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Brazil: women, work and equality

May 2013

While struggling for land rights for the poor, Christian Aid partner MST in Brazil is bringing about another social revolution – fighting for equality between women and men.

All work is equal... and so are women and men

Alcinda Soares Ribeiro is known to all as ‘Preta’ – a nickname meaning black because of her olive skin. She’s got her tan through hard work under Brazil’s hot sun. 

Unlike many women, however – in Brazil and worldwide – Alcinda doesn’t return from work on the land to face most or all of the cooking, cleaning, childcare and household chores while her husband sits back and relaxes, ‘his work’ done.

Instead, Alcinda and her husband, Orestes, are equal partners on the farm and in the home.

Alcinda Soares Ribeiro

Alcinda and Orestes’ community has rejected ‘gender roles’ – especially the idea that some work (usually paid, outside the home) belongs to men while other work (usually unpaid, inside the home) belongs to women.
Alcinda explains: ‘When we were just starting out and we had nothing, we were literally all out in the rice fields, knee-deep in water bringing in the harvest by hand.

It was incredibly hard work, and we were bitten by huge black sanguessugas (leeches). Women were needed to work in the fields as well as men, but were bearing the sole responsibility for housework.

So we held a big conference and established that all work is of the same value and holds no gender.’

The Landless People’s Movement

If this seems slightly radical for a rural farming community in the south of Brazil, much of the responsibility lies with the Landless People’s Movement (MST) that Alcinda and Orestes have been a part of for 20 years.

MST enables poor and landless Brazilians to win land by organising encampments of landless people and helping them to make title claims. 

Just 3% of Brazil’s population owns two-thirds of all arable land – the most uneven land ownership pattern in the world. Since its foundation in 1984, MST has helped 1.5 million people to get land of their own.
Not only is MST committed to bringing about a revolution in land rights, it is also dedicated to fighting inequality between women and men – as is apparent from the impact they have had on Alcinda’s community, which is made up of MST members who all won land in this area.

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MST: living its ideals

MST wants to create a society where women and men are equal, and it seeks to live this ideal within the movement.
It makes sure that when a couple or family win land, it is not held only in the man’s name. Loans are given in the name of couples – and some funding pots are available only for women, to rectify the lack of access to credit many women face.

All women are encouraged to get bank accounts and driving licences so that they can be financially and physically independent from their male family members.

50% of places on training courses are reserved for women, and MST provides childcare not only to enable women to take part in education, but also in work and – crucially – decision making within the movement and its many agricultural cooperatives. 

The heart of the movement

Interestingly, Alcinda identifies the fact that MST works through collective organisation as the key to this gender revolution: ‘The problem is that the social culture in Brazil is very strong and women’s work and men’s work is valued differently. 

'But when we are in a group, the collective contains the behaviour of certain men that don’t agree with challenges to that culture.’

MST could so easily have been a male-dominated movement. Most people think of farmers as men (although in fact 75% of the world’s agricultural work is done by women).

A movement characterised by struggle, hard physical work and even the endurance of violence (MST activists are often targeted for their challenge to the status quo) could easily have adopted masculine rhetoric and symbols – especially in a society where ‘machismo’ culture is still strong in many areas.

The fact that they have seen the bigger picture demonstrates their true dedication to social justice: putting the fight against inequality in all its forms at the very heart of the movement.


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