The final scene of episode two of docuseries Fundamental shows Brazilian human-rights activist Lucia Xavier walking through a cemetery. Solemnly roaming through a field of tombstones and floral tributes, Xavier notes that some of the graves belong to the “activists and women who fought for their rights, and mothers who have died.” In Brazil, being a feminist — especially a black feminist — can cost you your life.
The threat of dying for freedom is one fellow activist Daniele Duarte knows well. In the 16-minute short film, Duarte explains that as a black woman and a lesbian she’s constantly at odds with her country’s archaic institutions. Abortion is illegal in Brazil, a deeply religious country, where most citizens are either Catholic or Evangelical Christians. Only wealthy women have access to clinics that perform safe illegal abortions, Duarte says in the doc. Reproductive health care is basically nonexistent if you are poor, and if you are poor and black, you’re even more vulnerable. “Today we know that black women are the most-affected by the lack of these rights,” Duarte says.
Brazil is still dealing with its legacy of slavery and treatment of its black population. Despite being one of the most diverse countries in the world and the majority of people identifying as black or mixed race, black Brazillians earn 44 % less than whites, who hold an overwhelming majority of positions of power in the workplace. The healthcare gap for black women is staggering. Unsafe illegal abortions are the third main cause of death among pregnant black women in Brazil. Overall, one in five women under the age of 40 has terminated a pregnancy, with half of these abortions resulting in hospitalisation due to complications. Since abortion is criminalised with a penalty of up to three years in prison, women are being incarcerated at alarming rates.
The fight to dismantle these harmful laws can be fatal. Marielle Franco was a 38-year-old black, queer city councillor as well as an outspoken anti-racism and pro-choice activist before being shot and killed in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. Many called Franco's murder a targeted hate crime, and her death sparked protests and cries from activists like Duarte and Xavier for Brazil to do something about its societal treatment of black women. “Black women have low social representation,” Xavier says in the film. “They have low influence in the policies that can bring them benefits.” Despite this oppression, Duarte says black women in Brazil are resilient. “Black women have been resisting for years and we will continue the struggle and keep resisting these attacks.”
After Franco’s death, Brazilian women took to the streets to protest for their rights, and also to rally against a racist, misogynist political figure looming over their country. Sound familiar? When the documentary was shot, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was running for president of Brazil and his similarities to Donald Trump were glaring. While campaigning for president, Bolsonaro said things like, “I’d never rape you because you’re not worthy of it.” And a video in the doc shows him telling a woman, “I’ll give you a good beating.” Duarte called Bolsonaro's campaign “chauvinist, homophobic, and racist.” He was elected in October 2018. “When a person like that becomes a celebrity, he allows other people to impede upon the rights of those who are different,” says Duarte. Bolsonaro's presidency has left activists reeling. "Seeing the closing of essential services and the changes in legislation designed for the population — especially for women and black people — brought us despair but at the same time an opportunity to join efforts in different fields," Xavier tells Refinery29.
Xavier and Duarte are just two of many black women standing up to systemic patriarchal racism that permeates through Brazil. Their stories are told in Fundamental, a series of short films by YouTube Originals and Global Fund for Women, that speaks directly to the women around the world leading movements against governmental threats of conservatism and repression. As a passionate protester says in the film: “Black lives and women’s lives matter here as well as anywhere in the world.”
To learn more about one of the organisations combating gender inequality and supporting women activists in Brazil and around the world, visit Global Fund for Women.
Watch the full episode on March 11.