Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 3 (Summer 2000): Silence Breaking: The Women's Dimension of the Human Rights Box: Articles: Basic Christian Communities: Reaching Women in Brazil's Popular Sectors

Aug 6, 2000

"Nossos direitos vêm. Nossos direitos vêm. Se não vêm nossos direitos, o Brasil perde também."

"Our rights are coming. Our rights are coming. If our rights don’t come, Brazil also will lose."
— A song women members of the Basic Christian Communities sing during celebrations

Brazilians first started to learn about human rights during the coup d’état of 1964 and the subsequent period of authoritarian rule that lasted until 1985. Groups such as Movimento pela Anistia (Amnesty Movement), Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never More), the Catholic Church, and the Comissão Brasileira de Justiça e Paz (Brazilian Commission of Justice and Peace) employed the language of human rights in the fight against repression. Yet human rights remained largely the tool of a privileged minority until the social movements of the 1970s, which emphasized demands for popular participation and the right to equality. Primarily through these social movements, unions, and political parties, human rights ideas started to reach the “popular sectors,” the poor. The Basic Christian Communities, or CEBs, have also been instrumental in this process.

Based in the Catholic Church, CEBs are groups of 10 to 60 persons. They developed in the 1960s in response to ecclesial decentralization as well as the needs of poor people to gather together for religious practices and share their everyday problems. Since this was a period of military dictatorship, the Church provided a rare forum for free speech.

Today, there are about 100,000 CEBs nationwide. In weekly meetings in a church, member’s house, or other gathering place, members mostly partake in religious ceremonies and reflections based on the Bible, but they also discuss issues of social justice and learn about unions, political parties, and other social movements from fellow members. In a country marked by overwhelming social inequalities, CEBs help the poor discover that they are powerful agents of change. An awareness of their own human rights is fundamental to this process.

From their inception, CEBs embraced and spread human rights concepts grounded in theological notions: God is a Mother and Father to all, thus the dignity of every human being must be recognized. CEB participants apply the language of human rights to their daily struggles for housing, education, health, transportation, work, and land property. As one woman participant once remarked to me: “Now that I understand human rights, I see that they are everything that I don’t have.”

But women’s human rights were not discussed in the CEBs prior to the 1980s, despite the fact that the majority of CEB participants are women, in part because other issues, such as the right to housing and health, took precedence in their daily lives. Another factor was the position of the Catholic Church in Brazil in the 1970s: although quite progressive on social matters, it did not look favorably upon the women’s movement. However, over time in the course of talking about their concerns, the female CEB members became aware of women’s subordination. They began to see themselves as bearers of rights, and so they began to uncover the roots of their own oppression and rid themselves of the shame they felt as women. In the words of one participant, “To be a woman is marvelous, even with all the barriers and difficulties.” I have found that as the women become more aware and empowered, they defend with increasing resolve their rights not only as persons, but also as women.

Through their participation in CEBs—for many the only opportunity to associate with others outside of the home—women have started to demand their human rights as wives, mothers, workers, and members of the Catholic Church. They question the exclusive attribution of tasks to them in the home, and some who work demand a salary and benefits equal to men. At the national meeting of the CEBs in 1992 in Santa Maria, a southern city in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, there was a call to build a church “where women should have equality of rights and be respected in their feminine identity.” At other national meetings, women have actively participated in the closing celebration, approaching the altar, carrying religious symbols, and reading texts—all rituals normally performed by males.

I remember in particular a black woman whom I met at a CEB in Bahia who assumed the responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel in her community’s celebrations, which at the time several years ago was highly unusual. Doing so prompted her to think in a whole new way about her position as a woman in both church and society: “When I was very young, I could not even think about reading something aloud in the church, much less read the Gospel. But today, I proclaim the Gospel!”

Such personal transformations are essential to empowering women to overcome the cultural conditions that limit their rights in society. But changing cultural norms is a long and difficult process. The Church hierarchy continues to resist women’s equal participation in church. Although laymen, priests, and even some bishops are increasingly supportive of women in theory, this does not necessarily translate into concrete changes in practice. In the workplace, women risk losing their jobs when they demand their rights. And in the home, not all men support their wives’ participation in discussions of women’s rights in the CEBs. Some men who themselves are CEB members support or tolerate it, but many more oppose or even forbid their wives to take part in such dialogues.

Patriarchy is often seen as a natural phenomenon by women as well as men, even if they are critical of it. As one woman explained at a CEB session: “Men can use their heads and make all sorts of efforts to change, but it is as if machismo and racism flow from the breast of women into their baby sons. What is inside of men is very strong and difficult to change.” Patriarchy still prevails within the CEBs themselves. Even though men constitute just a minority of the CEB membership, they continue to hold most of the decision-making positions and have more representation in national meetings and seminars. Even the female CEB participants expect their daughters to help them with domestic tasks such as serving meals and washing their brothers’ clothes.

Nonetheless, the CEBs provide an important space for discussion of patriarchy among women and men, as well as a host of other social justice concerns. Brazil’s popular sectors are excluded and marginalized, and it is only through solidarity that they can ever hope to have their human rights respected. The CEBs have helped women to reflect upon their own understandings of themselves as well as to bond in common cause. And it is this collective dream of a better, fairer world that inspires these women to make human rights ideals a reality.

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