October 28, when Brazil went to the polls, the country took a hard right turn by voting for Jair Bolsonaro for president, a 63-year-old former paratrooper who made misogyny and xenophobia a bedrock of his campaign. Bolsonaro also praised Brazil’s past dictators, advocated for torture, and regularly maligned the country’s aboriginal, black, and LGBTQ+ communities.
The groups Bolsonaro disparaged during his campaign are now bracing for rough years ahead under his administration. This is especially true of Brazil’s historically marginalized black women, who make up more than a quarter of the country’s population but whose political representation is alarmingly low.
While many Americans are celebrating the recent midterm election of a record-breaking 102 women to the U.S. House of Representatives — including the first Native American, Muslim, and openly LGBTQ+ officials — in Brazil, the political landscape for black women is looking bleak.
Against this landscape stands Kátia Trindade, who had hoped to change that with a run for a seat in Brazil’s Lower House.
Most people walk by Kátia Trindade, a flyer in her outstretched hand, with an automatic “no thank you.” She smiles, thanks them for their time, and moves on to the next person who she hopes is interested in hearing her proposals for bettering São Paulo’s healthcare, education, and access to public daycare as a federal deputy in Brazil’s Lower House.
“When I’m out campaigning, it’s my color that speaks first,” Trindade says. “It’s hard for people to register that a black woman could be running for Congress.”
While all women are underrepresented in Brazil’s Congress — currently they comprise just 9.9 percent and 18.5 percent of the Lower and Upper Houses, respectively — black women are underrepresented at an alarming rate.
According to The Umunna Network, a grassroots organization that promotes the presence of black women in institutional politics, black women make up over 27 percent of Brazil’s population, but comprise just 1.9 percent of the country’s Lower House, known as the Chamber of Deputies. Representation is also lagging in the Senate, but is slightly better at 3.7 percent.
When Brazilians went to the polls, there was hope among the country’s many minority groups that representation would improve, but of the 54 senators elected that day, just seven are women. Only one of the seven registered herself as parda, or belonging to more than one race. The incoming Lower House is slightly more diverse, now with 77 of 513 lawmakers, or 15 percent, identifying as women. Of those, 13 identify as black, a slight boost to 2.5 percent.
This change may be slight, but in a country that just elected an extremely polarizing — some say fascist — president, it is noticeable.
Despite making up more than half the population, black Brazilians have long been left out of politics, a legacy of the country’s history of colonialism and slavery that has also forced them to refute their identity. “The thought was that everybody [in Brazil] was just mixed. You couldn’t have a voice as a black person. It was a national paradigm,” says Flávia Rios, a sociology professor at Federal Fluminense University in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. “We were taught to deny our blackness and to try to pass as white as much as possible. So it has been a long process to reconstruct our identities as black people with black voices.”
With the rise of Bolsonaro’s popularity, along with the recent murder of Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco — a black bisexual woman who defended the city’s marginalized communities and stood up for human rights before she was shot dead in March alongside her driver for what police say were politically motivated reasons — have become catalysts for many black women to run for office.
Just hours before Franco was killed, five women had launched Black Women Decide, an online campaign that uses data to draw attention to the fact that black women are sorely underrepresented in institutional politics. They believe that educating the public will help turn the situation around.
“Black women do run for office, and almost as often as white women, but they aren’t given the support they need to win,” says Ana Carolina Lourenço, Rede Umunna’s political coordinator. “Political parties in Brazil are almost always run by men. What we need to improve is black women’s ability to be elected. They’re here, they’re qualified and they’re viable candidates. We need our political system, and especially their parties, to see that too.”
Trindade, a longtime public servant in the city of Itapecerica’s culture sector and an active member of several groups fighting for racial equality, ran for Congress as a member of the progressive left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), well known for backing both black candidates and women who run for office. Half of its 10 members of the Lower House elected this year are women, and two of those women are black. Despite PSOL’s moral support of her candidacy — they’ve been with her every step of the way, she says, even though a win was a long shot — the financial support provided by the party wasn’t enough. Trindade lost her bid to be one of São Paulo’s 70 representatives in the Chamber of Deputies.
Despite having lost in October’s election, Trindade continues her fight for the rights of black women, which she has become more concerned about since Bolsonaro’s election. Trindade worries about the possible loss of labor rights that could come with the president elect’s plan to do away with Brazil’s Ministry of Labor. She is also concerned that important issues like femicide, (gender-based murder) of which Brazil has the fifth highest rate in the world, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of abortion will be forgotten.
“I may not have won the election, but I can still be a voice for my community,” Trindade says. “The election of Jair Bolsonaro is a regression, but my journey continues and our resistance for our rights and freedoms persists.”
While the number of women candidates in general has increased since the Quota Law was implemented in Brazil in 2009, requiring at least 30 percent of each political party’s candidates to be women, eligibility barriers for black women like Trindade haven’t budged. Flávia Rios says part of the problem is that many parties meet the quota as a symbolic gesture, but don’t throw their weight behind the candidates, leaving them without the moral and financial support required to win.
“The strongest institutional barriers for black women are within political parties, because they are the ones who, internally, decide who are the most viable candidates, which ones should be given party support, and who will be given the most political and economic capital,” Rios says. “The distribution of parties’ economic resources is completely lopsided, favoring candidates who already have power, who are men, and who are white.”
Trindade says PSOL gave her 7,000 reais (US$1,825) to run her campaign, barely enough to cover the printing cost of her flyers. She estimates somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 reais would have allowed her to run her campaign comfortably.
While political parties in Brazil now have to funnel at least 30 percent of funding to women candidates’ campaigns, PSOL went one small step further and earmarked at least 5 percent of its electoral fund to black candidates, which made up 37 percent of all candidates who ran for election with the party.
Trindade doesn’t plan on waiting for the next federal election to run for office again. Municipal elections are set to take place in Itapecerica in 2020 and she wants to run for city council. She’s optimistic that she can still make a difference in her community on the municipal level, despite the uphill battle she knows she’ll continue to face now that Brazil’s political ideology has shifted to the far right and away from issues she discussed during her campaign. That about-face in her country’s political makeup is also the reason she knows her voice is more important than ever.