diversity-related events, will result in a new president—and maybe the end of the country’s machismo culture. The background: Brazil held elections early in October, with the presidential vote yielding no clear majority winner. The runoff election, to be held October 31, pits centrist candidate Jose Serra against Dilma Rousseff, the hand-picked choice of charismatic outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and… a woman.
Rousseff holds a lead in polling, and some polls show her pulling further ahead of Serra as the election nears. If she wins, Rousseff will join Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla as current sitting female presidents in Latin American countries, bringing the total to 6 women presidents in Latin American history. Many believe that a Rousseff victory will diminish the machismo influence in Brazil. Indeed, outgoing President Silva said he chose a woman to follow in his footsteps because, “we’ve won this stage of discrimination against women. If [machismo] exists, it’s the minority in the heads of reactionaries.”
More background: In Brazil, as well as several other Latin American countries, a machismo culture has long prevailed. Violence against women such as rape (including spousal rape), murder, and beating is illegal, but as recently as 2009 such crimes remained widely underreported. During January to June of 2008, a government-run abuse hotline found that 64% of callers were victims of domestic abuse. Some 60% of callers reported being beaten on a daily basis; 18% were beaten weekly.
Nonetheless, Silva’s government worked to support women, notably by enacting the “Maria de Penha law,” named for a woman who survived abuse by her husband, that stiffened penalties and provided increased protections for female victims of domestic violence.
Rousseff is poised to continue in the same vein, but there has been controversy. Initially she avoided stirring the gender pot too much, saying increasing women’s privileges was not a gender policy but “a social policy.” She promised to build 6,000 day care centers. She talked not about matriarchies, but “recognizing women’s importance in the family structure.” But prior to the original election Rousseff stated her support of looser abortion restrictions—and the controversy took hold. Her opponent, Serra, countered by running ads of smiling pregnant women. Rousseff backpedaled into reiterating her own “love of family.” In a country where 1 million (mostly illegal) abortions are performed each year and some 300 women die from botched procedures, the issue is no small matter. And, given Brazil’s political climate, a solution is not imminent.
And so, if Rousseff does, indeed, become Brazil’s first female president, sweeping change may not immediately result. But it may mark the start of the slow, persistent demise of machismo in Brazil.