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How Does Brazilian Law See Women?

Paula Tavares's picture
Also available in: Portuguese

Fish farmers in Jatobá, Northeastern Brazil

From a strictly legal standpoint, men and women are almost fully equal in Brazil. This notion, however, clashes with the realities of daily life - only women know what it feels like to be paid less for equal work or to fear harassment in the streets. A comparison between Brazil's legislation and that of other countries is just as jarring, especially considering how long it took for laws to change in Brazil and other countries.
 
Our analysis - as part of my experience working with Women, Business and the Law - yields surprising results. To learn more about how the law views women in Brazil, here are some facts about recent advances and opportunities for further progress.
 
Until 1988, only men were regarded as heads of households
Despite Brazil's ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination in 1984, certain discriminatory provisions in the Civil Code remained in effect until the 1988 Constitution. Until then, only men could be considered heads of households; they were also in charge of managing the home and the marital assets.
 
18 is the legal marriageable age for girls, but...
Even though Brazil sets the legal marriageable age for women at 18 years and provides for the annulment of child marriages, the law allows girls to marry at 16 with parental consent. The law also allows for marriage at any age if the girl is pregnant. As a result, Brazil boasts the highest number of child marriages in South America and the fourth highest in the world. Additionally, 36% of girls in Brazil are married by the time they are 18. The data is part of the report Closing the Gap: Improving Laws Protecting Women from Violence. It is also worth noting that 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries impose sanctions on those who authorize early marriages, but Brazil is not among them.
 
Brazil has no laws against sexual harassment in schools and public places
Did you know that Brazil's legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace is quite comprehensive? In contrast, when we look at specific provisions against sexual harassment in the streets, in public transportation and other public spaces, we find no such laws. The same applies to schools, where girls and women should feel protected; however, sexual harassment persists as a result of hierarchy and power.
 
The law does not mandate equal pay for equal work
Brazil prohibits gender discrimination in hiring, but issues remain, including the wage gap and whether prospective employers may ask about a woman's marital status when hiring her. One interesting point: women may perform nearly all the same jobs as men (even tasks considered arduous or dangerous), except for jobs that require heavy lifting. The Consolidation of Labor Laws prohibits the employment of women for tasks requiring muscle strength in excess of 20kg for continuous work or 25kg for occasional work. Interestingly, this is the average weight of a 5-year-old child. One is left to wonder, then, whether this means similar laws should be passed to keep mothers from carrying their children.
 
Working mothers remain the primary caregivers to their children
In Brazil, mothers are entitled to maternity leave for a maximum of six months; paternity leave spans only 20 days. The Nordic countries, Portugal and a few others have begun to consider that the right to leave should be shared by both parents. They treat it as parental leave, which is usually longer term. This is to ensure that child-rearing responsibilities are shared by both parents, so women may go back to work, have free time for themselves, etc. Interestingly, this also affects hiring opportunities for women. When faced with two young candidates - a man and a woman, both young enough to start a family - employers (especially small business owners) usually assume that the woman would pose the additional burden of maternity, whereas the man would not. However, when parental leave is shared the paradigm shifts, and even the burden of child rearing, taken into account at the time of hiring, is then shared by both parents.
 
Women can achieve greater representation in politics
Quotas are one of the topics examined in Women, Business and the Law. As an example, at least 30% of all candidates backed by political parties in Brazil must be women, but there is no de facto quota of female representation in parliaments or corporate executive boards. These quotas exist as affirmative actions in 40% of surveyed countries. While some studies and points may be controversial, quotas effectively promote greater participation by women. We believe that the law initially serves to shape behavior and bring about a paradigm shift and is then assimilated by society. When this happens, quotas may even be removed, as society's outlook on the issue will have fundamentally shifted and evolved.
 
One last point: awareness-raising initiatives and changes in education are just as important as changes in legislation. Laws are meant to regulate relations, institutions and social processes, but they must be accompanied by effective implementation and awareness-raising mechanisms if they are to reach a broader scale. This applies to all laws, including those meant to expand the economic opportunities available to women.