Tag Archives: human rights

The Pro-Choice Fight in Brazil


This is an edited and cut down version of this piece. It is part of my Beyond the Sex and Sunshine series, where I write about Brazilian women and try to change the sexualized narrative around them. To read the full text please click here and support my work.

Jandira Magdalena dos Santos Cruz, 27, was last seen alive on her way to an illegal abortion clinic in Campo Grande, Rio de Janeiro. Weeks later, her body was found carbonized in a burnt car, without limbs or a dental arch. A divorced mother of two daughters, Jandira resorted to abortion when her boyfriend refused to take responsibility for the pregnancy.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or if the mother’s life is in danger. This illegality what led Jandira to pay USD$1,200 for a procedure in an illegal clinic. Her case is not a rare one: according to the World Health Organization (WHO) one woman dies every two days because of unsafe abortions in Brazil. Brazilian public health care estimates indicate that 1.5 million women get abortions yearly while the Ministry of Health’s calculations reveal that 3.7 million Brazilian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have had at least one abortion in their lifetime. In Latin America, 95% of abortions are considered unsafe by WHO.

In Brazil, having an abortion is punishable by law and could result in one to four years in prison. In 2005, a proposed bill of law threatened to take away the already existing provisions for abortions and to make abortion a heinous crime. The law would also forbid stem cell research.

In an election year, the subject of abortion is curiously absent from electoral campaigns and debates. Despite Jandira’s death and that of thousands of women which has caught the attention of mainstream media, advocating for the legalization of abortion is considered political suicide in a country where 79% of people are against any change in legislation.

“Abortion is a taboo, religion and the media display dead babies of eight or nine months and say this is abortion, which causes discomfort in any person,” says activist Isabella Medeiros, organizer of a pro-choice march in Rio de Janeiro on September 28. “This image of taboo that the media shows the population is very fictitious; the rate of women who get abortions is immense. In truth, it is a great manipulation because of religion, more so than politics, where conservative values are predominant.”

Mariana* says this predominant attitude in society makes it harder for women who have abortions to speak out or even heal mentally from the procedure. She got an abortion after paying R$12,000 ($5,000) to a doctor who instructed her to go to a high-class hospital and pretend she was having a miscarriage so she could be operated safely.

“He told me to come to a hospital – a good hospital in Rio – and pretend I was having a miscarriage. I would have to arrive in the early hours of the day. I was lucky – we paid a lot of money. My father got a loan from the bank, my mother didn’t go on a planned trip. I was lucky to have a family that was looking out for me, that supported me. They understood it wasn’t the time for me to have a kid.”

While Mariana was fortunate to have the procedure done in a proper hospital, this is not the reality of most Brazilian women.

“Jandira’s case is an example of what we call unsafe abortion,” explains Dr Ligia Bahia in an interview to newspaper O Globo. “It’s an abortion performed outside of a medical unit with proper credentials. In Brazil, because abortion is illegal, interventions in illegal clinics are more common. Women put themselves in a situation of extreme risk when they seek this kind of operation. Ideally, society would debate this theme without an ideology, focusing only on the grave issue of public health.”

Since the legalization of abortion in Uruguay, the number of abortions has decreased and there have been no deaths as a result of the procedures. Despite this positive result, political leaders in Brazil seldom mention a direct change in legislation, with presidential candidate Marina Silva only going as far as proposing a referendum on the issue. According to Uruguay’s Public Health sub-secretary Leonel Briozzo, “that’s not the best way to solve the problem.”

“For the life of women,” they chanted


On September 28, Latin American and Caribbean Day for the Legalization of Abortion, women took to the streets in several cities across Latin America to protest for their bodily autonomy. In Brazil in particular, organizers of the movement hoped to bring attention to the issue in times of election.

At the end of Copacabana beach, a small group of feminist activists painted pro-choice signs for the march later in the day. They were of all colors and backgrounds, but all of them recognize that the criminalization of abortion is a bigger danger to low-income women of color. One of the signs read: “The rich women pay, the poor women die.”

Besides remembering the death of thousands of women across Latin America who died from unsafe abortion, the march in Copacabana had as an objective to start a political conversation about the legalization and decriminalization of the procedure.

Protester Desirée Carvalho, 23, said: “We think this is something to be debated since we are in an election year and this is a subject that isn’t debated, even though we have more than one woman running for president so our objective is this, to talk about the need of the legalization of abortion by the public health system.”

The march was peaceful, but also met with a bit of hostility. Many people shook their heads in disapproval when the protesters chanted pro-choice songs to call attention to the march. A few others observers pumped their fists and joined in, but the march was mostly met with silence.

In a Lugar de Mulher (A Woman’s Place) blog post that went viral last month, Brazilian feminist writer Clara Averbuck summarizes an approach to the legalization of abortion that might work for Brazil.

She wrote: “Your personal opinion about abortion doesn’t matter. Women will continue to have abortions and to risk their lives while it’s not a legal and safe procedure (…) You hate the idea of abortion? OK, so don’t have one. Your opinion won’t change that women have abortions (…) All kinds of women have abortions and there is not one personal opinion that will change that.”

*Not her real name.

This is an edited and cut down version of this piece. To read the full text please click here and support my work in changing the narrative around Brazilian women.

On foreigner’s privilege during the World Cup

Last week Danish journalist Mikkel Keldorf Jensen left Brazil after deciding he could not participate in the coverage of the World Cup because he felt complicit to how the Brazilian people are being ignored by the authorities. He could not, in good conscience, perpetuate what is happening in Brazil.

This attitude is interesting because, while his intentions were good, his position reeks of privilege. Mikkel is a freelance journalist who spent five months in Brazil, reporting and selling stories internationally. He doesn’t have anyone to pay for his travels as he was not tied to any particular publication.

Brazilians suffer with poverty, lack of education, racism, sexism, exploration and a thousand other issues every single day and the needy are daily ignored by authorities. Seeing this suffering is hard and sometimes even maddening. Mikkel has a pretty huge privilege over low income Brazilian families though: he had the means to come, see and leave. Maybe he feels that by leaving he is not helping FIFA – but the truth is that his ability to flee is the biggest show of privilege of all.

During the World Cup, tourists will come to Brazil and will do the exact same thing: they will come, see, shake their heads in disapproval and leave. Brazilians will be left behind with the same lives they have always had and the same corruption that has stalled social mobility for generations.

I write this not to make tourists feel unwelcome, but to point out the incredible privilege they have in coming to Brazil and not having to stay if they don’t want to.

As a privileged woman in Brazil, I know how fortunate I am when having the ability to leave. In reporting human rights violations in Rio de Janeiro I have been able to walk away from misery and poverty after I finished writing. That’s privilege. And that’s something I have to recognize to properly understand the world around me.

So what does it mean to be extremely privileged in a third world country? It means you can leave when things get ugly.

It might be that the Brazilian government thought tourists would bring more prosperity, and perhaps that’s true. But since the World Cup and Olympics were announced, the cost of living in Brazil has soared – without any increase in the minimum wage. Unemployment in Rio de Janeiro has declined, but with the rise of living costs people’s social status remain the same – and it’s a given that once the event is done with, there will be a rise in unemployment.

Thousands of people have been removed from their homes in the last four years to get the country ready for tourists and for football. Poverty is rampant, violence is commonplace. And Brazilians are forced to live with it.

And of course, as foreigners, there’s virtually nothing you can do about it – it’s not your job to do anything, but it is your job to leave with a better understanding of what Brazilians go through and the toll that the World Cup has taken on them. As writer Eliezer Yudkowsk has put it; ‘You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.’

It’s important not to live within the illusion that we are all equal. The human race is very distant from equality, and denying it by claiming to be ‘colour blind’ or any such excuse is counterproductive. It is better to think that we all should  be equal. Whether we like it or not some of us benefit more from the status quo than others and that’s not about to change in a second.

Bringing an army into Rio is more damaging than scattered, bloody bodies

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Last week President Dilma Rousseff called on the Brazilian army to contain the most recent favela wars. The plans to pacify the favelas seemed to be going well up until now but since the beginning of 2014 Rio has seen 19 murdered police officers. The number is larger than that of 2013, when the number stood at 11.

With less than three months until the World Cup the drug gangs that were expelled from the favelas by the pacifying units are now fighting back to re-conquer their territory. Recent incidents in the favelas of Complexo do Alemão, Rocinha (the largest favela in the world, home to around 70,000 people), Parque Proletário (in Complexo da Penha) and Vila Cruzeiro have brought back the feeling of unsafety in Rio.

The pacification of the slums had been relatively smooth until now. The first favela to receive a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP), Favela Santa Marta, has grown economically in incredible ways in the last six years. The urbanization of the area has benefitted 8,000 residents who can come and go as they please without being afraid of extreme violence.

But it seems that, while Santa Marta is often used as a model for the UPPs program, the reality in other slums is much more violent. President Rousseff’s decision to send 4,000 army men to occupy Complexo da Maré is most likely necessary as a temporary measure. Known as one of the most dangerous and poor parts of the city, the complex of favelas is home to two drug factions that are in constant war with each other. Promises to pacify the area are years old and until recently it seemed that Complexo da Maré would only receive some real attention if it magically moved next to the Maracanã since the 34 (of thousands) already pacified communities in Rio are mostly located in areas that will be used for the event.

The occupation of Maré took place this Sunday without resistance from the community. Most residents stayed home, as they had been previously warned about the occupation. Images show war tanks roaming the favela’s mud streets and policemen looking for weaponry and drugs.

When I visited Complexo da Maré I was greeted with men who were guarding the slum at its entrance. They observed my taxi when it passed by them and decided I was not a menace or a drug buyer. Unscathed, I proceeded to visit a school that educates children of the community who live with daily violence in that community. Speaking to the teachers I learned that the children who are exposed to extreme and constant violence suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental illnesses that critically impair their learning skills. The children in the favela are witness to shootings, heavy weaponry, violent deaths, drug addicts, unpunished crimes and desperation.

It might be that sending 4,000 men to Complexo da Maré is needed, but in doing so President Rousseff is once again ignoring how deep the violence in the favelas is. It is not only those who get shot, murdered and dragged by a police car who are damaged by it –entire generations have been suffering for the last two decades because of it. This measure is one made out of an emergency, and it might contain the violence for a few months – but then what?

If Rocinha, Complexo do Alemão and other favelas who have been pacified are any indication, the drug factions will attempt to take their territory back as soon as they can.

And despite the uninterrupted, non-violent pacification a 15 year old boy was shot dead on Sunday when two drug factions were fighting. Relatives of the boy complained that the community was supposed to be safe now – where were the authorities when this young teenager died?

I have to ask – which people is the government protecting? Is it the people in the favelas? Is it the families of the 19 policemen who were killed this year? Is it the football fans? Is it the Brazilians who don’t live in the favelas?

The study Map of Violence: Homicides and Youth in Brazil, published in 2013, reveals that in the last three decades the number of homicides of people between the age of 14 and 25 in Brazil has risen by 326,1%. The Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal, a study group from Mexico, listed the 50 most violent cities in the world (that are not at war) and of those, 16 are Brazilian. Fortaleza, João Pessoa and Maceió are in the top ten. And the young people who don’t become statistics don’t have many chances to get out of that environment.

Bringing in an army that carries heavy weaponry is psychologically disturbing and damaging to those who live in the favela. All of these slums have been abandoned for generations; they are only given attention when a global event is put at risk. While the army will contain the violence, the question has to be asked: what’s next?

Brazil is relying on a temporary solution that has more to do with the World Cup than actually ensuring the people are safe throughout their lifetime. The violence and crime might be contained for now, but what will contain it after the army and the tanks are gone?


“The Bullets in the Favelas Aren’t Made of Rubber”: A Report from Brazil for The Toast



The awesome blog The Toast has published one of my reports, and I am super proud of it! The first few paragraphs are below and you can keep reading after clicking the link at the end.

When J. took his first breath, fresh into the world, he was already condemned to be an outcast for the rest of his short life.

His birth certificate bore no reference to his father: he had none. He was–like thousands of children born in the Complexo da Maré, Rio de Janeiro–excluded from society.

His mother was HIV-positive and he lived in a 2m by 2m cubicle house without a bathroom. The complex of favelas where he lived is one of the most dangerous parts of town, where two neighbouring rival factions of drug traffickers make sure all Maré residents live in a state of constant civil war.

Read More on The Toast.

LGBT activist Davis Mac-Iyalla speaks out against anti-gay bill


Imagine having to leave your country, your home, because of who you are and who you love. Imagine fighting for your right and the right of others to be – just to be – and endangering your life because of it.

Davis Mac-Iyalla left his country of Nigeria in 2006 because he was attacked in the street for who he is. Davis is gay and an LGBT activist who has challenged the authorities in Nigeria to gain his right to exist since the early 1990s. Whilst being out of the closet is already a crime at the eyes of the Nigerian society, Mac-Iyalla’s voice against persecution and prejudice has brought him unwanted and sometimes violent attention; in 2003 he was fired from his job and he believes this was due to his sexual orientation.

“Nigeria is a risky place to live for gay people, but very dangerous if you are an activist,” he explained. “And have a voice to challenge not only the government but the powerful Anglican church of Nigeria who has never relented in its effort in supporting the government to pass an anti-same-sex marriage bill.”

After years of witnessing the Anglican Church of Nigeria deny the existence of his community and mistreating its homosexual members, Mac-Iyalla decided to be the LGBT voice of change in West Africa. In a place with a widespread lack of care for human rights, the strength of the Church is not only heightened by the support of political leaders, but also pollutes the minds of the people.

“The Nigeria leaders have no respect for human rights and this is worst for LGBTs but my greatest opposition comes from the religious sector.”

Mac-Iyalla has been involved with LGBT activism since the first gay organization in Nigeria was founded, the Alliance. He moved on to found his own organization Changing Attitude Nigeria, a branch of Changing Attitude England, an institution that works for the inclusion and acceptance of the LGBT community worldwide. The non-profit set up believes sexual orientation is not a choice, but a God-given reality and it urges the church to stop repressing gay, bisexual and transgendered people in all parts of the world.

“I wanted to be a voice of change not just for myself but for all LGBT people in Nigeria,” he said.

Now, the muscle of the Anglican Church and its powerful supporters have pushed a bill that would make Mac-Iyalla’s existence a real crime in the eyes of his government.

The new law would make same-sex marriage a crime, as well as witnessing a gay marriage or supporting a same-sex relationship in any way. Same-sex marriage perpetrators might face 14 years in prison.

“I will like to remind Nigerian’s leaders that LGBT rights are Human Rights and that Nigeria should be governed by is constitution and not by their individual faith beliefs,” declares Mac-Iyalla about the draconian bill.

“In both Islam and in Christianity is the basic belief in the inherent dignity and sacredness of all human beings; the legislators are not being true to their religious beliefs.”

During the month of November, President Goodluck Jonathan was under extreme pressure to veto the bill, that passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Mac-Iyalla thinks pressure will be indispensable for the law to be binned.

He said: “We will keep putting the pressure on the government of Nigeria to treat all its citizens fairly and equally and respect human rights. We need to get the word out to the international community.”

Last year, Uganda tried to pass a “Kill the Gays” bill that would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. The bill was submitted in 2009, but international outrage has caused it to be tabled without a vote three times. Although it was reintroduced last February, Barclays is now supporting the petition which will hopefully help it be tabled again – and in the best case scenario in will be binned altogether.

“I hate [the Kill the Gays bill] and such bill should never been drafted in the first place. There is no real difference between the Nigeria and Uganda bill,” said Mac-Iyalla. “They are both oppressive and draconian and bear in mind their Sharia legal system in Northern Nigeria which also carries a death sentence.”

Despite all this, Mac-Iyalla has been seeing slow progress in his nation that stemmed from LGBT activism.

“I have seen great and slow progress because attitudes are changing in the grassroots and the issue of Nigeria LGBT has become more known in the public.”

But what about on a personal level? Together, the LGBT community can do so much, but what about people who are just starting to discover who they are? What would Mac-Iyalla say to young gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals who live in a hostile society and are struggling to be themselves?

“There have been LGBT people since humanity began and they have only been accepted in some societies in the last couple of decades. Before that, they found ways of finding each other. It will be hard, you will suffer, but you can also find other people like you.”

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Photo by marymactavish / Flicker Creative Commons License.