RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – In February last year, I sat in a car with Marielle Franco, one of Brazil’s most prominent feminist politicians. As we drove, the recently elected city council member explained her reasons for putting poor women at the center of her politics.
“We women are at the bottom of the pyramid, with the lowest wages, working twice as hard,” she told me as we drove through the streets of Rio.
Last week, sitting in the same car, Franco was murdered.
She had just finished mediating a debate – “Young Black Women Moving Structures” – when another car began to stalk her vehicle, police reported. In the middle of the pursuit, a second car joined them. Her car was hit with 13 shots from a 9mm pistol. Franco’s driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed.
An investigation by local television program RJTV has shown that the ammunition used by the killers was originally sold to the Federal Police of Brasília in 2006.
A member of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), Franco, 38, was known for her tireless activism on women’s rights and human rights, particularly for people from the slums – she was herself originally from a favela, Maré, a complex of 16 slums. She also was the rapporteur for a committee monitoring the military’s intervention in Rio de Janeiro. She had long been a staunch opponent of police violence in Rio.
When I met Franco, she was trying to improve accessibility of abortion services in Rio de Janeiro. Her next project was to make public nursery schools and schools stay open later to help parents who work or study at night.
Marielle Franco was born and raised in the slums. At the age of 18, she gave birth to her only daughter, Luyara Santos, and had to drop out of school. Despite her difficult upbringing, she won a scholarship to go to university, earning an undergraduate degree in social science and a master’s in public administration. She was elected to the city council in 2016, with more than 46,000 votes, coming fifth out of 51 candidates.
Franco lived with her daughter, now 19, and her girlfriend, Monica Tereza Benício. Benício and Franco had been together for almost 13 years, and were planning to marry next year.
“What happened is a scary fact and is another example of the dangers that human rights defenders face in Brazil,” Jurema Werneck, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, said in a statement.
“As a member of the Rio de Janeiro State Human Rights Commission, Marielle worked tirelessly to defend the rights of black and young women in favelas and other marginalized communities.”
Almost 100,000 people took part in a protest held in Franco’s memory on Thursday, which started at the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro and ended at Cinelândia square, in front of the City Council where Franco worked.
“Marielle will never die. This coward [who killed her] won’t take away the meaning of Marielle’s life for any of us,” said state deputy Marcelo Freixo, with whom Franco had worked as parliamentary adviser for 10 years before her election to the city council.
“If anyone imagined that by killing her as they did yesterday, they would shut up women who are black, from the favelas, lesbians, feminists – they are mistaken. The message we are giving in this square today is the best honor we can give her.”
“She was a symbol of the resistance of black women, who have lived for decades saying that we wanted to create a different society, where we can be proud of our symbols and not to worry about lives of our children and our loved ones,” Benedita da Silva, federal deputy and former governor of Rio de Janeiro, said.
Before the march, former president Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016, released a statement saying she was shocked and indignant. “I hope the investigations point to those responsible for this abominable crime.”
“Sad days for the country where a human rights defender is brutally murdered. She was fighting for better times, like all of us who believe in Brazil.”