Hope for Women Seen in Brazil’s HIV/AIDS Policies

Kati Marton

Kati Marton is an accomplished journalist, and she serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors for the International Women's Health Coalition.
Brazil and the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) have a very long relationship, so I was eager to meet our colleagues in this enormous country which defies categories and has done so much to improve women's lives and to cut HIV/AIDS off at the pass. Arriving last Sunday to São Paulo, a city of 11 million people, I was struck by the stunning contrasts of the place: a blend of First World and Third World I have only experienced in India and South Africa.

Kati Marton is an accomplished journalist, and she serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors for the International Women's Health Coalition.

Brazil and the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) have a very long relationship, so I was eager to meet our colleagues in this enormous country which defies categories and has done so much to improve women's lives and to cut HIV/AIDS off at the pass. Arriving last Sunday to São Paulo, a city of 11 million people, I was struck by the stunning contrasts of the place: a blend of First World and Third World I have only experienced in India and South Africa.

Though far from perfect, Brazil's policies are a model in the HIV/AIDS field. Unlike South Africa, it has taken dramatic steps to make antiretrovirals universally available and mount a successful campaign to destigmatize the disease. We spent part of Monday at São Paulo's HIV center, and it is indeed an impressive place. People from all classes, genders, and ages line up in the open to be tested or to receive the treatment which is their right as Brazilian citizens, constitutionally enshrined. What a contrast to most other countries I have visited, where stigma is still a powerful deterrent.

In one important meeting, with GIFE, a consortium of Brazilian private institutes, foundations and companies that invest in social projects, IWHC Board member, Tom Merrick, and I presented reasons why it is in every country's self-interest to educate, inform, and empower its women. GIFE and Brazil could reap great benefits from focusing even more on its still largely marginalized rural women, including married women who are now vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. All of us then had an active discussion on private philanthropy, particularly through events and in the corporate sector-a relatively new phenomena here and throughout Latin America-but one that holds enormous potential for creating a strong, sustainable and united front in addressing health crises.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

We headed north to Belo Horizonte, Montes Claros and[img_assist|nid=621|title=Kati Marton in Brazil|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=236|height=176] Janauba-a different world. In Janauba, a small, poor, isolated town, we spent the day with a terrific group of women, largely the descendants of African slaves, who had come to learn more about delivering babies when doctors are either unavailable or, in some cases, not wanted. A lively group of women from all ages (20s to 80s), buoyed by the sheer joy of being together, made clay models of the uterus and the birth canal and laughed their heads off at their own sometimes clumsy attempts. I loved every minute of our time in this remote, sweltering, small Brazilian town, a world away from the traffic and high rises of São Paulo. I hope these traditional birth attendants and the wonderful female doctors and nurses who are helping them, as well as Grupo Curumim, the non-governmental organization behind this effort which IWHC supports, got as much out of our visit as we did.

Seeing such innovation and commitment, I am inspired by what can be accomplished to make women's lives healthier and free from HIV/AIDS — in Janauba, in Montes Claros, in Belo Horizonte and in São Paulo.

Commentary Abortion

Brazil’s Criminal Abortion Laws Are Killing Women

Beatriz Galli

For women in Brazil, seeking an abortion can have extreme legal, social, and physical consequences.

At the end of August, Jandira Magdalena dos Santos Cruz, a 27-year-old women living in Rio de Janeiro, decided to end her pregnancy. Abortion is illegal except in rare cases in Brazil, but a friend gave her the name of a clandestine provider, and she agreed to pay the equivalent of U.S. $2,200 for the procedure. On August 26, Cruz, who had no other information other than a card with the doctor’s name and phone number, met a stranger in the bus station who was supposed to drive her to the clinic. Her ex-husband was the last person to see her when he dropped her off in the morning; when he went to pick her up in the afternoon, she had not returned. She has not been found since.

Cruz’s case is exemplary of the dire effects that criminalizing and stigmatizing abortion can have on women’s health and safety. In the past few years, a series of highly publicized raids on clandestine clinics around Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities has forced abortion providers even further underground than they were before—frequently putting those who seek them in extreme danger.

According to When Abortion Is a Crime, a report by the human rights groups Ipas and the Institute for Religious Studies, Brazilian police reported 351 abortion-related cases from 2007 to 2011. Of these, 334 were against women who had either induced an abortion on their own using pills or had obtained one illegally from a provider. The remaining 17 cases were the result of clinic raids, in which health-care staff—including doctors, nurses, receptionists, and others—were charged with criminal activity related to abortion.

Because Brazilian law only permits the procedure in cases of rape, fetal anencephaly, or risk to life, in 2012 the country’s Ministry of Health reported only 1,626 legal abortions in a nation with 203 million people. However, the organization estimates that one million Brazilian women have abortions every year—comparable to the rate in the United States. Many of those women, particularly those without the financial or social resources to see a well-trained, willing provider, run a huge legal risk when they decide to end an unwanted pregnancy. But the physical consequences, too, can often be devastating.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Cruz’s case came to light only a few weeks ago. Recently, the press in Rio reported that the police had found a mutilated body in the trunk of a car: a woman who had been shot in the head, with her arms, legs, and teeth removed, leaving officials unable to identify her. Physical characteristics, though, suggest that the body is Cruz’s; police are carrying out genetic tests to confirm that and will release the results within 30 days.

When we talk about “abortion-related deaths,” we generally mean from direct injuries that occur when a women obtains an abortion from an unsafe provider. However, the reality is that Brazilian women—especially those in vulnerable situations or from marginalized groups, such as poor, young, or rural women, or women of African descent—put their safety on the line when they seek the procedure at all.

In addition to the legal barriers they face, these women must also combat a culture of stigma arising from the collective belief that abortions are unethical, uncommon, and unacceptable. And in turn, this stigma contributes to the individual secrecy, social silence, and medical marginalization experienced by women like Cruz. Cruz’s death was an unmistakable tragedy; its root cause, though, is all too common. The fact that abortion services are penalized by the law and by society is a stark violation of women’s most basic human rights: the right to life, the right to health care, and the right to bodily integrity.

It can be said that Cruz died because she lives in Brazil, not in Canada, Mexico City, or Uruguay, for example, where she could have secured a safe and legal procedure. Women’s dignity and reproductive rights in Brazil have been so ignored, and the social shame around abortion is so strong, that politicians prefer to be silent about the horror of a woman’s mutilated body and what it means. Although President Dilma Rousseff suggested during her first campaign that she might have doubts about Brazil’s strict 1940 legislation criminalizing abortion, the government has since bowed to conservative religious groups and declared its unwillingness to examine it. Because of this, women’s lives and health are still not taken seriously.

Brazil will be holding presidential elections in October. So far, neither of the two leading candidates, who both happen to be women, have been willing to entertain any deeper discussion about the state’s failure to prevent these avoidable deaths and the urgent need to liberalize current abortion law. In fact, women’s rights issues haven’t even been raised in political debates, due to the strong influence that public ignominy and religious conservatives have had on directing campaign priorities.

Until leaders are willing to pull their heads out of the sand, Brazil will continue to watch more women disappearing and dying—as if these tragedies were merely an expression of God’s will or divine fate, rather than a direct result of the silence and stigma surrounding abortion.

Analysis Politics

Christian Right Group on an Anti-LGBTQ Crusade in Brazil

Jandira Queiroz

Brazil is a country of contradictions. It can produce both the Brazilian Carnival and house right-wing Christian empires.

If you’re looking for a high-level connection in the Brazilian government, whether you’re an American evangelical or Israel’s foreign minister, Filipe Coelho, head of the new Brazilian Center for Law and Justice (BCLJ), can help.

BCLJ is an offshoot of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian right legal organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. Intended to counter the undermining of “family values” by the American Civil Liberties Union, its credits include creating the federal Defense of Marriage Act banning same-sex marriage, defending anti-choice activists for harassing women at reproductive health clinics, and otherwise working to inscribe a conservative Christian worldview into law in the United States and in countries abroad.

The spark for opening a Brazil office came during the ACLJ’s campaign for the release of Iranian Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was jailed and condemned to death in Iran for preaching Jesus’ gospel. In the struggle for his release, ACLJ identified the importance of the Brazilian government’s support, as one of a few countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, and asked Coelho—a friend of the ACLJ leadership from his time studying in the U.S.—for a connection to the Brazilian vice president.

“Forty-eight hours later, Jordan [Sekulow, ACLJ executive director] and Anna [his wife] were in a meeting with him,” Coelho recounts. “From this, they saw how strong evangelical power is within Brazilian politics. They were ‘enchanted’ with Brazilians, because of the favor we did. So they decided to help Brazilian people by opening a Brazilian branch of ACLJ.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Recently, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry requested Coelho’s help in connecting with President Dilma Rousseff. “The Foreign Affairs Ministry of Israel called the president’s office three times to confirm the meeting and was told there was nothing set in the agenda for them,” Coelho recalls. “When I called there to check on that, I was told that the meeting was set for me, that I was the one taking the Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel to the presence of the Brazilian vice president. Then the Israelis were also surprised with our influence.”

Coelho continues: “I never thought that I’d be with the Brazilian vice president, but it’s all God’s plans for us. I’m very thankful to God for all this.”

When I interviewed Coelho in August 2012, the nascent enterprise was awaiting legal registration. The funds to navigate this process, pay Coelho’s salary, and support BCLJ’s operations arrive in monthly installments from the ACLJ in the U.S.—at least until BCLJ begins fundraising in Brazil. Coelho is launching the ACLJ’s Brazilian branch in a modest building in a central neighborhood in Goiânia, the capital of the Brazilian state of Goiás. For Coelho, the goal of the BCLJ is simple: to offer legal services to low-income Christians and to defend “religious freedom, human rights, and life.”

Sowing the Seeds From the U.S. to Brazil

ACLJ already has two offices in Europe, one in Kenya, and another in Zimbabwe. According to Political Research Associates’ 2012 report Colonizing African Values, the center intervened in the African countries’ constitution-making processes, fighting the inclusion of a narrow health exception to the existing ban on abortion and supporting the continued criminalization of homosexuality.

With at least 30 million evangelicals in Brazil—the largest predominantly Christian country on the globe after the United States.—evangelical representation in politics is growing and institutionalizing, making the country a strategic location for ACLJ expansion. In its short existence, it is clear that the BCLJ is using its parent organization’s tactics to win influence: wooing government officials and facilitating access to them, building alliances with key evangelical powerbrokers, and hiring local staff to hide “an American-based agenda behind (local) faces, giving the Christian Right room to attack gender justice and LGBTQ rights as a neocolonial enterprise imposed” on the country, while obstructing critiques of its own activities.

However, battles for political space and power taking place within the Brazilian Christian community may determine BCLJ’s fortunes—and the ACLJ may face difficulty impressing Brazilian evangelicals who enjoy access to more resources than those in other countries. Brazil is by some measures the eighth-largest economic power in the world, with more than 120 years of republican history and nearly two centuries of independence. It exerts influence over other countries in politics and economics, culture and technology. Brazil also exports religious ideology to other countries in the region, such as Argentina and Ecuador—even the U.S. and Mexico—and to Portuguese-language countries including Angola, Mozambique, and Portugal.

Where institutional ties across the continents are thus far weak, one-on-one relationships wield enormous importance. As its first director for Brazil, the ACLJ chose a man from one of Brazil’s most prominent evangelical families, measured in terms of theological, business, and political influence. Filipe Coelho is one of four children of Rev. Silmar Coelho, a Methodist minister who founded a local church with one of his sons. Filipe and his family are Pentecostals in the rapidly growing Assemblies of God church. Most of Filipe’s uncles and aunts preach or otherwise serve evangelical churches; his younger brother, Lucas Coelho, studied at religious institutions in the U.S. and has been offered a position in a Virginia church.

Coelho claims to not have been engaged in politics until ACLJ asked him to be its director of operations in Brazil, but now considers it his calling: “I was a preacher some time ago, but I realized that my work with ACLJ is what I love doing. This is my ministry.” Coelho spent almost half of his life in the United States, where he graduated with a  degree in business and economics from King College, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. During this time, the Coelhos and the Sekulows, the father-son team leading the ACLJ, became family friends. Filipe said that it is common for his father, Pastor Silmar Coelho, to spend two or three weeks visiting the U.S. to preach to Brazilians in one or more churches a day, in different cities and states.

A close friend of both families is Rev. Silas Malafaia, who runs the Victory in Christ Assemblies of God church in Rio de Janiero, which claims almost 20,000 members. In November 2012, Victory in Christ invited Jay Sekulow, ACLJ chief counsel, to participate in a religious leaders’ school program. Sekulow is regularly invited for prominent speaking engagements in Brazil, including the 2011 meeting of the Interdenominational Council of Evangelical Ministers in Brazil (CIMEB), where Rev. Malafaia is vice president. (While reported back problems kept him away, Sekulow continues to receive invitations.) Last year, ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow appeared on Rev. Malafaia’s Gospel Truth show to ask Brazilians to “tweet for Youcef,” in support of the release of Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. ACLJ reported the total number of people tweeting reached more than 3 million, up from 1.1 million.

Other Coelho family friends the ACLJ relies on include Rev. Everaldo Dias da Silva, vice president of the Social Christian Party and one of the founders of the Evangelical caucus at the Parliament. His son, Filipe Pereira, was, at 22, the youngest federal deputy ever elected in Brazil, and Coelho revealed that Rev. Dias is being tapped by the CIMEB to run for president in 2014.

Defending “Religious Liberty”

If you know that Brazil is home to the largest gay pride parade in the world, you may be surprised that LGBTQ rights are restricted and abortion remains illegal with a few exceptions. For 11 years, the LGBTQ movement has unsuccessfully promoted an anti-homophobia bill, which would make homophobia or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating factor in hate crimes and speech. LGBTQ advocates are also filing lawsuits against pastors who make homophobic comments and even calls for violence on the air. For instance, Rev. Malafaia, after the 2011 pride parade in Sao Paulo, called on listeners “to beat [literally ‘stick’] down those gay activists.”

Evangelicals perceive this as a threat to their “religious liberty” to keep preaching on national television that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God, and that the homosexual movement is implementing a plan to transform the whole country into Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Brazil, many pastors and televangelists are, like ACLJ founder Pat Robertson, owners of communications empires that include publishers, producers, record labels, radio and television channels, and elaborate websites. Evangelical programs, especially those on TV, follow a U.S. style of televangelism and it is not unusual to see U.S. evangelical leaders on Brazilian shows promoting books and DVDs, encouraging people to join the church, or warning of some “new threat” to the family and tradition, or to religious freedom in the country or around the world.

And the Brazilian audience responds. When Rev. Malafaia asked his audience in 2009 to vote against the anti-homophobia bill in a poll posted on the Senate’s web page, there were half a million “no” clicks in less than a week. The dynamism of Brazil’s growing evangelical community can also be seen in their donations. In April 2011, Rev. Malafaia asked his TV audience for about $50,000 toward a debt of about $750,000 (1.5 million Brazilian reais) to broadcast his show all over the country and abroad. He got it. Later, he told Piaui Magazine, “People in Brazil think all evangelicals are poor and stupid. Evangelicals are donating BRL 100,000, people don’t have a clue of what’s going on within the evangelical world.”

Through all the competition among different denominations—from charismatic Roman Catholics to the most “fast-miracle drive-through” neo-Pentecostal—you hear a common message: the defense of life, traditional values, freedom of expression, and religious freedom. Coelho joins other conservative evangelicals in seeing a threat to these areas. While democracy is not yet being menaced, he says, the anti-homophobia bill “may” move in that direction by threatening freedom of expression.

“Let’s say I hire someone to work in my house as a nanny or a maid, and let’s suppose I find out she’s homosexual, and she’s taking care of my baby girl all day. So I think I have the right to decide who to have inside my home. Let’s say I find out she’s homosexual, and I tell her I don’t want her to work within my family anymore. I can be arrested because of that. So there’s no more freedom of expression; in your own home you have to be careful,” he said.

Coelho believes this legislation reflects the strong political influence from the LGBTQ movement in the United States on Brazilian strategy. While in the U.S., he heard a lecture about how homosexuals are seeking to become the new Blacks in society, with similar legal protections. He explained, “homosexuals are trying to treat homosexuality as if it were a race, while it is really an attitude, a behavior.” Coelho believes Brazilian activists witnessed the LGBTQ rights movement in America and “imported” its tactics to Brazil—an ironic critique given BCLJ’s own outside origins.

Indeed, alleging attacks on “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” is a long-time popular Christian right argument in the U.S., particularly used in the present day in opposing provisions of the new federal health-care law. Given the close relationship between Rev. Malafaia and ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow, it’s unsurprising that their speeches and writing display similar arguments in defense of “freedom of expression and religious freedom.” Other evidence of U.S. influence includes Rev. Malafaia’s publisher releasing a translation of The Agenda: The Homosexual Plan to Change America, by Louis P. Sheldon, a U.S. Presbyterian pastor, chair of the Traditional Values Coalition, and writer on social issues including religious liberty. The book was distributed free to all members of federal parliament elected in 2010.

Evangelicals in the Political World

The number of evangelicals in Brazil is growing fast. While 90 percent of the country identified as Roman Catholic in 1980, 21 percent now identifies as Protestant. Eighty percent of Protestants report being either Pentecostal or charismatic—evangelicals who believe that you can receive spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophesying, or faith healing—according to a 2006 survey by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Many Brazilians simply refer to all Protestants as evangelicals, given their large numbers.

As with other Latin American evangelicals, many in Brazil are left-leaning, particularly but not exclusively on economic issues. A 2011 Pew study found that 51 percent of evangelical leaders in Latin and Central America believed that homosexuals should be accepted by society, compared to 23 percent in Europe and 9 percent in North America. Yet it seems apparent that social conservatives wield disproportionate political power.

In the Brazilian National Congress, though the evangelical caucus—made up of mostly pastors, bishops, or self-nominated “apostles” from a range of denominations—is a minority group, it wields greater influence through an alliance with landowners, entrepreneurs, and other conservative groups. Together, they make up a majority that is set, especially over the last decade, on blocking progressive legislation.

In 2011, Rev. Malafaia mobilized thousands to march through the streets of Brasilia, the national capital, to block a bill that would have extended constitutional protections for individual rights and freedoms to cover sexual orientation. Marriage is explicitly only between a man and a woman, which also means a ban on adoption by same-sex couples, though same-sex civil unions and adoption by single women are protected. Once opposed to civil unions, conservatives now claim they form the basis of Brazil’s legal culture, precluding egalitarian marriage.

Professor Maria das Dores Campos Machado of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who researches religion and politics in Brazil, explains that evangelicals increased focus on using politics and legal battles to take back social arenas—dovetailing with the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice’s agenda. “When you have problems at home or in your personal life you look for a judge or lawyer … but no longer a priest. More and more, even the moral regulators within communities are judges rather than priests or pastors,” she said. “It’s not merely pragmatism. It’s a search for an institutional space for the church in modern society.”

Evangelicals provided key support for the rise of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his center-left Workers’ Party (WP) to the presidency in 2002. In 2010, WP candidate (and Brazil’s current president) Dilma Rousseff was forced to retract statements calling the criminalization of abortion “absurd,” when evangelical leaders, including Rev. Malafaia, brought concerns about abortion and same-sex marriage into the campaign. WP backed off decriminalization in the party platform as “a mistake.” Evangelicals are credited for Rousseff’s eventual victory, demonstrating the price of their vital support. In 2011, Rev. Malafaia and other evangelicals used their political power to force Rousseff to remove a curriculum promoting LGBTQ understanding from public schools.

Rev. Malafaia’s stated goal in the 2012 election cycle was to “make one Assembly of God’s alderman in every city of the country,” which would total about 5,600. An ambitious goal, but one that provides a strategy to empower the Assembly of God and the evangelical community as a whole—and to build, region by region, the base for an evangelical candidate in national elections. Just how many pastors ran for local office is impossible to track (though one journalist tried, reaching 5,000), since some churches no longer allow their clergy to register as “pastors” for fear of a political scandal involving their church’s name.

Another example of evangelical influence on campaigns comes from Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, where the mayor who (successfully) sought re-election with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB)—a center-right party that is a coalition partner with the ruling Workers’ Party—counted on the support of former President Lula and President Rousseff, but also allied with Rev. Malafaia to win evangelical votes against a leftist candidate. A third candidate had a prominent ally “gay-bait” the mayor to undermine his conservative Christian support.

In São Paulo, a Roman Catholic charismatic mayoral candidate with the right-wing Brazilian Republican Party, Celso Russomanno, shot to first place in the polls after a scandal tainted the Workers’ Party candidate. It is remarkable that Russomanno became a frontrunner, even if only temporarily, in a city known as one of the most gay-friendly in the world, where the largest LGBTQ Pride Parade takes place every year.

Brazil is a country of contradictions. It can produce the Brazilian Carnival and house right-wing Christian empires such as Victory in Christ. This country, as the poets have said, isn’t for beginners. Whoever wants to navigate its wonderful byways must tread carefully. If BCLJ pursues a legal and diplomatic focus through one-on-one networking, it may someday find a niche for itself among the powerbrokers. But it is organizing in a competitive environment, one in which evangelicals have already made a vigorous bid for political power and have found ways to generate huge cash resources. So BCLJ’s path to power is far from clear.