Fight for equal pay promotes politicization in antidemocratic times, says researcher

To Biroli, advances in women's reproductive and sexual rights have to occur in parallel with other rights

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo (SP) |
Flávia Biroli has a PhD in History (Unicamp, 2003). She is an associate professor at the Political Science Institute of the University of Brasília and is a researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) - Anastácia Vaz/Secom UnB

The fight to decriminalize and regulate abortion shouldn’t be dissociated from general agendas, such as income, work and education. On the contrary, these are topics that, together, make obvious and explain the many layers of social vulnerability women cope with. 

Flávia Biroli, professor at the Political Science Institute of the University of Brasília (UnB), says the debate on abortion faces structural limitations due to capitalism and also to the current Brazilian political context. Despite these problems, the researcher states that these hindrances shouldn’t, under any circumstance, undermine the debate about the decriminalization of the planned termination of pregnancy.

“We need to talk about abortion. I know that these talks are difficult in a context in which this subject is often used to polarize society and the acceptance of the right to abortion in Brazil by its population remains low compared to neighboring countries,” said Biroli. 

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To the professor, advances in women's reproductive and sexual rights must occur in parallel with the development of other rights. “If there is no sex education in schools and adequate public policy programs that provide contraceptive options to prevent teenage pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), our girls and, above all, young girls living under vulnerable conditions will continue to face a really difficult situation from the point of view of getting a job, raising their kids and keeping some financial independence,” she added. “What kind of collectivity is that that punishes women?”. 

In the interview, Flávia Biroli also talks about the expectations with Lula’s third presidential mandate and the fundamental role of the world of work for women and its relation to many rights violations.

Read the full interview below:

Brasil de Fato: In an interview with the Humanitas Unisinos Institute, you mentioned that in countries under a “de-democratization” process, it can be seen a rise in attacks on feminist agendas. The Bolsonaro government in Brazil proves this. Now, with the Lula government, this scenario is expected to change, although under the contradictions of the Brazilian government, the rising neoconservatism and the limitations of the capitalist system. How do you think feminist agendas will be treated during the third Lula government?

Flávia Biroli: I think it’s important to remember that neoconservatism is an active reaction to the advances achieved in egalitarian and human rights agendas. It’s a reaction that combines the opposition to individual rights agendas – for instance, reproductive and sexual rights – and social rights agendas that aim to reduce inequality in society.  

Therefore, it’s not only from the structural side of capitalism that the current moment restricts the state's capacity in many ways. This is also because actions are being taken in several social and political spheres intended to stop egalitarian agendas and revert advances.

However, there is some room for political decisions amid this set of disadvantageous structural and political conditions under which we are. So, when we have a government like the Lula government number 3, which, since the beginning, resumes talks about the acknowledgement that these issues are not only legitimate but also crucial, the space for political decisions is already being used.  

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Of course, we need to expand this space and the conditions to act amid opposition, as well as to be part of the state and advance policies that require resources. 

As I understand it, the third Lula government acknowledges the importance of these agendas. It’s a government that, once again, bares in mind the perspective of social justice as an important element. It seems to be evident to them that there will be no social justice without considering women and gender/racial agendas.  

But it’s also a government that is facing a really difficult moment, both due to the structural limits of capitalism and the sexist state and due to very active opposition to these egalitarian agendas. This opposition is within the institutions.

And we have to understand that these groups learned how to do politics in the last years. Today, the far right is a reality in the country with which we have to deal. It’s not the same conservatism as there was before. It’s not the same Neoliberal vision. It’s an organized far right, with different ways to use anti-egalitarian policies in social and institutional spaces, such as the judiciary.

When listening to other sources and movements, it seems that there is a perspective that the Lula government will not be able to deal with agendas particularly related to women, such as the decriminalization of abortion. What proposals do you believe will be viable in this government? Could wage equality be one of these proposals?

Thinking about wage equality for women, it is a possible political entry in a context in which it’s necessary to establish and keep alliances, advance by conquering new sectors of society, a kind of “repolitization” that needs to be done to deal with an antipolitical and antidemocratic movement that has grown stronger in recent years.  

When we talk about wage equality and the recognition of women's work, we find a common point of transit between the feminist agenda of equality and the agenda of a social justice project. At the same time, we have to think about the limitations of an agenda like this.

Women's work is a sensitive subject, due to the distinct position women currently occupy compared to the past, especially in the 1970s. At that time, Brazilian women had an average of five to six children and a much lower educational level than they currently have. In addition, the diversity of jobs and presence in the labor market was much smaller.

Over 50 years later, women’s reality has changed a lot: they have fewer kids, have more advanced formal education with more years of schooling and, on average, a higher educational level than men. However, women still face inequalities such as earning about 25% less than their male counterparts, more difficulties getting a job and weaker social and pension protection. Furthermore, when they lose their jobs and have to return to work, they face difficulties reaching the same levels as men.

Work is an interesting topic because it cuts across the various facets that place women, particularly Black women, in vulnerable situations. How the work issue intertwines with the set of rights violations?

The work issue is fundamental to inequalities that go beyond the wage gap. They are part of women’s lives in society regardless of social class. Even when having the same job positions as men, women face problems in terms of reconciling paid and unpaid work, including care work. These problems become even worse for poor women, but they are common in different social segments.

In this context, it’s imperative to seek wage equality, as well as public policies that support caretaking activities and allow an equal distribution among men and women. There is this need for equal salaries, but there are also components that strongly depend on public policies that support caretaking activities, allowing the relationship between paid and unpaid work to be more adequate way for women.  

For instance, if we have an equal pay policy, punishing employers, but lack a policy focusing on providing daycare centers and integral education, we just scratch the problem of why women are paid less than men. This is because the salary gap issue is partially due to sexism. 

The world of work is conceived without considering the caretaking world, as if there wasn’t a world of unpaid work. But this world ends up on women’s shoulders. 

What policies, specifically, the government can implement from this perspective that intertwines work with other social issues?

If work is a central issue, what can we do for women? Equal pay, daycare centers working at times that meet women's work needs, integral education and rethink the labor legislation and working hours in ways that allow people to take care of each other.

These measures are part of a package because these things aren’t isolated in people’s lives. They gain importance when a law is sanctioned or a public policy is created. But in women’s lives, it comes all together: the working day that may or may not be reconciled with the daycare schedule, a daycare center that has a vacancy this year and in the next hasn’t, or an unemployment situation that prevents me from getting a new job because I have a kid and must take care of this kind at a time that does not allow me to look for a job. It keeps going.

That’s one of the sides of this issue. To be clear, I am in favor of starting by solving work problems to think about what happens with women, and facing women’s vulnerable conditions. So, I think it’s [equal pay] crucial and it’s a way that allows new legislation and policies more sensitive also to women’s inequalities, to their different experiences and the more intense vulnerability the poorest women face. 

This agenda is related to everything else. But what about those agendas more related to women, such as the decriminalization and regulation of abortion?

To me, the idea we will get to avoid those more conflicting agendas is romantic. We may not talk about them, but they emerge anyway. If we don’t guarantee reproductive and sexual rights to women, even the work agenda become quite weak. 

Today, in Latin America, we have very impressive data. We are the world’s region with the highest number of teenage pregnancies. Another fact is that the average age at which people get married and have children has increased a lot, but when we look at the educational and income segment, we see that among women with fewer years of formal education and lower wages, marriage and pregnancy are still happening at a very young age. It directly impacts their chances of getting a job.

There is another thing: it’s quite common that these women are the only ones responsible for their kids or the main ones responsible for them, which makes the conciliation of working and caretaking even harder. 

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Why am I saying that? If there is no sex education in schools and adequate public policy programs that provide contraceptive options to prevent teenage pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), our girls and, above all, young girls living under vulnerable conditions will continue to face a really difficult situation from the point of view of getting a job, raising their kids and keeping some financial independence,” she added. “What kind of collectivity is that that punishes women?”.

But sexual education in schools is a very complicated agenda because the neoconservatives from all over the country used it for electoral purposes in lying campaigns. Well, we need to face this problem. We need to explain to people that it benefits their kids, and that fighting not only teenage pregnancy but also homophobia in a realistic way is what will protect their children. To pretend these problems don’t exist won’t protect their kids. 

Public policies are made based on data and evidence. We think public policies so that people’s rights become stronger. Teenagers have the right to access information that allows them to experience their sexuality safely. We can’t be intimidated to the point of not discussing issues that impact people's lives directly.

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That’s also the case with abortion. The right to abortion is fundamental as part of women's civil rights. Without the right to abortion, reproductive rights are weak even if, for instance, there is a sexual education program and a public policy offering an adequate supply of contraceptives.

What kind of collectivity is that that punishes women? Women that, mostly (according to research) are mothers taking care of their kids and eventually get pregnant when they don’t want. When we advocate for the right to abortion, we are defending the physical and psychological integrity of women. An unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy in which, for instance, there is no possibility that the fetus has extrauterine life but the woman is forced to carry it out is equivalent to torture.

We need to talk about abortion. I know that these talks are difficult in a context in which this subject is often used to polarize society and the acceptance of the right to abortion in Brazil by its population remains low compared to neighboring countries. But, look, it wasn’t just in Uruguay and Argentina that there was a strong change [on this topic]. Also in Mexico and Colombia abortion was decriminalized because they reached a broad consensus, and articulations were built to achieve these decisions.

Historical data shows that Black women represent a significant part of the population dealing with social vulnerability. Based on this, how do you assess the Black women’s movement?

In my understanding, the Black women’s movement is the first to be heard and has to be central to all dialogs because they are the ones providing not only stories about their experiences and fundamental needs to comprehend what Brazilian women have been through, but also very advanced proposals related to debates on social justice and feminism. 

Why does it happen? Because racism and sexism are treated simultaneously and inseparably, as well as inequalities, injustice and class violence. That presents us with an agenda with the policies that are crucial to build and implement to effectively address the demands of the population and achieve social justice. 

It’s always very important to think about the discussion raised by Sueli Carneiro about maternity when she talks about the matriarchy of misery. It’s a perspective we must consider when debating maternity and the reproductive rights we still lack. If we look at reproductive rights alone, we are limited to individual rights and autonomy. So, there is a whole agenda of distributive justice and an agenda that concerns care relations and the role of women as mothers in their communities, which Black feminist movements have brought to the table in a very complex and challenging way.

How has the pandemic affected the situation of women in the labor market? 

In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, previous problems were aggravated and the ways in which care relations affect women and men became more apparent. From my point of view, the most important thing is to understand that women faced a harder situation and more vulnerabilities, since they already were the unpaid or low-paid caretakers of children, and elderlies and also worked as nurses. 

In the context of the pandemic, women – particularly Black women – had to take care of relatives and earn money amid a situation of worsening economic crisis. Among Black women, there are higher percentages of answers indicating that they were not able to seek a job due to caretaking activities at home. 

The pandemic brings the care agenda to the fore and shows us that social and racial inequalities also have to do with the fact that we [women] have to care for and receive care. This issue persists and we have to address it if we want to achieve social justice and build a better country for those facing more vulnerable conditions. The feminist movements, particularly those led by Black women, treat this issue as crucial.

I think we can end the interview by saying that, today, feminism is a group of heterogeneous and diverse movements and agendas. However, these movements and agendas have strong attention to building a better world for all people. This includes identifying fundamental problems in our society – such as care and violence – and proposing solutions to face society's challenges. 

Edited by: Thalita Pires e Flávia Chacon