BRAZIL: Turning Women’s Rights Into Reality
By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 16 (IPS) - The effective implementation of social policies, especially those directly concerning women, will be key at the Second National Conference on Policies for Women, to be held in Brasilia from Friday to Monday.

Around 3,000 women, representing Brazil’s 27 states, will discuss new pathways for the struggle for gender equality and specific rights, as well as evaluating the National Plan of Policies for Women (PNPM), which resulted from the First National Conference, held in July 2004.

The PNPM contains 199 measures distributed in four areas: work, education, health and the fight against violence. In practice there has been little effective progress, largely because of Brazil’s economic policy which imposed large budget cuts on social spending, Natalia Mori, co-director of the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), told IPS.

During this year’s budget debate, for example, the women’s movement succeeded in doubling the budget for combatting and preventing violence against women, up to a figure of 23 million reals (12 million dollars). But 70 percent of that sum has already been blocked.

Thus the approval in 2006 of the "Maria da Penha" Law, which defines aggression against women as specific crimes with their respective legal penalties and was welcomed as a great triumph, has lost much of its effectiveness because of the lack of resources to implement many of the necessary measures, such as protection for witnesses and victims.

The Special Secretariat on Policies for Women, which promotes the design of programmes based on the conclusions of the participative conferences, also lacks the resources to fulfil its mission, although it is recognised as efficiently administering its budget, Mori said.

Other social spending areas pledged by the government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, such as social security, are under pressure from reforms and cuts due to the economic model, which puts a priority on curbing debt and restricting public expenditure, she said.

Infrastructure investments, on the other hand, are assured of their budget allocations because of the recently adopted economic growth plan, Mori complained.

Apart from discussing mechanisms to ensure funding for the PNPM goals, the Second National Conference on Policies for Women must decide actions to prompt state and municipal governments to implement local programmes, which are necessary for the policies to bear fruit, she said.

CFEMEA, a Brasilia-based non-governmental organisation, monitors public policies and, in particular, draft laws favouring gender equality and women’s rights.

Abortion is a controversial issue in Brazilian society, but its decriminalisation was supported by the majority of delegates at the First National Conference, which took place three years ago.

The conference resolution gave rise to a draft law, drawn up in 2005 by a tripartite commission including representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government and civil society. However, the proposal got stuck in parliament.

Approving a resolution that viewed abortion as a woman’s right was "the big advance" made at the 2004 conference, which recommended that the laws making it illegal be revoked. Reaffirming that decision now is important, said Sonia Correa, a researcher on gender and sexual rights at Brazilian and international institutions, such as the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) network.

Political developments like the corruption scandals in the government and a bloc formed by conservative and religious parlamentarians put a stop to the draft law to decriminalise abortion.

But the new Health Minister, José Gomes Temporao, has "boldly" taken up the issue of abortion as a public health problem, backing women’s struggle for this right, Correa said.

The position taken by Gomes Temporao "reflects a 20-year history" of progress on the issue, such as the right to abortion in the public health system for legally approved cases (pregnancies resulting from rape and those which endanger the mother’s life), she said.

Another important advance at the conference was the renewal of the debate on violence against women, which led to the passage of the "Maria da Penha" Law, named in honour of a woman whose husband twice attempted to murder her, leaving her paraplegic, and who fought through the legal system for two decades to finally get him convicted.

The creation of the Special Secretariat on Policies for Women, which has ministerial rank, and the promotion of women’s conferences, a participative process which has involved 195,000 women in municipal and state meetings in preparation for this Second National Conference, are gains achieved since Lula took office in 2003, Mori acknowledged.

But the Workers’ Party government, elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006, has had problems when it comes to putting into practice the resolutions adopted in dialogue with society, she said.

In terms of social security, too, government action has been "disappointing" because "it has failed to combat privileges" and has done little to include the 40 million Brazilians, out of a population of 188 million, who are excluded from the system, most of whom are women and black people, the activist said.

Equality in the workplace, non-sexist education, improvements in health including respect for sexual and reproductive rights, and more effective action to combat violence against women are the four areas on which women’s demands will focus at the Second National Conference.

Although they make up the majority of the population and on average have a higher educational level than men, women in Brazil continue to earn less than men doing the same job.

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