Most Social Movement Leaders are Educated Middle-Class, but not in Southern Brazil–peasants formed a women’s movement, etc.

Gessi Bonês, Vera Fracasso and other teenagers living in rural Southern Brazil in Rio Grande do Sul in the 1980s started a women’s movement, despite the patriarchal tradition of fathers’ restricting daughters’ ability to go outside their homes.[i] This was the era when Brazilians overthrew the military dictatorship. The girls’ lives were similar to Mashal’s in Pakistan, spending their days doing work at home with very little or no education or freedom of movement. Many of the farm women worked from early in the morning to midnight, milking cows, making cheese, gardening, cooking, etc. Fathers were reluctant to let their girls leave the safety of home. Vera reported her mother barely spoke or expressed an opinion, similar to Sahar’s illiterate mother in Pakistan. Gessi only had a fifth grade education because she had to walk five kilometers each way to school.

What made the difference for these peasants was the encouragement of Catholic nuns and priests who espoused Liberation Theology, concerned about helping the poor. They organized youth groups and visited parents until they agreed to let their teens attend. Many of the young people went on to lead social movements for landless workers called MST (it became the largest social movement), anti-dam movement, and union reform. At age 20, Vera led the union-reform movement. As in other social movements, the male activists weren’t interested in putting women’s issues to the forefront and ignored female speakers, so the girls decided to form a women’s movement. The young women fought for economic changes on a national level such as social security for farm women and changes in daily life, such as women’s ability to speak up, go outside the home without asking their father or husband’s permission, and share family work. The latter goal was the most difficult to achieve. Most of the feminist activists struggled with their fathers, then husbands, not wanting them to leave home.[ii]

In 1986, the girls’ first step was to ask the priests to help them bring women from nearby towns together to meet. They didn’t have contact with urban feminist movements so they started without a model, calling their local women’s associations Farmwomen (Mulheres da Roca), then formed a state organization called The Movement of Rural Women Workers (MMTR), and worked with women’s organizations in other southern states to influence national policies. They marched in the streets and took over government buildings in militant activism. Their meetings including singing, crafts, self-help exercises, and lectures as well as discussions. In the 1990s and 2000s they focused on women’s health (Gessi became head of the local women’s health department in 2001, alienating some activists who were against working in government, then formed a women’s organic market), women’s pharmacies with natural remedies, and sustainable agriculture vs. pesticides that harmed their health. As a member like Ivone said, “We felt like people,” helping to alleviate the suffering and depression many experienced.[iii] Some of the activists destroyed genetically modified crops on International Women’s Day in 2006. One of their campaigns was to document citizenship so women could collect benefits, a problem similar to undocumented Indians. In 1995, women from 17 states met to form the National Organization of Rural women Workers (ANMTR) that expanded the documentation project. In 2003, they formed a national Movement of Peasant Women (MMC), advocating a new agricultural model.

[i] Jeffrey Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin. Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration. Duke University Press, 2013.


[ii] Rubin, p. 66.

[iii] Rubin, p. 62.

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