The Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) poverty relief programme gives women in Brazil greater freedom and independence.
MARIA da Paz and her three daughters live high on the slopes of Rocinha, just beyond the boundary line between Rio de Janeiro’s biggest favela and the world’s largest urban forest.
Geographically mirroring their social position, the family’s small brick home is on the periphery of the periphery – dangerously close to the landslide zone and discomfortingly distant from roads, shops and social services.
During a recent storm, the roof collapsed; their home was flooded and they were forced to evacuate. The same thing happens about 10 times every year.
That’s not their only terror. Three months ago, they were robbed of their pots, pans and other meagre possessions. Last week, a nine-year-old neighbour was raped and murdered a few alleys away.
“It’s dark and dangerous in this place. I can’t leave my girls alone ever,” says Da Paz. “But we are lucky. There are so many other people in the world who don’t have a roof over their heads.”
Despite their hardships, the mother and her daughters – Dilila, 15, Andressa, 13, and Beatriz, 11 – have remained in this home for more than a decade. They are glad to have shaken off the person Maria sees as the biggest threat to their happiness and safety: her former partner.
“I left him because he was aggressive and started beating the children,” says Da Paz, who credits this decisive move in her life to Brazil’s Bolsa Familia poverty relief programme.
She started receiving the payments from the government – currently 166.65 reais (RM230) a month – nine years ago. A few years later, she said goodbye to the children’s father.
“I substituted my husband for Bolsa Familia,” she says. “Bolsa Familia has helped women. Before it started, women could only be frantic about feeding their kids but now we are less dependent on men.”
The impact of Brazil’s poverty relief programme on gender roles and relationships are still being studied and debated, but cases like Da Paz are not unusual. Nor is divorce the only way in which cash handouts are changing lives.
According to official data, 93% of families that receive the grants are headed by women. They receive the card that entitles them to withdraw cash from the bank each month. With that money comes a degree of power. The architects of Bolsa Familia say this was a key consideration in designing the programme.
“That’s part of the strategy. It’s then up to them to decide how to spend the money,” says social development minister Tereza Campello. “Our research shows that the money empowers women. In many cases, it’s their only source of income, so it means they are less dependent on their husbands, more likely to share in decision-making, and have higher self-esteem.
“Some women who were forced to put up with husbands who beat them now feel liberated enough to think of divorce. The money also gives women more say in whether to buy and use contraceptives. Less women feel like they are owned.”
Data suggests they are more likely to have healthy births as a result of the programme, which obliges expectant women to attend free prenatal check-ups as a condition of receiving their monthly payments. The government says this has resulted in a 14% increase in women giving birth on the due date.
When the Bolsa Familia programme was first launched, some feminists argued that the task of receiving and using payments would add to the burdens on women, reinforce gender roles and give more freedom to men. So far the effects seem to have been more positive.
Talita Sousa Nascimento, of the Maranhao Institute of Social-Economic and Cartographic Studies, said the programme has given women more independence and dynamism outside the home.
“As well as the cash, the Bolsa Familia system encourages women to engage in other social programmes such as artisanal workshops, where they can develop skills that make them even more self-sufficient. It also takes them closer to a network of shelters where they can go if they feel threatened by a partner,” she says. “Women become more active under the Bolsa Familia system. This is important because, in the poorest communities, there is a culture of them being dependent on men.”
The north and north-east are home to some of the most patriarchal communities in Brazil, according to Walquiria Leao Rego, a sociologist who spent five years travelling across the country and studying the impact of bolsa familia. She recorded how some women in these regions started buying lipstick for themselves for the first time and, in a few cases, left husbands after receiving income from the state. But Rego is cautious about suggesting this was a trend.
“One can say that women gained more power over their destinies,” she says. “But the changes in the moral and cultural order are slow.”
In Rochinha, Da Paz says the money she receives each month makes a big difference. But though it has helped to liberate her from her husband, it has not released the family from poverty.
Her daughters still have to forage in the rubbish and rely on charity from friends to make up the shortfall in their diets. Beatriz was born in a coma and has special needs, including medicines that cost more than 100 reais (RM150) a month, though healthcare is supposed to be free.
“I’m trying to get computers for my daughters, but it’s too hard. We always end up using all our money on necessities,” she says. “But life is still better than it was five years ago.” – Guardian News & Media
Additional research by Anna Kaiser.