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Two women vie for presidency, but Brazil is still a man’s world

Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP | President Dilma Rousseff and challenger Marina Silva in Rio

Brazilians vote Sunday in an election dominated by two women, including incumbent Dilma Rousseff and environmentalist Marina Silva. But a last-minute surge of a pro-business candidate has made this the most unpredictable presidential poll in decades.

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Rousseff, the candidate of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), is the frontrunner, with most opinion polls ahead of the vote showing she will likely face Silva of the opposition Socialist Party in a runoff on October 26.

The only man on the radar is conservative Aecio Neves, who consistently polled at below 20 percent of the vote on the campaign trail. A new poll on the eve of the election, however, showed Neves polling ahead of Silva with 24 percent against the environmentalist’s 21.4 percent.

The percentage difference between Silva and Neves, however, is within the margin of error and Brazilians are braced for a tight race.

The two female candidates in the presidential battle are both models of perseverance and the fight against oppression.

Silva, 56, was born to a desperately poor family in the Amazon and was illiterate until the age of 16. She worked as a maid before rising to prominence as an environmental activist, becoming Brazil’s youngest-ever senator in 1994.

The 66-year-old Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured in her youth for her role in the struggle against the country’s military dictatorship. The incumbent, who made history in 2010 by becoming Brazil’s first female president, is also a cancer survivor.

“We can say [Rousseff] is a feminist symbol because she has broken with a patriarchal structure, and showed women they can do the same,” said Yury Puello Orozco, a spokeswoman for Catholic Women for the Right to Choose (CPDD, its acronym in Portuguese), a prominent pro-choice group based in Sao Paulo.

Rousseff’s party swept into power in 2002 on the promise they would bring about radical change, but more than a decade later – and despite the current duel between two women for Brazil's top job – feminist activists like Puello Orozco say a lot more needs to be accomplished.

A place for women in politics

In February, female lawmakers from both houses called a meeting in Brasilia to discuss a pressing problem: the shocking lack of female representation in parliament.

Women currently represent only 8.4 percent of MPs in the lower house of parliament. This is a slight improvement on the number of women MPs in the chamber 12 years ago, but the lift appears to have now hit the notorious glass ceiling.

The figures are all the more discouraging in view of a 15-year-old law that requires all party electoral lists to contain at least 30 percent female candidates.

Women fare slightly better in the Senate, but those numbers are nothing to rejoice about either, standing at just 15 percent.

The lawmakers were especially angry over so-called ‘Phantom women’, whose names political parties include on voting ballots in order to fill the quota system, but who are denied the resources and funds to run a genuine political campaign.

Female lawmakers say authorities need to get serious about fining parties that do not comply with the gender quotas and provide the necessary campaign funds to female candidates. The lawmakers are also pushing for measures to improve political education among the female population.

Progress, but not enough courage

While the low level of representation in government is a clearly a problem, ordinary Brazilian women face a mountain of more pressing challenges.

To name just one, an estimated one million abortions were performed in Brazil last year, the vast majority of them 'backstreet'.

Abortion is a crime in Brazil with three exceptions: when a woman becomes pregnant as the result of rape, when the pregnancy represents a life-threatening danger to the mother, and when the foetus is missing a major portion of its brain.

The CPDD’s Puello Orozco said illegal abortions are a massive public health problem that politicians, including Rousseff, have lacked the courage to tackle in this very religious country.

“The criminalisation of abortion has failed to decrease the number of abortions.

Furthermore, it is a law that discriminates against poorer, often black, women, who are far more likely to die of illegal abortions in unsanitary places,” she added.

Yury said she is nonetheless hopeful that things will improve.

She claims to have witnessed significant reforms under the PT government that have improved the lives of women in regard to access to education, the labour market, and gender violence.

“We have not reached gender equality, far from it, but by boosting education among girls we are laying the foundation,” she said.

Puello Orozco does not conceal her preference for Rousseff in the election. She says Silva, an evangelical Christian, has not been clear about her positions and is unlikely to push for legalising abortion.

The activist thinks that with a new mandate, Rousseff - the symbol of gender equality - may just be able to line up her policies and her convictions.

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