Making rights real

Transforming women’s lives in north-eastern Brazil

Cristina Buarque, former State Secretary for Women’s Policies, Pernambuco, watches women from the Chapeu de Palha Mulher programme fish for shrimp in the River Goiana
Photo: UN Women/Lianne Milton

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“The patriarchal `machista’ culture infantilized the women. We wanted them to know they had other options”

When Maria Jose Pereira was growing up in the rural town of Escada, her father’s tools were off limits.

“Everyone in my house worked in construction. My father and brothers were all stonemasons,” Maria says. “I wanted to work with them, but they said I couldn’t because I was a woman.”

Thanks to a groundbreaking government initiative, Maria has now proven her family wrong. Not only is she a licensed stonemason, she is also a plumber and electrician.

Chapéu de Palha Mulher, which is derived from ‘straw hat’ in Portuguese, is a social inclusion programme that provides professional training for women living in poor rural communities in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco. Launched in 2007, the programme was created by the state’s Secretariat for Women’s Policies in order to provide alternatives for female sugarcane farmers during the off-harvest months.

“Most of these women did not choose to work in the plantations, they usually went with their husbands or fathers,” Cristina Buarque, who led the Secretariat until late 2014, says. “This patriarchal ‘machista’ culture infantilized them. We wanted them to know they had other options.”

According to Cristina, women working in the fields were not provided with the same training or compensation as their male counterparts. They were often victims of discrimination, verbal and physical assault and domestic violence.

For Maria, who worked in the fields for five years, the job was draining.

“It was very difficult. I would spend twelve hours under the hot sun picking sugarcane with my hands full of blisters,” she recalls. “After that, I would come home and have to clean and cook for my husband and kids.”

Photo: UN Women/Lianne Milton

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Maracatu de baque is an Afro-Indigenous dance typically performed by all men, but women in Pernambuco formed the first and only all-female group to perform the dance
Photo: UN Women/Lianne Milton

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“The people working on the ground were in the local women’s organizations. We knew their participation was crucial”

Chapéu de Palha Mulher provides women with a mandatory three month course in public policy, and a small monthly stipend and childcare to support their participation. The course, taught by feminist trainers, teaches women about rights and citizenship, covering topics such as the history of slavery; the struggle of women, black and indigenous people for equality; gender stereotypes; and the government’s human rights commitments under the Constitution. Once the participants complete this stage, they choose a professional training course, often opting to develop skills for traditionally male-oriented jobs.

“The course is a key component to Chapéu de Palha Mulher,” Cristina explains. “We needed these women to understand how their local government works and what their rights as individuals are in order to train better professionals and better citizens.”

Cristina was instrumental in designing the Chapéu de Palha Mulher programme. She was handpicked in 2007 by the late former governor Eduardo Campos to lead the Secretariat for Women’s Policies.

“I wasn’t a politician, I came from an academic research background,” Cristina says. “When I was approached to do this work, I knew this was an opportunity to bring the work I was a passionate about to a larger scale.”

When she joined the state government, Cristina was the only woman serving among 24 other secretaries. Through Chapéu de Palha Mulher, she integrated the work of different departments and more than 40 women’s organizations, helping to strengthen the relationship between the government and civil society.

“We wanted the women to learn how to take better care of their bodies, so we called upon the health secretariat. We wanted them to learn how to read and write, so we called on the education secretariat,” Cristina says. “However, the people working on the ground were in the local women’s organizations. We knew their participation was crucial.”

In addition to learning new skills, the programme brought women together. Many, like Angela, who chose to identify herself by first name only, found a sense of community within the classroom.

“My husband would beat me constantly,” Angela says, who escaped her abusive marriage. “I never had anyone to turn to. Now I know I can count on these women.”

Nearly 100,000 women have participated in the programme since 2007, which has expanded to 89 municipalities in Pernambuco to include rural women working in fruit plantations and artisanal fishing. There are also plans to open a school in the town of Pesqueira, where courses will be offered year-round.

Cristina resigned from the Secretariat last August shortly after a fatal plane crash killed presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, the former governor who first appointed her to office.

“I’m proud of the work I did in the secretariat, but it was time for me to move on,” Cristina says. She is hopeful that the work will be continued under the new governor, Paulo Câmara and the new Secretaria da Mulher, Silvia Cordeiro. Silvia comes to the Secretariat having led one of the local women’s organizations that has been so instrumental to the programme’s success.

Back in the sleepy town of Escada, Maria examines the water valve she recently installed in her shower. Her home has become the canvas on which she practices the skills she learned in Chapéu de Palha Mulher.

“We were having problems with the electricity, so I fixed it,” Maria says. “I also worked on the plumbing. My next project will be laying down ceramic tile in the kitchen and bathroom.”

She has also begun remodeling a neighbour’s home with one of her Chapéu de Palha Mulher classmates.

“I love looking at the repairs in my house and other jobs and knowing that I am the one who did them,” Maria says, as she opens the faucet in the kitchen and lets the water run. “I am the one who fixed this, I did this with my own two hands.”

Story: Flora Charner. For more information on Chapeu de Palha Mulher see Cornwall 2015, 2012 and A Quiet Revolution (