BRASILIA, BRAZIL – In the typical dry and hot climate of Brasília, Brazil’s capital, voices of protest, amplified by megaphones, resounded throughout the city center last Wednesday as 70,000 people – mostly women – marched to demand more rights for women who work in forests and rural areas at the Marcha das Margaridas, or March of the Daisies.
The women, or “Margaridas,” which means “Daisies” in Portuguese, wore purple shirts and straw hats – the symbol of their movement. They marched and cheered for the speakers, who gave passionate speeches on platforms in front of the Brazilian Parliament.
“The Daisies’ March is a demonstration that pressures the government for women’s rights, wage equality, land distribution for family agriculture – that is, policies that favor women and rural workers in general,” says Maria Luiza dos Santos, a rural worker from Afonso Cunha, a city in the interior of Maranhão state.
Rejane Pitanga, a congresswoman from the Federal district, says the movement benefits all women.
“Although the march is organized by and for rural women workers, their demands are at the best interest of all women and society as a whole,” says Pitanga, a member of the Workers’ Party.
She says gender equality is the key to eliminating poverty.
“In Brazil, poverty has race and gender,” she says. “The only way to combat poverty, which is one of the main objectives of our current president, Dilma Rousseff, who uses the slogan, ‘A wealthy country is a country with no poverty,’ is to combat gender inequality.”
She says women in rural areas and forests face extra hardship.
“Poverty also varies from region to region,” she says. “We have to keep in mind that the reality in the forests and farms is much more affected by lack of resources and infrastructure.”
Thousands of Brazilians converged in the capital last week to call for improved rights for women who work in rural areas and forests at the fourth March of the Daisies. They also presented a list of demands to Rousseff, who, calling herself a Daisy, promised various initiatives. Although organizers and participants called the march a success, they cautioned that reforms must be more far-reaching and efforts more consistent.
The National Confederation of Workers in Agriculture, the largest rural workers’ union in Brazil, organized the march in 2000 as homage to Margarida Maria Alves, a union leader who overcame many gender-related barriers in her generation. She was the president of the Rural Workers’ Union of her city, Alagoa Grande, located in Paraíba state, for more than a decade. She also created the Center for Rural Workers’ Education and Culture, a center that offers courses and carries out awareness campaigns about rural workers’ rights.
She was shot in 1983 at age 50. Many allege that a wealthy landowner arranged her assassination because of her activism on behalf of rural workers, but the court found the accused men innocent. Still, she has since then become a symbol for the feminist struggle for land, work, equality and justice.
Under the theme “Sustainable Development With Justice, Autonomy, Equality and Freedom,” the fourth march, held every few years, was the largest yet.
Kelly Cristina Gonçalves, a member of the Articulation of Brazilian Women, a nonpartisan feminist organization that encourages the political participation of women, says the attendees represented even more people back home.
“We were expecting 100,000 people in the march, but the official number was 70,000,” she says. “Nevertheless, we still consider that the real march went way beyond 100,000 people because we have to remember that who came to the march were leaders from all over the country. So, in general, each of these leaders was representing many more people who did not have the conditions to travel all the way to Brasília.”
Gonçalves called the workers’ attendance an achievement.
“This was a true achievement by the rural workers,” she says. “It was very inspiring to see all those courageous people, who, in some cases, spent four days traveling on a bus to get here, in addition to the four hours marching under the sun, fighting for their rights with a smile on their faces.”
Delegations came from different states and organizations to join the march. As they arrived, they erected their tents in a park in Brasília, building what they called the “City of Daisies.” Participants started building on Aug. 14, three days before the march, and the city kept growing until the 17th.
The city buzzed with representatives from many organizations who brought handcrafts from their regions to sell and exchange with their fellow Daisies. Nongovernmental organizations also distributed informative material about women’s health and gender equality.
Gonçalves says that, although the infrastructure was precarious, the city was beautiful with the many passionate Daisies.
“What impressed me the most was their resistance, their conviction and their will to make a difference,” she says. “These are the people who provide food to our country, and now they were providing fuel to our cause.”
Pitanga says the march’s main victory is gaining visibility for the causes championed by the rural women workers.
“It projects women as protagonists of federal politics, something that would be unimaginable a few decades ago,” she says.
Sen. Lídice da Mata from Bahia state, a member of the Brazilian Socialist Party, joked that the women stopped traffic.
“The women came, fought and stopped the traffic – which is a great victory in itself,” she says, laughing. “But, of course, the main victory was to present our needs to the president and be heard.”
Before the march, organizers held forums in various states to vote for recommendations in order to create an official document with demands. They then presented the communiqué with 150 items to Rousseff, who said she also considered herself a Margarida.
Rousseff responded to the Margaridas on the day after the march. She promised to build 16 basic health floating units in the rivers of the forests, as well as 10 reference centers to enforce health and safety standards in the workplace, by 2012. In addition, the president committed to investing more in family-owned farming immediately and to implement a national program on agroecology, the application of ecological principles to agriculture, among other measures beneficial to women from the forests and rural communities.
“Rousseff reunited the media, civil society organizations and the ministers and answered to the demands of the Margaridas with the launching of a national program on maternal health, for example,” Gonçalves says. “Although, I believe that she left much to be desired in her response.”
After the presidential address, the Margaridas went back to the City of Daisies and started packing. Some of them had left the day before immediately after the march, but many stayed until the president responded to their demands.
Buses left Brasília at dusk before diverging in different directions to return the Daisies to their hometowns across the huge country. Back in their real lives, the Margaridas returned to work in the forests and the countryside to wait for the improvements the president promised.
Evaluating the march, Gonçalves says that the Margaridas’ agenda left much to be desired in regards to feminist demands.
“Sexual and reproductive health, including the demand to decriminalize abortion, a constant topic in the feminist movement in Brazil, were barely mentioned in the document, and they remain a taboo,” she says. “This might be due to the hierarchical structure of workers’ unions, who were leading the organization of the march and, internally, are still dominated by men. We can see that there are still inequalities when it comes to decision-making.”
Paulo Rubem, a congressman from the Democratic Workers’ Party, says that the Margaridas have achieved several privileges regarding social security and access to health services for rural women workers, as well as combated much of the discrimination in the labor market, since the march’s inception.
Since the inaugural year, the Margaridas have pressured the government to implement policies and guarantee various rights. Among other accomplishments, the march has achieved the right for rural women workers to retire at age 55, has expanded rural women’s access to identification documents to allow them to benefit from government policies and has entitled them to gain property through land reform.
Rubem says that to achieve even more concrete results, the women’s movement needs a more permanent presence in Parliament in addition to occasional events like the March of the Daisies.
“There is still a lot to be done, of course,” he says. “As a man, I can say we have a debt of centuries with the rights of women. I believe that only with pressure and mobilization can we transform marginalization and discrimination into equality.”