For the first time in the history of Brazil, tens of thousands of women are competing against men for political office. On Oct. 3, an estimated 75,000 women will join half-a-million male candidates vying to become mayors and members of city councils.
The surge in women political candidates is the result of a new quota law that requires at least 20 percent of the candidates of each political party to be women. The law was pushed through Brazil's Congress last year by women legislators known here as the "lipstick lobby."
"Unfortunately, both men and women see politics as a male domain," says Congresswoman Sandra Starling. "We hope the quota law will change that mentality and spark a cultural revolution."
Although women make up 52 percent of Brazil's 155 million inhabitants, few hold office. Currently, only six senators are women out of 81, 34 deputies (Brazil's lower house) out of 513, and a scant 171 mayors out of 4,973. And just 3.5 percent of 55,000 city council members nationwide are women.
The quota law has been accompanied by a government-sponsored television and radio campaign appealing for women candidates, two-day seminars on how to run for office, and the distribution of thousands of handbooks entitled "Women Without Fear of Power: Our Time Has Come." The booklets tell how to organize a campaign committee, raise money, and develop effective campaign literature.
Critics of the quota raise the same arguments used in the United States against affirmative action, chiefly that quotas will force political parties to run unqualified candidates.
"It's an attempt to compensate for inequalities not by merit or competence but by discrimination," says a recent editorial in the daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
"It's not an issue of competence, but of opportunity," counters Congresswoman Starling. "Are all men competent who are running for office?"
"It's positive discrimination," adds Jnia Marise, the nation's first elected female senator. "Don't forget, it's the voters who have the last word."
Women leaders in Brazil point to countries where quotas have increased the political power of women. In India, a 1993 amendment to the Constitution ensures women hold a third of the seats in local councils, and an estimated 800,000 women have won elections. In Brazil's neighbor, Argentina, a 1991 law reserves for women 30 percent of each political party's slate of candidates. Since it was enacted, female representatives in Argentina's congress have soared from seven to 70.
Virgnia Figueiredo says the quota law has given her a chance to seek a seat on the Rio de Janeiro City Council. "Since my party [the Workers Party] needed at least 10 female candidates, it opened up a slot for me," she says.
In 1994, only 868 women out of 12,800 candidates ran in the general election. Now, women are competing in important mayoral races, including state capitals such as Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Vitoria, Florianpolis, Fortaleza, and Porto Alegre, which has three women candidates.
But some say party leaders still are not bothering to help women candidates by offering day care for their children or providing them with sufficient funds for campaign expenses. "In the morning, I take care of my children and shop," says Terezinha Brandolini, who is running for the city council of Qurapari, a small town in Esprito Santo state. "In the afternoon, I go out to fight [the election]."
To overcome these challenges, the "Women Without Fear of Power" booklet recommends forging alliances with other female candidates regardless of party affiliation and running on a "one for all and all for one" platform that emphasizes issues such as family planning, equal pay, abortion rights (abortion is illegal in Brazil), and day care.
"The participation of women in politics will help get these questions, which are rarely considered important, incorporated into municipal agendas," the handbook says.
Congresswoman Marta Suplicy, who wrote the quota bill, has introduced an amendment that would raise the quota to 30 percent. She hopes it will be approved later this year and implemented in the 1998 general elections. "Within 10 years, we should see a woman run for president," she says. "I for one, wouldn't rule it out."
Laws granting women equal rights have been slow to emerge in Brazil, helping to keep women off the political stage. It wasn't until 1988 that a new constitution annulled the right of husbands to prohibit their wives from accepting employment.
Two years later, Ms. Marise became Brazil's first elected female senator. In 1994, Roseana Sarney, the daughter of ex-President Jos Sarney, became the nation's first and only elected governor when she won the gubernatorial election in the state of Maranhao. No woman has ever sat on the Brazilian Supreme Court or run for president, and women occupy only 13.1 percent of all political posts.