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The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Racism, Sexism, Homophobia and Transphobia

The rightward shift in Brazilian politics since 2014 can be understood as an elite project to restore the social hierarchies that had defined Brazil prior to the Workers’ Party era. This has hit the working class as a whole, but it has also manifested in specific ways against certain vulnerable groups. For example, the country’s Afro-descendant population has seen its socio-economic conditions and social rights diminished far more dramatically than white Brazilians. Indigenous groups have seen increased incursions into their territories and have been particularly vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19. 67 Female representation in government has been radically reduced and women’s reproductive rights further eroded. LGBT+ people have been publicly demonised and educational programmes promoting understanding of different sexual preferences and gender identities have been dismantled.

Since Bolsonaro came to office, Black, female and LGBT+ Brazilians have also become increasingly vulnerable to violence. The assassination, in March 2018, of the Black bisexual socialist city councillor Marielle Franco – who spoke out tirelessly against police violence and in defence of the rights of poor, Black, female and LGBT+ Brazilians – served as a warning of the type of violence that would increase under a Bolsonaro presidency. All our interviewees underscored that the greatest threat today is a further naturalisation of violence against vulnerable groups in a society already marked by some of the world’s highest rates of police violence, homicide, femicide, and homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.

At the beginning of Chapter 3, we quoted Jandyra Massue Uehara Álves, Secretary of Human Rights at the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), who described the environment of violence and impunity created by the Bolsonaro government. She subsequently went on to describe to us how this environment especially affected the groups addressed in this section:

  • 67 Chapter 5 will discuss the threats faced by Brazil’s indigenous populations and their struggles to preserve their land, identities, and ways of life. In this chapter, we focus on the structural and institutional forms of racism faced by Afro-descendent Brazilians.

The environment that [Bolsonaro] has created in Brazil incites […] violence against workers, but especially against some groups. Women: the growth of femicide in Brazil is something that, now with the pandemic, has increased a lot. The issue of racism against Black men and women: the police have acted, that is, they’ve increased state violence even [more], which was always very high, and now is reaching unbearable levels. [There is] also violence against homeless people, quilombolas,[fn value=68] Traditional Afro-Brazilian communities, originally founded by escaped slaves. [/fn] LGBT, indigenous people. And [all of] this comes from this environment.

Jandyra Massue Uehara Álves, Secretary of Human Rights at the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT),

In this section we detail how forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, already widespread in Brazilian society, have intensified in recent years and how this has also led to increased violence against vulnerable groups.

Racism and racial inequality

According to 2018 data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), out of a population of some 209 million, one per cent of Brazilians identify as Indigenous, 43.1 per cent as white, 9.3 per cent as black and 46.5 per cent as brown or mixed race. As the latter two categories are typically combined for statistical purposes under the single classification of (in English) Black or Afro-Brazilian, over half of Brazil’s population is Afro-descendant and the country has the largest Afro-descendant population in the Americas. 69

Brazilian elites have long claimed that Brazil is not a racist country, typically pointing to its highly mixed population and the absence of the kinds of legalised segregation and discrimination found in the recent history of countries like the United States and apartheid South Africa. However, extreme inequalities exist between Brazil’s white and Afro-descendant populations with Afro-Brazilians disproportionately targeted by police violence and unable to access key drivers of social mobility like good quality education, health, and housing. 70

Under the PT, a series of higher education reforms – including the expansion of the public university system, the implementation of racial and socioeconomic quotas in public universities, and the introduction of student grants and loans for study in private universities – significantly increased the presence of black and low-income Brazilians in higher education. As a result, by 2018, black students represented 50.3 per cent of public university (federal and state) students, while 70.5 per cent of federal university students came from households that made less than 1.5x the monthly minimum wage.71

Despite these advances in higher education, severe racial disparities remain the norm in other spheres of life, notably employment and vulnerability to violence. Since the 2014 financial crisis, Black Brazilians have made up 54.9 per cent of the workforce, but over 64 per cent of unemployed and 66 per cent of underemployed workers. Black Brazilians also make up the majority of informal workers, with black women notably concentrated in domestic work. Though policies introduced by the Workers’ Party governments led to a significant reduction in poverty, racial inequality in incomes has remained stark. In 2018, 32.9 per cent of Afro-descendant Brazilians made less than $5.50 USD/day compared to 15.4 per cent of white Brazilians. Even in the formal labour market, white employees make on average 73.9 per cent more than their Black counterparts: R$ 2,796 and R$1,608, respectively.72

According to Anatalina Lourenço, National Secretary for Combatting Racism at the CUT, the discrepancy between black Brazilians’ improved educational outcomes and continued disadvantage in the labour market is the result of structural racism in Brazil:

You have more black women and men studying more, with more years of education. But Brazilian society is racist and structural racism is going to create other mechanisms. […So] the black population, even with more years of study […], when they go to the labour market... the student doesn’t get the vacancies they’ve studied for. And often they go into other fields or other positions in the labour market and earn lower salaries. But even when they manage to get into the roles related to their field of study, their remuneration is lower. So as much as you’ve had inclusive policies over the last two decades […] most people haven’t experienced social mobility due to the restrictions they face in the labour market.

Anatalina Lourenço, National Secretary for Combatting Racism (CUT)

An issue that even more dramatically illustrates the structural nature of racism in Brazil is racial disparity in vulnerability to violence. According to the Applied Economics Research Institute’s Atlas of Violence, of the almost 58,000 homicides committed in the country in 2018, 75.7 per cent of victims were Black. “73 What’s more, between 2008 and 2018 the homicide rate among Afro-Brazilians increased by 11.5 per cent, while it fell by 12.9 per cent among white Brazilians. Homicide is especially pernicious among Black youths: according to the IBGE, young black people between the ages of 15 and 29 were three times more likely than their white counterparts to be the victims of homicide in 2017. 74 Black youth are also far more likely to be victims of state violence, accounting for roughly 75 per cent of those killed by police. However, the President’s anti-crime discourse is racially coded and he is openly hostile to the Black rights movement. This government has appointed individuals who deny the existence of racism in Brazil to government agencies responsible for research and advocacy on Black issues, such as the Palmares Foundation. Much damage has been done indirectly. While Bolsonaro is a staunch opponent of university quotas, dismantling them would require difficult legislative reforms. Nonetheless, cuts to spending on universities and student grants have had similar effects, meaning that many black and low-income students are no longer able to cover costs of transportation, accommodation and materials needed to continue their studies.

In terms of elected officials, Afro-descendent Brazilians remain significantly underrepresented in national politics .  For example, of the 513 federal deputies elected to Congress in 2018, 75.6 per cent are white.75  There have been advances at the municipal level, however. In the 2020 municipal elections, black and brown candidates outnumbered white candidates, for the first time in history. As a result, Black officials now comprise 44 per cent of city councillors nationwide.

Sexism and gender inequality

Bolsonaro’s government represents a hugely retrograde step in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights in Brazil. As Roberta Eugênio, Co-Director of the Instituto Alziras 76  and former legal adviser to Marielle Franco, told us, “Bolsonaro represents, in his rhetoric, practice and agenda, the opposite to guaranteeing more rights, security and respect for the victories of women and vulnerable groups.”

This is most starkly revealed by the issue of gender-based violence. Brazil boasts one of the worst records of violence against women in the world. Based on 2018 data, the Brazilian Forum on Public Security has estimated that a woman is physically harmed from domestic violence every two minutes. Lockdown measures during the Covid-19 pandemic were associated with a rise in domestic violence: in the first half of 2020, the rate of femicide rose by 1.9 per cent. 77 In 2019, 1,326 deaths were classified as femicides, of which 66.6 per cent were black women. 78  Bolsonaro has mocked the specific designation of  “femicide” as “me-me-me” identity politics and claimed that arming women would be the best solution for reducing such homicides. 79 However, his Secretary of Women, Family and Human Rights, the staunchly Evangelical Damares Álves, does support the continued classification of femicide as a distinct category of crime.

Rape, especially of young girls, is also disturbingly common. In 2019 alone, over 66,000 rapes were reported, of which 85.7 per cent were of women or girls. A shocking 57.9 per cent of victims were under the age of 13. It is estimated that just 7.5 per cent of victims of sexual violence notify the police 80 and that  only one per cent of perpetrators end up in jail. 81  In August 2020, Minister Álves, who favours the elimination of all forms of abortion in Brazil (it is currently legal in cases of rape and where the health of the mother is at risk) stoked protests against a 10-year-old rape victim's abortion by stating that the girl should have waited just two more weeks until the foetus was viable to have a caesarean.

More broadly, Bolsonaro’s government has sought to promote “traditional family values”, ignoring the reality of family structures in Brazil today, threatening women’s autonomy, and exposing them to health problems and the risk of violence. Junéia Batista of CUT’s Secretary of the Woman Worker described this agenda in the following terms:

Bolsonaro won and put together a hardcore team with a fundamentalist Evangelical minister [Damares Álves], completely in favour of the ‘traditional family’ – daddy, mummy and little kids – in denial of existing Brazilian homes, many of which are single-parent homes, with women as heads of households, working as domestic workers, who are predominately black. Without the means to survive, they suffer every type of violence. […] Our bodies, in the view of the right, were made to give birth, to care for “our” men, the sick, children and the elderly.

Junéia Batista of CUT’s Secretary of the Woman Worker

Bolsonaro himself is known for his misogynistic outbursts and attacks on feminism. He, for instance, infamously told a congresswoman that she was “too ugly to rape”. He also once remarked “I’ve got five kids but on the fifth I had a moment of weakness, and it came out a woman." 82

While the presence of women in senior government positions at national level has been dramatically reduced since the establishment of the Temer government in 2016, female representation has been increasing in legislative and subnational executive positions. It is important to note, however, that these figures do not necessarily promote women’s rights, and some are aligned with the conservative movement.83 High-profile women like Damares Álves, conservative Congresswoman Joice Hasselmann and the far-right activist Sarah Winter have risen to prominence based on their vocal anti-feminism and opposition to reproductive rights.

Homophobia and transphobia

Homophobic and transphobic disinformation were a crucial part of Bolsonaro’s social media-driven 2018 electoral campaign. This included the notorious case of the so-called “gay kit”, where it was claimed that, if elected, the PT planned to encourage homosexuality in schools. In reality, the case referred to an educational textbook to tackle homophobia that had been promoted by the Ministry of Education back in 2011. Conservative religious groups had mobilised against it at the time, continuing efforts since the mid-2000s under the banner of the so-called “Nonpartisan School” movement to challenge alleged ideological indoctrination and the teaching of “gender ideology” in schools. As this suggests, the conservative obsession with such themes long predates Bolsonaro’s presidency.

However, they have gained wider repercussions in recent years. Bolsonaro has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and once told a reporter that, “I would be unable to love a gay son. I won’t be a hypocrite here: I would prefer that my son die in an accident rather than appear with a moustache. For me, he would be dead.”84

Jandyra Álves (CUT) explained to us what she believed lay behind the trend of increasingly explicit and intense forms of homophobia:

  • 82 Butterworth, B, “Jair Bolsonaro: 17 quotes that explain the views of Brazil’s fascist president-elect”, Inews, October 29, 2018
  • 83 Patrícia Rangel, Eneida Vinhaes Dultra, and David McCoy, “De-Democratization in Brazil and the New Puzzle of Women’s Political Representation,” in Democracy and Brazil: Collapse and Regression (Routledge, 2020), 166–93,
  • 84 Butterworth, B, “Jair Bolsonaro: 17 quotes that explain the views of Brazil’s fascist president-elect”, Inews, October 29, 2018

There’s always been a high incidence of violence against the LGBT+ community. This didn’t start now. […] But what is different now? In my opinion there are various factors that have contributed. For example, one issue is the growth of conservatism. And not just that. We had an electoral campaign in 2018 based on fake news. Most of that fake news worked with the existing prejudices of the population towards the LGBT community […], to incite those prejudices even more […]. [Then] there’s the huge growth in Brazil of conservative Pentecostal churches, which also stimulate this prejudice. […] So what already existed was intensified in 2018

Jandyra Álves (CUT)

Like data on femicides and police violence against black Brazilians, data on violence against LGBT+ groups can be hard to corroborate, given that only 11 out of 26 Brazilian states keep records of LGBT+ hate crimes. Even so, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, violence against LGBT+ people rose by 7.7 per cent from 2018 to 2019.

Brazil remains the most violent country for transgender people in the world, with 129 murders in 2020 between January and September, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring research project.85

Keila Simpson, President of the National Association of Transvestites and Transexuals, underscored how the far right, assisted by rising religious conservatism, has sought to normalise prejudice and violence against trans people across Brazilian society.

The extreme right preaches a naturalization of violence. It preaches the criminalization of trans people’s bodies. It promotes violent and transphobic discourse against people’s identities, against all LGBT people. And that is a very big threat, first to our lives and survival, then to our human rights. But the extreme right is actually fuelled by religious fanaticism. Fanaticism in Brazil today has very deep roots in popular neighbourhoods.

Keila Simpson, President of the National Association of Transvestites and Transexuals

In terms of political representation, the number of LGBT+ candidates and elected officials has also recently grown, though from a very low baseline. The 2020 municipal elections saw a record 502 LGBT+ candidates, 83 of whom were elected. 86 Of these, a total of 294 transgender candidates ran in the 2020 municipal elections and 30 were elected to city council seats – over three times as many victorious bids as achieved in 2016, but still a tiny number in national terms. 87

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