Ana Veloso is helping women in Brazil to identify subtle forms of discrimination and empowers them to demand political change. As a black woman from the country’s Northeast, she aims to bring new faces and perspectives to Brazil’s feminist movement and to communicate the feminist agenda across a wider range of public life.
The New Idea
Despite significant achievements by the feminist movement in recent years, women in Brazil’s poor and largely rural Northeast continue to face rampant discrimination. Through year-long training and strategy sessions, Ana helps women in the region identify subtle forms of discrimination, and teaches them to communicate the feminist agenda as they go about their daily lives. Her unique curriculum blends the academic with the practical, taking into account history, philosophy, and the stories of everyday women. Over the course of the year, she provides participants with the information, training, and communication tools they need to confront political imbalances and common expressions of gender discrimination. Every participant then agrees to offer the training program, becoming multipliers in their communities and networks. Her second aim is to diversify the feminist movement. By working with representatives from the lesbian, Black, and feminist movements, she is uniting the efforts of Brazil’s numerous minority women’s groups under a common voice. Ana believes that every issue is a “women's issue,” and that every woman, regardless of profession, culture, or race, can be a voice for feminism. She is thus transforming the women’s movement in Brazil from one dominated by a particular class and style, to one with universal power and appeal.
The largely rural states of Northeastern Brazil are well known for their machismo culture and long history of gender discrimination. Relegated to positions of passivity, women in the traditionally male-dominated region by and large lack a voice in both local government and the private sector. The region’s large population of minority women is at an even greater disadvantage: Faced with dual sources of discrimination, black domestic workers in the region receive as much as 80 percent less than their white counterparts. Moreover, violence against women is widely tolerated in the Northeast, and in some cases, has even risen in recent years. Between 2003 and 2005, more than 1,000 women were killed in the state of Pernambuco alone. Of these killings, 56 percent took place in public areas, revealing that violence is no longer confined to the private sphere.
In such an environment, women frequently lack the confidence and access to education and resources they need to challenge the status quo. As a result, Brazil’s feminist movement remains largely in the hands of the country’s predominately white wealthier class. While the movement has made significant progress in recent years, it is often dismissed as merely a collection of militant and largely elitist firebrands, whose agendas are out of touch with those of average citizens. Moreover, the movement has been historically issues-oriented, with a focus on securing reproductive rights and guaranteeing a woman’s control over her own body. While important, this emphasis has done little to improve the vast discrepancy between men and women’s political representation. Increasing the number of women in positions of power has been viewed as a means to the end of improving the position of women rather than an end in itself. In 2001, women accounted for less than 12 percent of the country’s Legislature and held just 5 percent of the elected positions in the Executive Branch; there is increasing need for a shift in the movement’s approach.
Using interactive forums, role-playing exercises, and the participants’ personal experiences, Ana works to build participants’ self-esteem and to prepare them to effectively communicate women’s issues with the outside world. The women discuss topics covering human rights, public policy, sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women, race and ethnicity, and receive training in both solidarity-based leadership and media advocacy. To both engage existing leaders and to broaden public perception of what constitutes a “feminist,” Ana recruits participants from a variety of existing networks, including neighborhood groups and other active social organizations. Throughout each training period, Ana actively encourages participants to speak up at public forums and community events and to advocate for political change through non-traditional means, rather than rely exclusively on standard media channels. She aims to foster dialogue in the many public spaces where women already play a role.
To sustain her movement throughout the region, Ana then trains participants to lead the communication sessions. She has compiled the information and strategies into a sort of action handbook that covers overall messaging, content, and communication tools. The model can thus be easily replicated and adapted to fit the local contexts of women from a variety of backgrounds.
She also works directly with self-described feminist organizations to diversify their representation and leadership. She challenges leaders to confront favoritism and centralized decision-making in their organizations. Ana brings them together with leaders of other disenfranchised groups, including rural workers, lesbians, union members, youth leaders, and representatives of the black and disabled movements. Once together, Ana works with the women to plan future collaborative campaigns. One such brainstorming session led to a highly popular campaign, the Vigil for an End to Violence, in which women come together for a monthly demonstration in memory of those killed.
To date, she has trained 150 women in five Northeastern states, among them transvestites and others who face systematic discrimination. Having established training programs with the women of Cabo de Santo Agostinho, a city on the northeastern coast, Ana is developing strategic partnerships with several national organizations whose broad constituencies are ideally suited to her vision. She has partnered with a diverse array of groups involved in media and the Black and feminist movements, including those run by Ashoka Fellows’ Bia Barbosa, Jacira Melo, and Rebeca Duarte, and has partnered with Federal University of Pernambuco to monitor and evaluate women’s participation in public spaces.
Ana was born into a poor family in one of the most violent neighborhoods of Recife in Northeastern Brazil. The roots of her present passion are not hard to find: Having lost her father at an early age, Ana grew up surrounded by women, and remembers the radio as her only source of information and leisure. It was not until she entered the Catholic University of Pernambuco as a journalism student, however, that Ana discovered feminism. By assuming this political identity, she was suddenly able to reflect more critically on the discrimination she had long confronted growing up as a black woman from a low-income community.
After graduation, Ana worked at the Women’s Center of Cabo, where she implemented the program, Radio Mulher na Zona Mata Sul do Estado. As the only feminist radio program in Pernambuco, it quickly gained a large audience across fifty municipalities. In a region known for its rampant sexism, this act of political communication was the first to open a space for women’s voices and social movements. In 2000, following the success of this endeavor, Ana launched Youth Communicators, a leadership development program aimed to engage low-income youth in the human rights movement. In addition to garnering numerous national and international awards, the project enabled two students to enter university and secured jobs for another thirty, both male and female, following graduation.
While pursuing these goals, Ana represented the Women’s Center in the Women’s Forum of Pernambuco, a feminist body with 67 member organizations. It was in this capacity that she grew frustrated by the obvious favoritism and limited agenda within the feminist movement. With a grant supported by the MacArthur Foundation, she developed Media Advocacy, using the Forum as a platform for her informal training model.