As this year’s community partner exchange event in Brazil coincides with International Women’s Day, the event has a strong focus on gender. The objective is to examine how organizations with long track records of work on gender inclusion — including our work at the IAF and the work of local contractors and community partners that have helped to organize the exchange — are dealing with gender issues both within their own organizations and in project activities. Academics and practitioners who have long worked on issues of gender are leading discussions and roundtables.
“There is no separation among the domestic, public, social, and political spaces when thinking about gender equality,” explained Cláudia Maia during a panel discussion at the exchange earlier this week. Maia, a history professor at the Brazil State University of Montes Claros, has collaborated on projects with the Centro de Agricultura Alternativa do Norte de Minas (CAANM), the Brazilian nongovernmental organization that is hosting this year’s exchange.
CAANM has successfully incorporated women in its work with indigenous, quilombola, and land reform communities in the semi-arid region of Minas Gerais to support their productive and marketing capacity. The communities have organized a strong cooperative that sells about 100 varieties of native fruit pulps from the Brazilian savannah. CAANM has provided training to communities for over a decade, and several women leaders have emerged from those training sessions. Currently, women are in charge of the cooperative, and women occupy more than half of CAANM’s staffing positions. CAANM has drawn on popular education and gender inclusion theory to support its project activities.
Gender issues are a worldwide phenomenon, and Brazil is no exception. In fact, gender violence has skyrocketed in the last five years, and the country now ranks among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of violence against women. While Brazil has passed new laws to help prevent such violence, much remains to be done to reduce cases in both urban and rural settings. Aside from the issue of violence, there are still a number of other critical gender issues that need to be fully addressed such as discrimination against women in the workplace.
The IAF has supported several grants in Brazil with a strong focus on gender inclusion. These grants have varied in their nature and location, with some of them urban and focusing on resolving issues of violence against women and others rural and focused on increasing women’s participation in production and marketing.
Several participants at the exchange who are working on the these IAF-supported initiatives shared their personal stories, which in many cases parallel the struggle both in Brazil and worldwide to overcome gender inequality.
“I came from a family of 17 kids. I was the youngest, and I always questioned why the world was so unequal,” recounted Maria Lourdes Gomes de Lima, project coordinator for Centro de Educação Popular (CENEP), an IAF community partner. “When I was 15 years old, I started participating in social movements. Later I went to study history in college with the intent to return to my community in the state of Paraiba to try to help reduce inequality there. I returned as a schoolteacher, working in adult education. I worked alongside other women to create a group that discussed political issues related to gender, and from that group originated CENEP. I became the first woman elected to local office in the region, and I struggled to fight for more equality for women. I think today we still have similar struggles, and we need to continue fighting for more equality.”
The IAF has indeed seen real changes among community partners that have been effective in instilling changes in gender perceptions and gender inclusion. One good example has been the Comissão Pastoral da Terra do Rio Grande do Norte (CPT-RN), which works with community associations to introduce low-cost infrastructure for farming with limited water resources in western Rio Grande do Norte. The organization’s strong gender-focused training has mobilized women to be proactive in land reform in a region where most community activity historically was dominated by men.
Another participant at this year’s exchange, Maria Brigida, project coordinator for the Cooperativa dos Produtores Orgânicos e Biodinâmicos (Cooperbio) in Bahia, is all too familiar with working in male-dominated environments, a topic she addressed at one of the paneI discussions.
“I worked at Petrobras, and I was among very few women there at the time. We represented only 1% of the company’s staff,” she explained. “This unequal situation helped me understand the rural setting…[when] I decided to move to a rural area and landed on a coffee farm. It was [there] that I learned what patriarchy was.”
“At Cooperbio we have put up signs across the country that read: ‘What moves us is the collective,’” she continued. “However, it can be hard to understand the collective and the role that others have in the collective. We at Cooperbio have the goal of bringing more women into the cooperative, but it has been a real challenge. We started with training for women who work as coffee pickers. It empowered them to ask for better pay, but the people who paid them were their own husbands, and that did not fare well with them. This only shows the relevance of the work we still need to do to empower women. Women’s empowerment is hard when you have to break with a social structure that has been in place for over 300 years.”
Talk about community-led development!