Rebeca Duarte

This description of Rebeca Duarte's work was prepared when Rebeca Duarte was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


Rebeca Duarte is combating the pervasive yet veiled racism in Brazilian society by reforming a judicial culture that impairs enforcement of existing anti-discriminatory legislation. Working with lawyers, judges, police officers, prosecutors, victims, and civil rights groups alike to better utilize anti-discrimination laws and improve enforcement, she is slowly changing perceptions about racism both among law professionals and the society at large.

A nova ideia

Race discrimination is technically illegal in Brazil, but existing laws have been misinterpreted and underutilized. Rebeca Duarte is tackling racism from within the judicial system, changing the way these laws are enforced and applied by educating law agents across the spectrum on how to handle race-based crime and fostering a broader interpretation of the law. She is also teaching victims of discrimination about their rights, and working to develop a proactive and watchful civil rights community to hold policymakers accountable and ensure that these rights continue to be protected.

O problema

Racism cases in the Brazilian legal system are classified into one of two categories: discriminatory injury and racial discrimination. The former is an offense against the individual, a so-called private offense, while the latter is a public offense crime, an affront not only the individual but also to society as a whole. The prescribed penalties for the two crimes are similar, but the legal implications are vastly different. Where a crime is considered discriminatory injury, the penal process has a private nature, and the victim is expected to bear all legal fees; most of these cases are quickly abandoned as a result. If treated as racial discrimination, however, the penal process is of public nature, and the state will prosecute through the Public Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors and judges have traditionally taken a very narrow view of the race discrimination law, applying it only when a person is denied access to a post, position, or office based on his or her race. All other cases are prosecuted as private injury between two individuals, reinforcing the pervasive idea that there is little racism in the society at large. During the fifteen years that racism laws have been in force in Brazil, there has been only one case of conviction on grounds of racial discrimination in the State of Pernambuco where Rebeca works.

The problem is a combination of this narrow legal interpretation and a refusal to recognize race discrimination when it occurs and take the necessary action. As a public attorney, Rebeca recognized that the problem started at the very basic level of reporting and was reinforced throughout the system. When a victim of discrimination goes to a police station with an explicit case of discrimination, the officers are typically at a loss on how to handle the situation, for either they do not understand the laws or do not believe that systemic racism exists. When cases are passed onto an inquiry board, they are usually labeled as discriminatory injury and left for the individual to prosecute. This trend leads to dropped cases, frustrating the victim and contributing to mistrust and resentment of the public legal system.

Civil society organizations working on discrimination issues have typically focused their efforts on the victims themselves, rather than on a legal system that reinforces the status quo.

A estratégia

Rebeca is changing the legal environment around race discrimination from two ends simultaneously, educating law practitioners and victims of discrimination alike about the existing laws and how they can and should be applied.

To challenge the narrow definition of race discrimination that dominates current legal thought and practice, Rebeca offers seminars and workshops to marshals, lawyers, judges, and public prosecutors, covering topics like international norms, constitutional law, and race relations. She also meets with groups of professionals to discuss cases and show them how the law can be applied differently. She has been able to neutralize the resistance of prosecutors and judges by teaming up with “Grupo de Trabalho de Racismo” (Anti-Racism Working Group), which operates inside the Public Attorney’s Office.

Rebeca is also reaching out to a new generation of law professionals by teaming up with universities to develop curricula that encourage a broader vision and more aggressive use of the anti-discrimination laws. She has also published several articles and books that reinforce her message, clarifying the law, the rights of the individual, and the duty of society when it comes to racial discrimination.

In addition to teaching professionals about the law, Rebeca is also helping society at large understand the pervasiveness of racism and teaching victims of discrimination to demand that their rights be upheld. She has worked closely with civil rights organizations like the “Articulação Negra de Pernambuco” (Pernambuco Black Union) to educate racial minorities about existing laws and how to seek redress when their rights are violated, and she works as a pro bono lawyer to prosecute discrimination cases. She has also developed relationships with the media to spread awareness and participates actively in nationwide discussions about race issues.

In 2004, Rebeca collaborated with others from the human rights and black social movements to create the Observatório Negro (Black Race Observatory) to tackle problems that affect the black population. The Observatório has experts in law, sociology, psychology, public health, human rights, and international relations who work in an integrated way to treat race-related issues. Through this and other public outreach, Rebeca hopes to develop a proactive and watchful civic community that can advance her work and keep pressure on both the power brokers and the judiciary to support these basic human rights.

A pessoa

Rebeca has been involved in social movements since her youth. She was an active participant in the students’ movement, and chose to study law so she could devote her life to the social causes she believed in. She worked as an intern at the Bureau of Juridical Assistance to Popular Organizations (GAJOP), the Missionary Indigenous Council, (CIMI), and the Djumbay organization, a black rights and education group based in Pernambuco.

Rebeca remained with Djumbay for four years and worked as a lawyer for SOS Racism, studying different cases of racism, writing assessment reports and petitions, and presenting seminars and lectures on race discrimination and anti-discrimination legislation. She also developed and coordinated the Auta de Souza Project, aimed at educating black middle school students on their rights and citizenship status and encouraging them to seek advanced degrees.

It was during this period that Rebeca began specializing in confronting racism through anti-discrimination legislation. She became versed in racial matters, both political and legal, and was awarded a scholarship to study the question of racial identity in Brazilian constitutional law. Through this work she discovered an element of racism not only in the law itself, but also in the way racism cases were perceived and handled by marshals, prosecutors, and judges, and even the Public Attorney’s Office, and she began looking for ways to create change from within.