Latin America & Caribbean

Brazil local elections push women to the fore

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, at Women's Right Conference at Rio+20
Image caption President Dilma Rousseff was elected Brazil's first female president in 2010

Brazilian voters head to the polls on Sunday to elect councillors and mayors in more than 5,500 towns and cities. This year a law was passed requiring parties to ensure 30% of their overall candidates are women but the political battle for female politicians is far from over.

When Regina Ramos da Silva decided to run for mayor in the town of Joaquim Pires, she was surprised to find her opponent was another woman.

"After I announced my candidacy, the opposition party also chose a woman," says Ms Ramos, 43, who belongs to Brazil's Workers' Party (PT).

"I guess it is because having a female mayor is something unprecedented. And everyone likes something new."

Joaquim Pires, with a population of some 13,000, is typical of many small towns in Brazil's north-east, with cobbled streets, and small shops and a church on its main square.

The problems that the new mayor will have to face include high unemployment among young people, which has prompted many to leave the area.

Others in the community rely on state welfare programmes such as the Bolsa Familia or Family Grant to supplement low incomes.

New choices

The problems and challenges of Joaquim Pires are found in other parts of Brazil.

Image caption Regina Ramos da Silva is one of nearly 2,000 female mayoral candidates

And its all-female election line-up is echoed elsewhere too.

In at least 45 towns, only women are running for mayor, up from 32 in the last election in 2008.

It illustrates a new scenario in Brazilian politics: female participation in municipal elections has risen 85% since the 2008 election.

With Brazil marking 80 years since women were given the vote, two reasons seem to be behind the increase in female participation.

The first is a new gender quota law for party candidates, and the second, the 2010 election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president.

The new legislation, which came into effect this year, forces political parties to ensure that 30% of candidates are women.

"In an ideal world we would have gender equality," says Jose Eustaquio Diniz Alves, a social research professor at the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

"But faced with the small number of female candidates, the change in the law represents progress, which is important, even it is limited."

The election of President Rousseff has also changed perceptions, some candidates say.

"Women were emboldened by her victory and society started to see us in another way," says Jalmira Silva Ghanem, 52, from a centre-left coalition, who is running for mayor in Montividiu.

With a population of 10,000, this town in the central state of Goias is surrounded by soy and sugarcane crops. It depends heavily on agriculture for its economy.

Yet in an area where men have traditionally dominated political campaigns, the other two candidates for mayor are also women.

Political scientist Milton Lahuerta, head of the department of Politics and Government at Unesp University, says the process of change began much earlier than the election of President Rousseff.

"The growing confidence of women in Brazil, that began with the cultural revolution in the 1970s, is already happening in other areas like the job market and is now arriving in the political world," he says.

Electoral machines

The election races in Montividiu and Joaquim Pires are good examples of the involvement of women in politics, as research shows women are more likely to win in small towns rather than in big urban areas.

"In big cities the competition is always tougher and men are usually in the top posts in the political parties," says Prof Eustaquio.

"In smaller towns, the competition is not as tough, so the personality of the candidates is much more important. Also, women are more likely to be elected there as they do not depend so much on the electoral machine to win.

Image caption Mayoral candidate Jalmira Silva Ghanem says President Dilma Rousseff has been an inspiration

Family tradition means a lot in north-eastern Brazil, he adds.

"A family that has been in power for a long time might choose a woman to run."

But if prejudice does not affect the choice of a candidate, it is still present during women's political careers.

"No one says anything, but I see the way they look at me, as if we were less efficient or less relevant," says Regina Ramos da Silva in Joaquim Pires.

For Debora Pedroso, 47, who is running for mayor in Montividiu as the Labour Party (PTB) candidate, the prejudice comes from the political class rather than the public in general.

"When I began working as a city councillor, almost eight years ago, I felt that my colleagues were against me," says Ms Pedroso, who was previously deputy mayor in the town.

"But I kept winning them over, and by doing that I reached a point of acceptance that they even choose me to be president of the council."

Times are changing but Brazil's women politicians know they can point to a powerful example at the head of the country to say that no job should be ruled out.

More on this story