Four Years Without Marielle: A Living Legacy in Politics for Black Brazilian Women
“To be a black woman is to resist and survive at every moment.” The phrase was said by Marielle Franco, a woman who would change the course of Brazilian political history, in an interview given to Brasil de Fato as part of a series on women’s struggles, in March 2017. Today, this is the premise of black women in politics. They are the seeds planted by Marielle Franco, born and bred in the anti-racist struggle for human rights, gender equality and democracy in Brazil.
The low representation of black women in political spheres has always been an obstacle. The disparate nature of the occupation of decision-making spaces continues to be fed by social exclusion, rooted in the racism and sexism that structure society. In the 2020 elections, men were 84% of the city councilors elected in Brazil. Among the 16% of women councilors elected, 59% were white women and 34% were black. This means that for every 100 city councilors elected in the country in 2020, only 16 were women and, of these, only five were non-white, even though black women comprise the largest demographic group in the country—28% of the population. These data resulted from a survey conducted by UN Women in partnership with Gênero e Número, from data provided by Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE).
Though the percentage of women elected in 2020 was low, it was higher than in the previous election. In 2016, only 13.5% of elected councilors were women. In this context, Marielle Franco, born and raised in the favelas of Complexo da Maré, in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, did not allow herself to be silenced, whether socially or politically. Her path led to the acknowledgement of the importance of the black, favela woman for the strengthening of democracy. State deputy Renata Souza and city councilor Mônica Cunha, who was also founder of Movimento Moleque, are two black women who were shaped by the struggle for rights and who had their lives marked by Marielle Franco and her legacy.
“Marielle Showed that Black Women from the Peripheries Know How to Do Politics”
Mônica Cunha is a human rights defender and social educator. In 2003, she founded Movimento Moleque to combat the abuse suffered by adolescents complying with juvenile detention measures. Her activism started there, when her son Rafael da Silva Cunha, as a teen, committed a nonviolent crime. Later, in December 2006, at age 20, he was murdered by the Civil Police, which intensified Cunha’s fight into a lifelong mission.
My son Rafael da Silva Cunha was murdered on December 5, 2006, at age 20. But my militancy did not start with his death and rather when he was 15 and went to fulfill socio-educational measures at a DEGASE unit in Rio de Janeiro.
Violations against youth offenders led Cunha to meet Marielle Franco. Photo: Amnesty International Brazil
With tireless effort, Marielle managed to claim a seat in the city council as the 5th most voted councilor in the municipality of Rio. Emotional with the victory, after watching the counting at home, Cunha recalls taking a moto-taxi and going straight to Cinelândia, in Central Rio. She came to Marielle and hugged her euphorically, saying they had won the election. From then on, she was certain that everything they had talked about during the campaign would happen. Cunha says that, at the time, she was very happy knowing that she helped elect a black woman from the favelas.
The strength of Marielle’s political representation made Cunha realize that black women do deserve to occupy political positions, challenging narratives and leading spaces mostly dominated by white men. “Marielle’s term in office was a learning experience. It made me realize that black women can and know how to do politics,” says Cunha. In her assessment, it was clear that the members of the Rio de Janeiro City Council felt uncomfortable knowing that Marielle had claimed a seat in that space: “Marielle made people uncomfortable when she walked down the city council’s corridors with her voluminous hair, height, and colorful clothes,” her friend remembers.
Marielle brought together different groups and people around her to do politics. Working closely with the parliamentarian gave Cunha an even greater understanding of the place of black people in politics and how urgent it was for black people, especially women, to occupy this space. She remembers a specific conversation with Marielle, in which the councilor said that it was time, after 20 years of activism, for Cunha to run for council.
At first, Cunha rejected the idea. She did not think she would be able to tolerate the racist stances and speeches from other members of the city council. Her denial was promptly contested by Marielle: “No, you’ll learn! You learned to live all these years without your son, you’re in this world without the one you love most. So, how can you not learn to live in that city council? A hostile place, but one that is ours, one that we have to take up.”
Spaces for Visibility, Memory and Mobilization
“The fact is that [we are] constantly threatened, and I’m one of them. And that happens because we’re the ones who really know how to do politics, not just from books, but from practice. We’re the ones who get on crowded buses, who take our kids to school, who do the grocery shopping, who talk to the next-door neighbor, who go up and down the favela. In other words, we’re the ones who actually live life. So it’s obvious that we’re the ones who know what’s best for the people.” — Mônica Cunha
Renata Souza is in the United States where she is taking part in a demonstration in memory of Marielle Franco. Photo: Personal archive
It was survival that motivated Renata Souza’s anti-racist struggle. A black woman and feminist, like Marielle born and raised in Maré, the human rights defender learned how to do politics in the favela before becoming Marielle’s Chief of Staff. Souza followed an activist path common to black women in Rio’s peripheries: she started by occupying spaces of activism in her territory and fighting for social rights for her community, learning, living, and fighting for human rights in practice.
Political Violence Against Black Female Legislators
Marielle died due to political violence. Black women that occupy positions of power in Brazil repeatedly face threats and are victims of political violence. A study conducted by the Marielle Franco Institute, published in 2021, found that 98.5% of the 142 black women in elected office interviewed reported having suffered more than one type of political violence. Online violence (78%), moral or psychological violence (62%), and institutional violence (53%) were the most frequently mentioned violations. In August of last year, Renata Souza suffered political violence from a fellow deputy during a session at ALERJ, and had no right to respond during the plenary.
“With every act of political violence, I am more certain that it is in the legislature that we should be, as it is one of the essential tools in our fight. The more black women in the legislature, the better.” — Renata Souza
Benny Briolly is a councilor for the city of Niterói. A trans woman, she faces transphobia, racism and religious intolerance repeatedly inside the Niterói City Council
Cases of violence against non-white women in politics are frequent. Just this year, Benny Briolly, a city councilor in Niterói, Rio’s sister city across Guanabara Bay, was the target of six death threats. In less than a year, according to the legislator’s team, there were 20 threats to Briolly’s life, a black trans woman and a child of the favelas. Briolly has already been attacked in the plenary session many times and even had to leave the country for some time to protect herself from death threats. Federal Deputy Talíria Petrone also had to leave the state of Rio after death threats. Disque Denúncia (a crime-stopping hotline) received information that the militia was planning the execution of the legislator, who had to leave during a period of legislative activism and activities.
Deputy Talíria Petrone with daughter Moana speaking on the privatization of Eletrobrás in the plenary of the Chamber of Deputies.
Black women face an enormous challenge within Brazilian legislatures. Souza confirms that this space in politics is historically denied to women, especially to black women and those from the favelas: “it is a hostile environment, but, in fact, with every hostility and act of political violence, I am more certain that this is where we should be so that the legislature becomes a tool of the institutional struggle against racism, machismo, misogyny, and LGBT-phobia itself,” said Souza.
The presence of women in positions of power does not directly translate into a greater representation of agendas. As Souza explains, many women who act as deputies come from political families. They are, therefore, “heirs to family politics, political heirs to their husbands and fathers. They are hardly ever political heirs to a social movement, to a social cause.” The state deputy from Maré concludes: “We [black women] do not enter the legislature inheriting politics, we enter to subvert it.
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