RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – When Marielle Franco decided to run for a seat on Rio de Janeiro’s city council, she already had three strikes against her in the eyes of the voting public: she’s a woman, she’s Afro-Brazilian and she comes from the favelas, the city’s urban slums. Despite the odds, she was elected to the city council last year, and has since made it a priority to fight for the rights of her female constituents.
“We women are at the bottom of the pyramid, with the lowest wages, working twice as hard,” says Franco, 37, who belongs to the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). “I also want to work on issues of race and on the favelas, but we first have to focus on gender issues.”
Since coming into office, her first big move has been to propose a bill to improve accessibility of abortion services in Brazil. While the procedure is legal in the country in certain cases – when the pregnancy is a result of a rape, when it puts mother’s life in danger or when the fetus is missing parts of the brain and skull – actually getting access to abortion services is difficult.
Research by Franco’s team has shown that in Rio de Janeiro, only one clinic offers abortions, and even there, women complain about poor service. For example, the doctors can object to carrying out the procedure due to their religious or moral beliefs, leaving women who need to terminate their pregnancies with nowhere else to go.
Franco’s proposed new law would oblige all of Rio’s health professionals to be trained in the process of legal abortion. All clinics and hospitals in the city would have to inform women about their rights in cases of legal abortion, and all units in the obstetric care network would have to offer legal abortions, even if doctors have a political or religious objection to the procedure.
Fighting for women’s reproductive rights is no easy task in a city whose mayor is a former bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a highly conservative neo-Pentecostal church. But Franco is used to tough fights: She grew up in Complexo do Maré, a complex of 16 favelas in the city’s north, and had to drop out of school at 18 when she became pregnant. With support from her mother, who helped take care of Franco’s daughter, she was able to continue her education and earn a social sciences degree.
In 2006, she volunteered for the state campaign of Marcelo Freixo, who is now a congressman on the PSOL ticket. He won, and Franco became one of his parliamentary assistants. “I coordinated with the Human Rights Commission, followed the policies of the favelas and social movements, and worked with relatives of people who were victims of violence – both civilians and police officers,” she says.
Franco spent most of her life in the favela of Maré. She says she doesn’t want to work only for the place she came from, but that the causes she fights for all have an impact on people who live in the slums. “Black women make up the majority of victims of rape,” she says. “So, when I fight for [access to] legal abortion, I’m also fighting for the slums.”
According to the latest state statistics, 4,128 women reported rape in 2015. And a study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research shows that in 2011, 51 percent of rape survivors in Brazil were black women.
Franco’s team, which includes many women and favela residents, plans to organize a seminar on the slums in May. One of their big concerns is gun violence, particularly police shootings. According to the latest statistics from the health ministry, 50 children and teenagers were killed by police between 2003 and 2012 in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. “We give support to families of victims of violence, like the family of Fernanda,” Franco says. Seven-year-old Fernanda Adriana Caparica Pinheiro was killed during a shootout in February in the Maré favela of Parque União.
In part due to the violence in the favelas, Franco left Maré in January, moving to the middle-class neighborhood of Tijuca. “I was already thinking of moving, because my daughter is going to start in college and it’s closer,” she says. “My family still lives there, so I go there often – I just don’t go every night anymore.”
Favela residents tend to be conservative, in large part due to strong religious beliefs, which Franco says often results in them voting to maintain the status quo. But she sees things changing, little by little.
“I believe that we [women from the favelas] are improving, in terms of sexual freedom, of being able to study … Of course, it only applies to some women, but we are changing,” she says.