SoulCulture x ActionAid in Brazil: International Women’s Day Reflections

General view of Nova Holanda, Complexo da Maré, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

To mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, ActionAid UK’s youth engagement team flew a select number of UK bloggers – including SoulCulture – to Brazil as part of their ‘Bollocks to Inequality’ initiative, whilst launching a new year-long partnership with local organisations focusing on women’s rights.

Over the course of little under a week, we visited the favelas of Rio and Santarem and, via helpful translators, quizzed community leaders and the local young men, women, boys and girls under their wings about their social norms and experiences, including sexuality, violence, education and sexual health support and education [or lack of] – and their views on women’s rights and equality…

They all willingly shared. Our conversations explored subjects many people probably don’t touch on with people they know, let alone those they’ve just met.

I’ll wax more about my thoughts and experiences on the trip in greater detail on my return to London later this week but following today’s theme: my main reflections on International Women’s Day are of freedom. Which has a lot to do with knowledge and the empowerment, options and free choice it can bring.

The freedom to abandon university to proactively pursue my media career and launch my own business, for example, and the freedom to have gone to University in the first place, rather than not even be aware one existed almost right next to the place I live – as was the case for one woman I spoke to in the first favela we visited.

The freedom to decide what to do with our bodies; I was shocked to learn the first legal abortion in Santarem was only performed in 2009, and it took a 12-year old girl to be raped for that to happen – even then, the Brazilian public were never informed for fear of uproar.

The choice to, even on a basic level, access sexual health services and support. When I described the full range of free NHS sexual health services available to all of us in the UK, the young people we spoke to almost salivated over the concept of walk-in centres; “There would be a queue around the block.” They laughed, but weren’t joking.

The GADA activist Lucas Gomes at home with sisters Luciana Gomes (13), Lúria Gomes (10), mother Iracélia Gomes and friend Daiane de Souza Batista (playing guitar), Pará State, Brazil.

Having been here for such a brief trip [we were here for eight days, half of which were spent travelling] and spoken through translators [which inevitably yields a less personal conversation than if were speaking the same language one-on-one], I can only scratch the surface in understanding the issues faced by the people I encountered here.

But one notable constant on this visit showed me that no issue highlighted by them was unfamiliar territory to us in principle – in fact, these issues are noticeably universal regardless of what country you’re in; equality in the workplace, sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, stigma surrounding sexual violence, public moral judgment on private decisions…. The differences lie in our access to change. And in the UK, we have plenty of access.

The youths we spoke to were warm, confident and welcoming; I’m not sure we’d have had such a welcoming experience with a group of 15-20 similarly aged UK teens. We met some amazing people – and some strong, focused young women – despite their lack of access to half the educational and social support that we are exposed to and offered, often as a norm, in England.

This is the freedom I’m likely to mull over for the eight or so hours I’ll spend mid-air returning home this evening. We have access to so much. What are we doing with it?

Marsha is currently in Brazil as part of ActionAid’s Bollocks to Inequality initiative for International Women’s Day.

Photos by Eduardo Martino / Documentography / ActionAid.