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Article written by Jing-Jie Chen

May 17, 2021

From left to right: Débora Diniz, Sueli Carneiro and Bruna Benevides, speakers at the Conférence Pour Le Brésil 2020

Written for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

In the first week of April this year, Brazil experienced a record-breaking daily death rate of more than 4 000 deaths within 24 hours, as reported by Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. These numbers have marked international headlines and demonstrate the troubling reality faced by Brazil’s people.

While the largest country in South America has been suffering from severe casualties due to high numbers of Covid-19 infection-related deaths, a ‘shadow pandemic’ has begun to spread across Brazil, taking lives and leaving scars on the already vulnerable groups, including adolescent, older, and trans women. Yet, when looking back to the gender (in)equality in Brazil, the shadow pandemic seems to have been affecting the Brazilian population long before the novel coronavirus.

This article aims to provide context on violence against transgender women, drawing on the Gender Equality Panel at the first edition of Conférence Pour Le Brésil. the key assertionsof three prominent activists, Sueli Carneiro, Bruna Gurgel Benevides, and Débora Diniz, about violence against women and girls (VAW), in particular gender-based violence against transgender women.

Transphobia in Brazil’s Patriarchal Society

As described by Adrienne Rosenberg, Brazilian society’s attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people is a ‘paradox’: the country, on one hand, is liberal in progressing LGBT rights and, on the other, is conservative and patriarchal, especially in terms of the devestating discrimination and violence against women or the populatoin socially considered ‘non-male’.

In 2020, Reuters reported that killings of transgender persons have risen by 70% during the pandemic. From the data collected by Trans Murder Monitoring Project, Brazil is identified as one of the countries with highest transgender-related homicide rates in the world, with 7 202 transgender people dying between 2008 and 2020.

The binary differentiation between men and ‘not men’ in the society contributes to the discrimination and violence against women and transgender women who are perceived as feminine (not masculine) and mentally ill. In addition to the social prejudice, the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked LGBTIQ+ community and the ‘ideology of transgender’ making violence against transgender women even more prevalent.

Bruna Gurgel Benevides, secretary of political articulation at the National Association of Transvestites and Transexuals (ANTRA), emphasised that transphobia comes from the dominant cissexism in Brazil which tries to deny the identity and the existence of the transgender and transvestite women. As a result, transgender women are denied access to economic, social, political, health, and legal protection, and this reality pushes many among the transgender women community to participate in prostitution to sustain themselves.

Legal Protection and Brazil’s Gender-Racial Political Reality

In line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Brazil has passed the ‘Maria da Penha Law’ in 2006 to tackle domestic violence and provide aid and shelters for victims.

Yet, according to the submission by Human Rights Watch in Brazil to the United Nations CEDAW Committee, there is a stark difference between the legal protections on paper and their implementation in reality. It is reported that the implementation of these protections has still been lagging, and police interventional and judicial sanctions records do not match with the numbers of helpline calls amid violence. Furthermore, the Brazilian government has reduced the funding to VAW prevention and has not addressed the issues of crimes against transgender women.

Notably, black transgender women are facing disproportionately high rate of violence in Brazil. Such high rates of violence against black transgender women clearly reflect the gender-racial political reality, which stands in contrast to the myth of ‘racial democracy’, an ideology that considers Brazil a country beyond racial discrimination due to its multiracial and multiethnic composition. As mentioned by Maíra Roubach, Moderator of the Gender Equality Panel, the murder of Marielle Franco, the first black woman City Councillor of Rio de Janeiro, revealed the tragic truth behind the sugar-coated images of Brazil from the 2016 Olympics.

As it is dangerous to be an outspoken anti-racism, pro-human rights black woman in Brazil, like Franco, Sueli Carneiro, philosopher and founder of Geledés — Portal da Mulher Negra has stressed that the intersectionality of gender and race contributes to the struggles of black transgender women. Black women have been underrepresented in Brazilian society, and black transgender women are consequently almost invisible in Brazil.

Notwithstanding, women, especially black women and black transgender women must not stop participating in the politics to stimulate changes in Brazil to alter the patriarchal norm in the country. The success of Erica Malunguinho, the first black transgender woman state legislator in Brazil, and Erika Hilton, the first black transgender woman municipal legislator, has been an inspiration.

Shadow Pandemic: Disproportionate Impact on Women

Focusing on the still calamitous escalation of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Brazil, Débora Diniz, law professor at the University of Brasília (UnB) and founder of ANIS — Bioethics Institute has pointed out the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women due to the dominant number of women involved in care services and frontline work. In addition, ‘women’s bodies are not only confined in their houses but also in economic difficulties,’ said Débora Diniz. In other words, women are entrapped socially and economically in precarious situations.

As civil society has called for more support to adolescent women and transgender women in the face of crises, namely the Zika virus and the novel Coronavirus, scientific research is equally restrained by data collection which is not gender sensitive and responsive. The information and data collected from the national census cannot capture the complexity and the vulnerable group’s difficulties; instead, it only exacerbates the dominant hierarchy neglecting the significant suffering of individuals based on gender identity, gender expression, social class, race, and economic disadvantages.

Therefore, in order to better formulate policies that could meet the needs of individuals in such devastating circumstances, the Government of Brazil must not exclude people’s voices and struggles in decision making. On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia observed on May 17 each year, all governments around the world must reflect on their policies and legislation and take proactive, immediate and effective actions which contribute to reaching gender equality and eliminting gender discrimination and violence.

“Though we may earn lower salaries, be relegated to lower positions, work triple workdays, be judged for our clothing, be subjected to sexual, physical, psychological violence, killed daily by our partners, we will not be silenced: our lives matter!”
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