For more than twenty years, Guacira de Oliveira has played an important role in designing and guaranteeing women’s rights in Brazil’s Constitution. She now works to secure social justice for women by teaching social movements and organizations how to monitor public expenditures, ensuring their resources are used to address priorities.
The New Idea
Guacira is changing the orientation of public policy decision-making to safeguard women’s rights as a fundamental part of public resources. She places public finance and budget monitoring as the leverage point between public policy and action. As a translator of what is legislatively and fiscally available for a wide range of issues, Guacira disseminates information social organizations can use to ensure laws are created and enforced. For example, by publishing the amount of money the state spent on abortions, she facilitated the creation of a law to distribute contraceptives in the public health system.
Guacira is democratizing decision-making around budgetary issues. She does not decide priority issues, but links all concerns within the framework of gender, to access how public funds are spent on specific issues. She may, for example, teach the lesbian movement how to access public funds, or confirm that police have the budget they need enforce laws against men who fail to pay their fines when violent towards women. Guacira is uniquely adept at balancing between public institutions and grassroots social movements—she stays within a government reality while maintaining her credibility within the citizen sector.
Most of Guacira’s work has been at the level of central government policy. Now, she is turning to the local level, to improve and empower local social organizations to monitor municipal and state policy and expenditures.
The Brazilian scenario of extreme social and economic inequality is also characterized by gross gender and racial disparity. Brazil’s social indicators show that in all regions, men occupy better positions than women. The black population is even more marginalized, and with the overlap of gender and race, the black woman is unquestionably more vulnerable socially and economically.
In the political system, those that suffer from discrimination are directly proportioned to their socio-economic status. For the most part, women are excluded from government decision-making and are therefore prevented from demanding improvements. According to the Index of Human Development (UNDP/1999), Brazil occupies the seventy-ninth place among indicators of inequality between the sexes in government—this is extremely low.
Despite the fact that these issues are on the political agenda, which is one of the most effective ways to change this scenario and guarantee women’s rights, legislation does not always correspond to effective change in the daily lives of women, particularly with regard to accessing their rights. The presumed neutrality in designing public policies and budgets in Brazil is in fact passive to the disparate relationships between gender, race, and class. Since the budget is an instrument that directs public expenditure, it is not neutral. It corresponds to the values that inform and command the social structure. Therefore, budget priorities may maintain and reproduce the inequalities between women and men, as well as between blacks and whites.
When public policies are created for women, they are not all applied. In addition, even with financial resources to develop these policies, there is no guarantee the resources will be well-used, or used at all. The resources allocated for public policies that combat violence against women for instance, as well as for related social policies, are still insufficient and are not protected against government contingencies. Though resources are allocated in the budget, this does not mean they will be spent effectively. According to the National Council for the Rights of Women, until the third quarter of 2006, only 43.7 percent of R$41.1 billion was allocated in the Women’s Budget for that same year, and a large number of government programs only spend small percentages of their actually budget. Almost 40 percent of programs did not spend 10 percent of their resources until 1 September, and 61.22 percent of the programs spent less than 30 percent of their resources. Only 10.20 percent of the programs spent more than 60 percent of their allocated budget.
The logic of rights, oriented by the principles of equality, diversity, social justice, and participation, has always been in a collision route with the dominant economic logic which prioritizes the fiscal adjustment, in lieu of essential public services. For this reason, any attempt by civil society to control the budget encounters resistance, and the lack of transparency, access to information and the source of law, hampers the mobilization of women-led organizations.
The four main focuses of Guacira’s strategy are: 1) Her emphasis on the strategic necessity of maintaining a balance between monitoring public finance and keeping her credibility at the social base 2) Consolidation of gains in women’s rights and implementing them at the local level 3) Creating the instruments for grassroots organizations to act on the budgetary cycle, articulating the popular base and democratizing decision-making around public policies 4) Strategic focus on reproductive rights because of a backslide being seen with the rise of certain religious movements.
Guacira created the Center for Feminist Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA) to intensify the intervention of women’s organizations in the public sphere, and particularly regarding control of the government budget. She registered more than 1,000 groups of women across Brazil (social organizations, autonomous feminist groups, women’s organizations connected to community associations, unions, political parties, and universities) to receive information and requests from different sectors and communicate them to the Brazilian Government. This work broadened the political participation of the organizations and stimulated more direct work to influence government policies (Municipal, State, and Federal).
Guacira also created a board at CFEMEA made up of several parliament members (federal deputies and senators) from different parties who support her activities and function as interlocutors inside arenas of power. In the Legislature, this work includes a consultancy to the Senators and Federal Deputies (particularly to the feminist group), assistants and legislation consultants, and the monitoring of legislation proposals. This is where the promotion and defense of women’s ideas (advocacy) happens, via CFEMEA. The objective is to defy the barriers and prejudice against women, to attack the racist and male oriented culture that permeates the government, and bring the vision of women’s social organizations to the core of official forums, in order to contribute to approving projects and government programs that would benefit them.
CFEMEA also communicates directly with the Senate and the Congress on policy. The objective is to broaden the work with alternative, commercial, and community media (national and local newspapers, radio broadcasters and television). The communication channels are made by CFEMEA’s website and the Femea Journal, with a monthly circulation of 13,000 copies to members of parliament, women’s organizations, the media, government bodies, citizen organizations and women elected to public municipal and state positions. Both are strong vehicles to diffuse information concerning questions of gender and women’s citizenship, as well as events and references of the feminist movement.
Guacira knew there was a gap between public policies and their concrete application, so CFEMEA developed a model with the Federal Government to analyze budget execution and monitor the implementation of programs. As part of this initiative, Guacira participated in the creation of “The Women’s Budget” which is made up of a set of government initiatives present in the overall budget and that largely impacts the lives of women and gender relations. This initiative includes programs in several ministerial bodies, such as the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor and Employment, the Presidency, the Special Secretariat for Women’s Policies, the Special Secretariat for Race Equality Policies, and the Human Rights Secretariat. CFEMEA follows and evaluates the management of these programs and disseminates this information to its network. CFEMEA publishes accessible materials that enable anyone to monitor the budget and focus on their interest.
CFEMEA monitors more than 600 law projects of the Federal Government and Guacira is turning to the local level to guarantee effective public policy resolutions—in Brazil there isn’t always a correspondence between the two spheres. Local organizations need to take ownership of social processes and act in their spaces to guarantee that the Government Budget is correctly managed in their Municipalities and States. Therefore, Guacira developed a training methodology on public budgets which places feminist social organizations as change actors in their cities and on important local information so that CFEMEA may apply pressure to the Federal Government. Guacira is creating the conditions for others to do the political work and her objective is to work in all regions of Brazil. This initiative is being developed in Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, and Rio de Janeiro.
More recently, Guacira has strategically focused on women’s reproductive rights due to the backslide that has taken place with the rise of certain powerful religious groups in Congress. She is curbing this backslide before it affects the whole panorama of women’s rights. CFEMEA published and organized information about the State’s expenses on abortion and contributed to the creation of a national law to distribute contraceptives in the public health system. According to recent data, the country reduced abortion by almost 12 percent.
Guacira was born in Sao Paulo and spent her youth in Rio de Janeiro. In 1977 she decided to study sociology in the University of Brasilia (UnB). At that time, Brazil was under a military dictatorship and Guacira’s move to the capital coincided with a huge strike at the university which motivated her to get involved with the student movement. Her political activism intensified when Guacira became Director of the student council at the faculty of social sciences at UnB, and also the National Union of Students. Guacira played an important role in coordinating the Brazilian Amnesty Committee, as well as in other initiatives that called for the end of the dictatorship. Within these spaces she came to understand the existence and power of male dominance in important decision-making groups.
Guacira refined her political vision and was part of building the re-democratization of the Worker’s Party; always carrying the flag of the feminist movement. In 1987, she went to work for the technical team of the recently formed National Council for Women’s Rights (CNDM), and began to talk with feminist organizations across Brazil about how to build a political platform for women’s rights which they would like to see included in the Federal Constitution; among them, the right to abortion and a paternity license. Guacira mobilized 3,000 women across the country to sign the “Women’s Letter for the Constitution” and almost every one of their requests made it into the Federal Constitution. This was an important process, because it strengthened her relationship with the movement nationally.
In 1989, the CNDM fell out with the Ministry of Justice who were not interested to address the issue of the right to abortion. This resulted in all counselors and the technical team of the Council resigning. During this process, Guacira continued to talk with the women about guaranteeing the regulation and application of women’s rights established in the Constitution. With four other women she had worked with at CNDM, she founded the CFEMEA that same year. At CFEMEA, Guacira did some monitoring work of law projects inside Congress; having registered all feminist organizations in Brazil. As time passed, she wasn’t able to cope with both the work of CFEMEA and her work in the Senate. At this point, she received support from The McArthur Foundation to dedicate her time exclusively to CFEMEA, but she continued to talk with the National Congress and connect with other social movements.
She began to work with the feminist front in Congress in a nonpartisan manner, establishing a dialogue that stimulated the women to take on roles in all the parties—a subject still rarely discussed and CFEMEA brought thought leadership to support the feminist front in talks with party leaders. During the first five years, women’s rights were regulated, laws were approved, and reports were produced. During this time several international conferences took place, one being the Conference of Beijing, in which CFEMEA coordinated a national discussion, conducting 27 state conferences to prepare a document listing the items that women wanted the government to address in public policy. After doing this at a national level, CFEMEA coordinated the discussion among women in Latin America and the Caribbean and took more than 300 women to the conference. When she returned, CFEMEA designed a three-year plan to implement Beijing’s platform in Brazil. Guacira began to work more closely on public budgets, monitoring public policies, and the effectiveness of rights.