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J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574

DOI 10.1007/s10826-011-9504-x


Families, Gender Relations and Social Change in Brazil:

Practices, Discourse, Policy
Miriam Adelman Mariana Correa de Azevedo

Published online: 13 May 2011

 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Abstract We discuss three different areas in which poli- Keywords Family  Family policy  Gender relations 
cies on gender and the family have been debated and for- Brazilian society
mulated in Brazil, revealing both the forces of change and
the many contradictions that are at work within this society
today. After a brief look at the historical vicissitudes of Introduction
families and family life in Brazil, as representations and as
forms of social organization, we come to our more imme- In Brazil as in many other parts of the modern Western
diate context: the re-democratization processes that engulfed world there has been ample reference to a current and
Brazilian society as of the 1980s and the social actors gen- ongoing crisis of the family, rooted in the social and
erated therein. Issues relating to gender and sexuality cultural changes of the late twentieth century and inter-
become increasingly visible on the broad political agenda preted in a wide variety of ways, drawing from different
that, notwithstanding national specificities, also converges symbolic repertoires. Thus, while some portray the fabric
with social, political and cultural trends emerging all over of family life and conflicts through recourse to metaphors
the world in the latter decades of the twentieth century. The of loss and disintegration, others emphasize democratiza-
three specific issues we discuss herethe Maria da Penha tion and new forms of sociability or innovation in
Law on domestic violence, efforts regarding the legalization practice, values and understanding.
of abortion and recent debates that have emerged around a Yet as a Latin American nation occupying a particular
bill introduced to give legal status to same-sex relation- location within the processes that shape modernity and
shipsprovide testimony of a society characterized by modern imaginariesa location that has in fact been marked
tensions between mechanisms sustaining restrictive defini- as Other, and oft-rendered in the mystifying terms of the
tions of family, linked to male dominance, heterosexism and hyper-sexual or hyper-sensual, as carnival, tropical para-
hierarchical gender roles, and those that push toward more dise (Nao existe pecado do lado de baixo do equador or
egalitarian, diverse and democratic family relations. South of the equator, nothing is sinful, as songwriter
Chico Buarque translated this into Brazilian mass culture), a
few initial paragraphs of contextualization are necessary.
As our article goes to press, the Brazilian Supreme Court has just We attempt to summarize some key debates in studies on the
made a landmark legal decision recognizing that gay and lesbian
couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples. This has
family in Brazil, addressing the question of whether or to
numerous ramifications on specific matters such as marriage and what extent the specificities of Brazilian family culture
adoption, but must still be ratified by congress. (Machado 2001; Scott 2004) produce convergence or
divergence from contemporary trends portrayed in socio-
M. Adelman (&)  M. Correa de Azevedo
logical literature; particularly, the growing democratization
Department of Social Sciences, Universidade Federal do Parana,
Rua General Carneiro 460, Curitiba, Parana 80060-150, Brazil of intimacy and family life identified by authors such as
e-mail: Giddens (1993) and Weeks (2007). We then look at current
M. Correa de Azevedo trends and contradictions in family life as they are expressed
e-mail: and exemplified in the arena of family policy in Brazil today.

66 J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574

Family in Brazilian Society patriarchal household and to malefemale relations in

spaces/places outside the latter, such as the brothel (Rago
Historians of Brazil have written widely on the patriarchal 2008) and the factory (Rago 1985). Our own work has
family form that emerged in the colonial period and had a suggested a re-reading of the concept of the cordial man
formative influence on many aspects of Brazilian society through the prism of Sedgwicks concept of homosocia-
and culture. Among the most famous are the narratives of bility (Adelman and Moraes 2008). Fonseca (1993, 2003)
scholars Freyre (2006) and Buarque de Hollanda (1995), has written widely on family and gender in poor and
emphasizing questions such as the racial mixing resulting working class communities and how their patterns of
from patriarchal slavocrats relationships with Black and sociability and reciprocity embody forms that have very
indigenous women, often taken as concubines, and the little to do with the modern (bourgeois) nuclear family
genesis of peculiar sociabilities, including rather sui model.
generis forms of extended family and a culture of cor- Vaitsman (1994) is a contemporary scholar interested in
diality in which people who are not social equals mingle looking at the specific ways in which modernizing pro-
and relate. Furthermore, this form of family is generally cesses unfold in Brazil and how they lead to the transfor-
understood to have left greater imprints on popular classes mation of gender relations and family life. Emphasizing
and social elites, whereas the growing urban middle classes womens increased participation in education and work
are seen as more prone to embracing the individualizing from the mid twentieth century onwards, she argued that it
values promoted by modernity. It is in light of this legacy created spaces for life projects that challenged patriarchal
that Machado has suggested the co-existence of two (nei- individualism and broke up gendered public/private
ther clearly oppositional nor easily complementary) codes dichotomies (Vaitsman 1994, p. 188, our translation). Yet
that shoot through Brazilian society, one that is rela- twentieth century Brazilian history is also heavily marked
tional and the other, individualist. Thus, there seems to by authoritarian political regimes, such as President
be some agreement (Machado 2001; Scott 2004) around Getulio Vargas national developmentalist New State
the idea that there always been a degree of ambivalence which curtailed social freedoms, promoted censorship and
within Brazilian modes of individualism, and the model of highly conservative patriarchal values and persecuted
the nuclear family that has been so apparently hege- opposition. Nonetheless, certain aspects of changing gen-
monicas norm if not in terms of actual social arrange- der and family relations did not come to a halt, but rather
mentswithin other modern cultures has never prevailed strained in a different direction. Thus, Vaitsman stressed
clearly over other models and options individualist influ- the importance of access to higher education: For women,
ences make themselves felt, but come to fruition under the role of education, and for [young women and men
conditions and context that are can be characterized by alike], participation in university-based activities at the end
some fundamental differences with northern European and of the 1960s, in which authoritarianism was challenged
Euro-American cultures: politically and culturally, were decisive elements in pro-
moting change in womens and mens identities, making its
On the one hand, neither in Brazil nor in the Hispano-
imprint on affective and sexual behavior (Vaitsman 1994,
American nations was a Welfare State created nor
p. 188, our translation).
were citizenship rights extended over the general
The accelerated urbanization, industrialization and eco-
population, as occurred, following different paths,
nomic growth of the 1970s led to renewed social crises that
throughout the developed Western world. On the
could no longer be held in check or camouflaged by the
other hand, the Ibero-American cultural paradigm
military dictatorship that had been spawned during the
that informs the social construction of forms of
1960s. Furthermore, the decade of the 1970s was also the
family, sociability and the notion of the individual
period in which the Brazilian urban middle class was con-
has strong historical roots in a Catholicism inflected
solidated. If in Europe and the United States, the oft-
with Arab influence. It also stands at quite a distance
mythologized generation of 1968 was busy inventing a
from the Lutheran-Calvinist cultural paradigm that
new political language and culture that emphasized ques-
prevails in the Anglo-Saxon world and extends its
tions of identity and difference, in Brazil, political struggles
influence, to different degrees, over continental Eur-
were articulated, most urgently, as the fight against the
ope, particularly its non-Latin countries. (Machado
military regime. Yet as significant as these particular con-
2001, p. 13)
texts may be, in one part of the world and the other, there was
Feminist scholars have applied a gender lens to these an identifiable tendency to move away from the large scale
processes, bringing out important dimensions neglected by political projects of the Old Left and toward the emer-
the mainstream literature. Ragos intersectional perspective gence of new social movements linked to new(ly visible)
has shed light on different womens relationship to the social subjects and their specific claims for social change.

J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574 67

Second wave feminism, in Brazil, as elsewhere, was thus greatest impelling force in this regard was the Statute
born of a context of broad and varied social struggles, yet of the Married Woman (Law 4.121 dated 27/08/
marked by particular difficulties emerging from a climate of 1962), in which wives are no longer considered rel-
repression and censorship. Its first clear manifestations may atively incapable and come to be seen as collaborat-
be seen in the publication of several periodicals addressing ing with their husbands in managing conjugal society.
feminist issues, in 1974. Scholars who have studied the The 1988 [post-dictatorship] Constitution finally
struggles for re-democratization that take on greater force in pronounces equality between men and women [hus-
Brazil during the 1980s have also noted that while poor and bands and wives] (p. 1).
working class women were at often the forefront of rural
Social movements that consciously articulated egalitar-
and urban resistance to the dictatorship and demands for
ian expectations, as well as the vicissitudes and contradic-
civil and social rights, the birth of a feminist perspective
tions of culture in a highly mediated and globalized
that was able to articulate womens demands in terms of
context, also helped to thrust Brazilian family forms in the
contemporary forms of gender politics and consciousness
world-wide post-modern direction of growing heteroge-
depended on the contribution of middle class intellectual
neity: in marriage and family patterns and peoples ideas
women many of whom were at the time returning from
about how they want to live their adult lives. Thus, Vaits-
years of exile in Europe and the United States, where they
man was able to assert that the alleged crisis of the family
had grown to appreciate the need for autonomous womens
that has received attention in Brazil and elsewhere is, above
organization and developed a commitment to feminist
and beyond all else, the result of the questioning of gender
theory and practice (Goldenberg and Toscano 1992).
roles, creating new models for the way people establish
Today, as Brazil swears in its first woman president
their ties to relatives, children and partners. In practice, this
(someone, in fact, who began her political life as a cou-
has been manifested through dissociation of sexuality and
rageous young woman who put her body and life on the
procreation, the burgeoning of diverse sexual practices and
front line in the struggle against the military regime) and
desires encompassing youth and adults at different stages in
feminism boasts several decades of recognized participa-
the life cycle, the increasing instability of households
tion in public life, from universities and trade unions to
forged around (heterosexual) marriage (separation and
NGOs and the ranks of the State itself, the challenge that
divorce have been on the rise for decades, but have been
changing gender relations make on the evolution of family
coupled with remarriage and cohabitation, and blended
patterns is all the more undeniable. Landmark legal chan-
families), and numerous other forms in which the increas-
ges of the post-dictatorship period consolidated womens
ingly, openly recognized conflicts between individual
political rights and (finally!) put an end to longstanding
aspirations and traditional, gender-based family roles are
patriarchal tutelage over wives and daughters that Freitas
(re)negotiated. Plurality and flexibility are on the order of
(2010) has so well summarized:
the day, albeit in ways that are profoundly influenced by
[In the] 1916 Civil Code marriage [was] the only class, ethnic and urban/rural differences, among others.
way of establishing a legitimate family, juridically Thus, changes and contradictions in gender relations and
marginalizing families that are otherwise constituted. family life have been produced in the interaction of cul-
[It also] attributed different rights and duties to hus- tural, economic and political forces. At the institutional
bands (articles 233 to 239 CC/16) and wives (articles level, this has meant new challenges that, in turn, clamor to
240 to255 CC/16) and placed women within a posi- be translated into new policies, as the State is obliged to
tion of uncontestable juridical and social inferiority. deal with growing pressures and emergent demands from
State interest in maintaining marriage led, in a first people and collectivities and provide protection for those
moment, to consecrating its undissoluble character, to who face vulnerability and/or exclusion. Some scholars,
the obliged identification of the family by the hus- following the Foucauldian path, would alsoand not
bands last name and thus, the relativization of the incorrectlyemphasize that new forms of recognition, of
wife. Thus the civil legislature of the early 20th programs, policy and legislation, can also be seen as new
century reproduced a maritally-based, patriarchal, forms of regulating family and marital relations, just as the
hierarchical, patrimonial and heterosexual family. A very definition of these terms become hotly contested.
woman could not choose where to live and only had
power to make decisions in cases in which her hus-
band was incapacitated, could not work without his Paths to Change? Gender and Family in Public Policy
permission and a pre-marital loss of virginity was a
basis for marital annulment if the husband so desired. As Fineman (1995) has pointed out, law and public policy
This reality began to change very slowly. The bear a peculiar relationship to social change: on the one

68 J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574

hand, the juridical sphere tends to be a conservative one, class inequalities, is played out. Bandeira (2009) wrote of
and although it must respond to societal evolution, is 30 years of feminist resistance to gendered violence and
usually slow in its tasks of codifying, institutionalizing and sexism, beginning with 1970s youth opposition to the
disciplining the emergent. On the other hand, processes dictatorship. Womens movements denounced both State
of social change are at least partially contingent on the violence and the violence that occurred hidden within the
translation of social demands into laws, policies and pro- home, coining the phrase violencia contra a mulher
grams, and therefore present a series of very difficult (violence against women) and soon articulating demands
challenges for those who are committed to using the latter for specific public policies on this issue.
to dismantle the very historic structures of power and The pioneering, highly structured response of the Bra-
inequality they helped to establish. zilian State was the creation of specialized police stations
Farah (2004) broached the same issue in more concrete responsible for protecting women. The first one was cre-
and specific terms, identifying a tension between a political ated in the countrys largest metropolis, Sao Paulo, in 1985,
perspective that places emphasis on social movements as followed by another in Rio de Janeiro in 1986, seen as
agents and actors of social change whose autonomy should particularly important in providing much-needed assistance
be preserved, and one which advocates an active strategy to women from less privileged segments of society. This
of winning space and resources within the newly-democ- was followed in the 1990s with the creation of Special
ratizing State. She also mentioned that many of those in Criminal Courts (Juizados Especiais CriminaisJECrim),
civil society and social movements who were initially through the Law 9.099 enacted in 1995. Grievances
reluctant to engage with the State later move on to occupy brought before special police stations were now dealt with
space within the NGOs of todays Third Sector, seeking a within the ambit of this law, raising a number of problems
dialog meant to propose or influence guidelines for public that feminists took issue with, as we will soon argue. As of
policy. It is important to come back here to a point raised the year 2000, intensified efforts to consolidate democracy
earlier: Brazilian re-democratization occurs within a con- and human rights brought the creation of the Special Sec-
text of the absence of a developed Welfare State harboring retariat of Policies for Women, in 2003during the
consolidated channels for civil society participation. Thus, Workers Party president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silvas first
the struggles around State policies and resources erupting term in officefollowed by a dense mobilization of
during the 1980s mark important new tendencies, and at women and feminist organizations leading to the approval
the same time, are not in themselves able to eradicate the new protective legislation. The 2006 Law 11.340/2006,
vestiges of an authoritarian and patriarchal past. Further- known as Maria da Penha and to which we will soon
more, the politicization of gender coexists with a historic return, goes beyond the restricted scenario of grievances
climate of extreme prejudice toward feminist views and taken to the special police stations, characterized by diffi-
attitudes (Schmidt 2006), creating a scenario of deep culties in understanding the complex dynamics of gendered
contradiction. We have chosen three examples of struggles inter-personal conflict that mark the lives of the women
around issues of gender and notions of family that illustrate who make complaints or press charges, and takes an
this contested terrain, which we believe will continue to important step insofar as it recognizes the public (social)
polarize passions and oppose interest groups in the years to nature of private (hidden in the household) forms of
come, as the forces of progressive change, of social reform gendered violence.
and of conservative reaction confront one another within Bandeira (2009) revealed some of the contradictions in
political institutions and civil society. the gains consolidated over 30 years of feminist organi-
zation. During the 1980s, the first organizations to garner
attention in denouncing violence against womenSOS
Domestic Violence Against Women and the Maria da Corpo and SOS Mulher had no institutional connections.
Penha Law One of their campaign slogans was Quem ama nao mata.
(People who love dont murder). Activities consisted pri-
Domestic violence is an extremely complex phenomenon, marily in providing support to women who were victims of
and may involve a wide range of actors: women (or min- violence. The first specialized station to serve only women
ors) who are victims, aggressors who are usually male; (Delegacia Especializada de Atendimento a Mulher
police and public safety officers; the juridical sphere and its (DEAM)) represented a historic first action in public policy
professionals and staff, etc. It can be understood as a in which the State assumes co-responsibility for control
privileged space for understanding the way social phe- over this type of violence. Although aligned with a general
nomena and cultural, psychological and subjective mean- process of re-democratization, these stations soon revealed
ings come together and perhaps one of the most difficult their insufficiencies in providing assistance to those who
and tragic sites where gender inequality, intersected by sought it, first and foremost because the staff itself was

J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574 69

largely made up of police officers who were lacking This law was coined Lei Maria da Penha (the Maria
understanding of all that was at stake and appropriate da Penha Law) in tribute to the biopharmacist Maria
training to deal with the cases that came to them. da Penha Maia, whom in 1983 suffered two episodes
Law 9.099, enacted in 1995, promoting the creation of of attempted murder on the part of her husband, a
Special Crime Courts, had as its underlying raison d etre a university professor and as a result ended up a
certain unburdening of the Judiciary Power, providing a paraplegic. She spent 20 years struggling to get her
conciliatory model for conflict resolution that allowed for aggressor condemned, including pressing charges
alternative punishment for crimes considered to be less through the United Nations, an action which woke the
offensive. Unexpectedly, these courts became the major Brazilian State up to the seriousness of the situation.
site for dealing with the grievances brought to special Maria da Penha transformed her pain into struggle
womens stations, particularly in cases of minor aggres- and her tragedy into solidarity with Brazilian women.
sion and threat. This happened particularly because (Bandeira 2009, p. 419)
there was no specific legislation for this type of crime. Yet
Among the major innovations that this Law brings with
this in turn generated a way of dealing with violence
it are a broadened concept of gendered violence, a con-
against women that ran counter to the feminist agenda and
sideration of the negative moral judgments that victims are
all the struggles that had come before (Bandeira 2009;
subjected to, the combat of sexist violence in a wider sense,
Debert and Oliveira 2007). In the face of the victims need
not restricted only to the private sphere, regulation of aid
to decide whether or not to press criminal charges (after an
and assistance provided to the victims through inter-insti-
initial hearing had taken place), courts actively encouraged
tutional networks and the establishment of protective
couples reconciliation, thereby pushing the problem back
measures and innovations in penal codes. There is some
into the private sphere. Extensive use of the Law 9.099/
consensus among researchers in their contention that it is
1995 also led to restricting the action of the Special
still too early for an evaluation of the law and its efficiency,
Womens Stations, which no longer engaged in investi-
but it is possible to assert that in itself it poses a significant
gating charges. Fines and alternative punishments often
challenge both to the sexist culture in Brazil and how the
proved counterproductive, leaving aggressors off the hook
latter is played out within jurisprudence and the legal field
fairly easily and doing little to stop new offenses. In fact,
as a whole. The founding myth of the virile manthe
70% of all cases handled by the Special Courts (JECrim)
patriarch who gathers his folk around him, providing sup-
involved domestic violence, of which 50% ended with no
port and tutelageto which we referred earlier remains
criminal charges being pressed, that is, both parties simply
alive today: The notion of the cordial man, orderly rather
signing a reconciliation agreement (Bandeira 2009, p. 417).
than violent and whom, if under any extenuating circum-
In short, in addition to providing no real support to the
stances inflicts violence on his woman, is acting within his
victim, this scenario simply furthered a culture of impunity
disciplining function, persists within the Brazilian imag-
and re-privatized domestic violence.
inary. (Bandeira 2009, p. 426). Legal professionals are
It is also important to emphasize that the gender per-
imbued with a familist rationality that implicitly denies
spectives of those who work within the legal system have
women full citizenship by subordinating their needs and
represented a major problem for creating strategies against
desires to a supposed social (familial) mission.
domestic violence. Prosecutors and lawyers, whether men or
Although the social tensions inherent in the theme of
women, most frequently display a naturalized view of
domestic violence are far from resolved and have much to
womens need/desire to have a husband which also tends
do with cultural changes that do not emanate from the legal
to place responsibility for marital failure on womens
sphere, we should still recognize that policies such as these
shoulders. Conservative values regarding the family and its
bring crucial, silenced issues to the forefront, subjecting
sexual division of roles and labor are firmly rooted within the
them to public debate and of course, legal action. In this
juridical sphere, hardly conducive to a greater understanding
regard, they play a very significant role in promoting
of gendered violence within families and quite often
changes that may then irradiate throughout society.
expressing themselves in judgmental attitudes that blame the
women themselves for being complicit or not knowing
how to exercise their rights. In fact, criticisms such as these
were raised by members of civil societypublic entities, Policies on Contraception, Health and Abortion
NGOs, representatives of feminist movements and organi- in Brazil
zations, the feminist bench in Congress, most notablywho
organized to demand new ways of handling the issue of Similarly to the issue of domestic violence, abortion is also
domestic violence. The definitive text of Law 11.340 from a topic that has generated considerable polemic. Both
2006 was a congressional answer to social demands: issues raise fundamental questions about womens position

70 J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574

within family and society. Today, most developed Western Brazilian public health system, S.U.S. (Sistema Unico de
nations have legislation which guarantees abortion as a Saude). Discussions on abortion intensified womens dia-
womans right to make decisions regarding her body, fer- log with the State, a phenomenon which can also be taken
tility and motherhood. Yet in Brazil as in other countries in as evidence of the development of the feminist movement
Latin America and the Caribbean, only under some very in Brazil, now a recognized actor in public debates and
specific circumstances is abortion not considered a crime formal institutional (as well as informal) political negoti-
(Duarte et al. 2010). In the Brazilian case, given a Penal ation. The Cairo Conference (1994) is an important land-
Code formulated in 1940, abortion is only legal when it can mark in the democratization debate in Brazil, since it was
be shown that pregnancy would put the womans life at risk there that the notion of reproductive rights came to
or when it is the result of rape. In recent years, there has supersede that of family planning. The Brazilian dele-
been intensified public and political debate on this legis- gations participation in the conference had important
lation, mobilizing feminist challenges similar to those we political implications, raising issues of gender equality,
have seen around domestic violence, and stirring up the male dominance, womens empowerment and right to
impassioned reactions of some of the most conservative control of their own bodies (Alvarenga and Schor 1998,
forces in Brazilian society, including Catholic and Evan- p. 99), in opposition to positions taken by representatives
gelical benches of parliament. of religious groups or authoritarian or fundamentalist
Discussions on contraception and public policies in States. Furthermore, it demonstrated the role of feminist
Brazil are good examples of how social problems become NGOs in Brazil and their influence within the Brazilian
political issues and demands (Alvarenga and Schor 1998), government.
thus contesting the notion that family is a merely private In ensuing conflicts within parliament, resistance and
matter in which the State should have no interference. In counter-resistance to change appeared. For example, in
fact, these conflicts provide evidence of just how much the 1995, a political maneuver on the part of conservative
State really does influence or control diverse aspects of forces attempted to make abortion completely illegal,
family life and how these issues are also linked to a broader which meant removing the cases currently considered legal
political conjuncture. (risk to a womans life and pregnancy resulting from rape).
In Brazil, discussions on contraception became public This proposal, coming from a member of the Evangelical
issues during the 1980s, expressed through two opposing bench and was supported by the Catholic Church, was soon
tendencies: family planning, on the one hand, and toppled, largely through concerted feminist action. On this
population control, on the other. In order to understand occasion, as Alvarenga and Schor (1998) explain, members
the ensuing disputes, it is important to take a look at the of the feminist movement accused the State of schizo-
type of discourse that the Brazilian State has sustained in phrenia, attempting to superimpose an agenda of
relation to public policies affecting family life. From 1965 authoritarian dominance over one in which already-con-
to 1974, the State was basically pro-natalism, advocating solidated womens rights, consecrated at the international
policies of population growth. Yet in 1974, within a con- level and ratified at the national level, prevailed. These
text of social crisis, government policy took another turn, disputes continue to be quite alive today; within the terrain
attempting to provide wider access to health care and of reproductive rights some of the major obstacles that
making some modifications in its earlier pro-natalism feminist struggles continue to face are those coming from
position. The 19841993 period retains some ambiguity: openly declared religious representativesEvangelical and
the issue of womens health emerged clearly, promoted by Catholicwithin the Brazilian legislature.
the Ministry of Health (under the influence of the 1984 Duarte et al. (2010) provide a quantitative analysis of
international forum on womens health in Amsterdam), yet the view of Brazilian magistrates and public prosecutors
other sectors of government acted to undermine this per- regarding abortion and abortion policies. One of the first
spective, isolating the more progressive wing. Some new clarifications to be made on this issue was that given its
steps were taken when the 1988 Constitution recognized largely illegal nature (excepting the two specific circum-
family planning as a peoples right and State responsi- stances current legislation provides for), almost all abor-
bility in promoting educational and scientific resources tions are carried out clandestinely, posing serious risks to
that allow its exercise (Alvarenga and Schor 1998). womens health and lives. In the cases that current law
In the post 1993 conjuncture, debates between State and provides for, there are nonetheless a series of problems to
civil society, including positions taken and disseminated be overcome, particularly when dealing with pregnancies
through the media, shift from the focus of opposing posi- resulting from rape. Most recently, the issue of fetal
tions on family planning and population control to issues of anomalies has been raised, a product of the new medical
womens health, such as abortion and male and female technologies which permit their diagnosis and the type of
sterilization, as services which should be provided by the demand that this has generated. New pressures on the

J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574 71

judiciary coming from different sectors of societylaw- bills that stir up considerable polemic. In Scavones opin-
yers, health professionals and womens groups, in partic- ion, one of the major obstacles standing in the way of
ular, have made themselves felt, and in fact an attempt was progress is the difficulty in raising sensitivity among
made to promote new legislation in this regard, authorizing broader sectors of society, now that the feminist movement
abortion in cases of fetal anomaly (a Supreme Court ruling has succeeded in putting together substantive alliances with
in 2004 that made this concession was then revoked hat progressive sectors within government:
same year). The authors of the above-mentioned study sent
We see, then, that feminism has been able to skill-
out questionnaires to 11,000 judges and 13,000 prosecu-
fully place the issue of abortion on the broader
tors; although only 14% of participants in the sample
agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, affirming
returned the surveys, most were favorable to changes in the
not only the countrys commitments to international
current legislation. Religion appears as one of the strongest
agreements but also [through proposing] a bill at the
obstacles to change. Questionnaires applied to men,
national level that has been sent to congress. Evi-
women and medical doctors in the field of gynecology and
dently this position has had greater political than
obstetrics have rendered a similar portrait, showing atti-
social outreach. (Scavone 2008, p. 679)
tudes that are supportive of changes that facilitate abortion
in cases permitted by law and therefore morally justifi- The struggle is ongoing: with each step forward, con-
able. Yet it continues to be difficult to reframe thinking in servative forces come back with a counter-attack,
the sense of understanding the issue of abortion within the increasingly aggressive and sometimes quite successful in
broader framework of reproductive rights and gender co-opting public opinion. Thus, by looking at the elements
inequality. that make up the debate, we are able to detect some major
We cannot, nonetheless, refrain from mentioning the types of resistance to substantive change still holding out in
important presence of a group of Catholic feminists, who Brazilian society and culture, whether coming from those
formed the group Catholics for the Right to Choose most directly involved in the disputewomen, health and
(Catolicas pelo Direito de Decidir [CDD] in 1993). This law professionals, political and religious groupsor
NGO has had a major role in systematizing pro-choice among the population at large. Public policies around
arguments in Brazilian society, emphasizing the need to issues of gender and sexuality, although increasingly a part
deal with the critical situation of unsafe, illegal abortion of the public agenda, are also highly contentious, as many
and its race and class-based implications (Porto and Grossi people who in practice diverge from traditional patterns of
2008; Scavone 2008). The group brings together theolo- gender and family life are still not able or willing to take
gians, sociologists, psychologists and others who attempt to ideological and political positions which would in fact be
promote more open-minded Christian and Catholic much more consistent with their own experience.
approaches to womens and humanist concerns.
Scavone (2008) pointed to the negotiations and alliances
that have been involved in contemporary struggles around Gay and Lesbian Conjugality and Parenthood:
abortion issues in Brazil, linked in particular ways to issues Expanding Definitions of Family
of social inequality and differential (class, race and gender-
based) access to resources. Furthermore, although illegal Perhaps the most direct challenge to the normative notions
abortion has rarely been the target of actual punishment of family that have, until now, been codified in law and
(for women, abortionists and/or doctors), the material and public policy are those resulting from the social and
symbolic consequences of its interdiction should not be political demands articulated by gay and lesbian rights
underemphasized. Its legal prohibition leads to difficulties movements. For, notwithstanding ongoing debates around
in terms of mental and physical health and involves serious whether these demands promote new accommodations to
matters of social, racial and economic inequality which existing symbolic and material hierarchies or deeper cul-
mark Brazilian society and family life today; furthermore, tural and structural changethey certainly raise issues that
it invokes firmly-rooted cultural notions linking women to de-stabilize modern ideas about what/whom can constitute
reproduction and maternity, all of which inflects the family, which, as Fineman (1995) argued, have always
political struggles that emerge around the issue. emphasized the coupling (sexual) bond between one
The recently created Special Secretariat for Womens man and one woman.
Policies (Secretaria Especial de Polticas para as Mul- In Brazil as in other parts of the world, the issue of
heresSPM) has designated a tripartite commission extending formal legal rights to marriage and custody and
including the Executive, the Legislature and civil society adoption of children to the GLBTT population has gained
to discuss the issue of abortion. A bill, written up in 2006, increasing visibility and support. Although a fairly wide
is being handled quite slowly, as tends to be the case for range of social actors have taken part in the debates that

72 J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574

surround particular demands for policy change in this vulnerability, awarded same-sex relations legal status in
regardincluding the media and several categories of 1980. Belgium, Spain and Holland have legislated affir-
expertsthe two major adversaries in ensuing political matively on gay marriage, and in the two latter cases this
confrontations have been the GLBTT movement and rep- includes couples rights to adopt children. Other European
resentatives of organized religion (Mello 2005). A key countries, such as France and Germany, have recognized
moment for understanding what this has meant in policy civil partnerships for same-sex couples, although main-
terms is the Bill 1154 of 1995, called Parceria Civil Reg- taining a different status in relation to heterosexual mar-
istrada (PCR) or Registered Civil Partnership, the first riage. In 2003, a landmark for Latin America took place, as
vigorous and concerted legal effort to widen notions of Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, became the first on the
conjugality, marriage and family in this direction. South American continent to recognize civil partnerships,
This bill was proposed by Workers Party congressional albeit restricted to purposes of health insurance privileges.
representative Marta Suplicy, intended to implement legal Yet in Brazil, as we stated earlier, resistance to legal and
recognition of same sex partnerships. Considered at the policy changes in this regard are strong, demonstrating the
time as a very progressive measure, many years have now countrys contradictory scenario in which forces of change
gone by and it has yet to be accepted within the Con- and forces of cultural and political conservatism frequently
gressional agenda, where a series of impediments have lock horns.
managed to keep it off voting floor. Yet this also serves to In October, 2002 an emblematic case swept the country,
illustrate how, during the 1990s in particular, homosexual involving the death of a celebrity, the popular singer/
relationships began to move from stigma and closet to songwriter Cassia Eller. Openly lesbian and mother of a
recognition as identities or simply different ways of son who lived with her and her partner of many years,
being (Grossi 2003). The demand for the recognition of a Ellers death led to months and months of judicial battles in
homosexual family thus moves into the scenario of which her partner was finally awarded the custody rights
cultural and political disputes over legitimate definitions of which had been contested by the childs paternal grandfa-
family. ther (Grossi 2003; Mello 2005). Although this particular
Thus, if in 1995 Brazil could be considered progres- case was solved through an agreement between the two
sive in this regard, today there seems to be no prospects parties involved in the dispute, more and more cases of this
for PCR legalization. Perhaps this can be explained largely sort are being won at the local level. Researchers and
by the impact of religious opposition and by the sexist and specialists point to the advances made in legislation at the
homophobic attitudes demonstrated by members of par- state level in Rio Grande do Sul, pioneering state in terms
liament. Yet in civil society as a whole, new campaigns of gay and lesbian rights (Lorea 2006).
against discrimination and homophobic violence have Mello (2005) commented that [] the conflict between
unfolded and, in stark contrast to the lethargy of the Leg- a secular and a religious worldview constitutes the core of
islature, there have been numerous gains regarding the conflicts around the recognition of homosexual conjugal-
rights of gay, lesbian and transgendered couples and par- ity. (p. 219) Yet this dispute, we should again assert,
ents that have been battled out through the Judiciary. It is touches on the very conception of family that is at stake
this latter sphere that has been able to guarantee individual and in this regard mobilizes many different symbolic and
rights through lawsuits, though as the situation makes political elements, to which religious orientations contrib-
evident, this gives rise to a significant gap between such ute but which they certainly do not exhaust.
initiatives and the broader, change-resistant general Lorea (2006) categorically asserted that there is actually
scenario. no need to create a legal mechanism for marriage between
Over the last 25 years, lesbians and gays have emerged same-sex partners, since the Federal Constitution (1988)
as visible political actors in Brazil, sometimes acting in clearly states that any form of discrimination is anti-con-
concert with other collective actors but often working to stitutional. Sexual citizenship presupposes the right to
promote their specific political agenda. While the symbolic sexual freedom, and the State does not have the right to
significance of a collective coming out is manifested by intervene in prescribing or sanctioning in this terrain. The
the fact the Brazilian GLBTT Pride Parade (or Diversity author also emphasized the role that jurists have had in
ParadeParada da Diversidade, as it has been re-named) holding back changes promoting true sexual citizenship,
has in recent years become the largestand probably the insofar as they publicly resort to a rhetoric which affirms a
most carnivalesquein the world, such symbolic impact heterosexist status quo. He concludes that there is no cur-
has not translated easily into gains at the policy level. rently existing legal impediment to same sex marriage, yet
Brazil falls behind other countries in this regard: Denmark, this argument has not been used by social movements or
Sweden and Norway, stimulated by the AIDS epidemic civil interests in demanding it. With regard to adoption by
which often left partners in situations of tragic homosexual couples (in Brazil a single person is able to

J Child Fam Stud (2012) 21:6574 73

adopt without mention of sexual orientation), the PCR as and promote democratizing social transformation. In the
initially proposed did not include this demand, for which Brazilian case, there has been considerable tension between
reason gay and lesbian movements today are requesting its those sectors of government who, through their relationship
revision or substitution (Uziel et al. 2006). with certain social movements, have sought to change laws
In short, the issue of gay and lesbian rights to (recog- and initiate innovative policies and conservative forces
nized) conjugality, parenthood and family, although linked often linked to organized religion. These disputes, borne of
to other themes that lead to re-thinking what constitutes a the re-democratization processes of the 1980s, are of
family and what kinds of policies must be developed in course tied to many other social and cultural processes that
order to support them may continue to be a radicalizing unfold within civil society. What is at stake is nothing less
element on the family policy agenda, especially in light of than the very notion of what family is, and what women,
new demands to make changes in the PCR bill presented to men and gender relations are or should be.
Congress. At any rate, the formulation of this project is at Thus, in Brazil, debates on de-criminalizing abortion run
least partially responsible for the large media coverage the up against deeply conservative notions of womens
issue has received, which, in turn, does not necessarily maternal roles and bodies, and the impasse that has
mean that media discussions have promoted favorable and occurred with regard to the Civil Partnership Bill indicates
non-discriminatory positions. Often it has been quite the a reticence to re-think who can be included within the
contrary. Furthermore, as stated above, the Judiciary has sexualized bond (Fineman 1995) of the couple/family
become the key site of legal support for gay and lesbian that neighboring southern cone nation of Argentina has
community demands, while many sectors of society refuse recently overcome. The Maria da Penha Law on domestic
to abandon the forms of thinking that Sedgwick (1990) violence, on the other hand, represents a step forwardnot
once captured so well through her notion of the episte- only in terms of its concrete measures to combat gendered
mology of the closet. family violence and protect those who may vulnerable to it
During former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silvas but also as in terms of recognition that family life, as we
administration, social movements for diversity and gay and know it, is not by definition harmonious and conflict free,
lesbian rights received more open State recognition than and that it has been built on the basis of gender hierarchies,
ever before. Yet cultural disputes, civil society and social privileges and inequalities.
institutions contain heterogeneous and often contradictory There is every reason to believe that gender and family
forces and tendencies. Public policies that recognize the issues will continue to constitute a contested terrain in
diversity of family life and prioritize the well-being of all which a variety of social, cultural, political and legal dis-
citizens, dismantling historic systems of power and putes unfold. Advances in the arena of social policy
inequality, will depend to a large extent on a widening base recognizing diversity and promoting equalitywill con-
of support. This implies a growing capacity on the part of tinue to be intimately tied to social movements and col-
progressive forces within government to forge further lective struggles that seek to redefine gender relations and
support and alliances, but also on the everyday workin to transform ways of thinking about men, women, bodies,
schools, universities, social movement efforts, and hope- sexuality, family and the ties that bind us to one another.
fully from segments of the media and the culture indus- Class and race issues are also a part of this configuration of
try as wellof showing that in fact, families have always struggles and issues, as Brazilians continue to face a his-
been much more pluralist and diverse than dominant ide- torical legacy that has constructed the Brazilian nation as
ologies would have it, and are probably becoming one of the most unequal in the worldcharacterized, on
increasingly more so, as our post-modern culture multiplies the one hand, by a wealth of natural, human, cultural,
choices for personal and collective projects. technological and economic resources, and on the other, by
a social structure that promotes extremely asymmetrical
access to the social resources that enable or deny people the
Conclusions opportunity to actively (re)shape their lives and
In the discussions above, we have taken a brief look at the
historical forces shaping family life and notions of family
in Brazilian society and culture, as they have evolved from
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