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Democratic Trends Favoring Women's Rights Movement

Democratic Trends Favoring Women's Rights Movements

By Sherwood Ross

When a country shifts from authoritarian rule to democracy it provides a window of opportunity for women to secure wider rights and economic gains, a prominent Brazilian sociologist says.

"These are moments of creativity when new institutions may be created and new roles redefined," said sociologist Neuma Aguiar of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

"The limited zone between democracy and authoritarianism may also result in innovations being followed by backlashes, but the redefinition of womens' roles throughout the world has been one of the major accomplishments of the recent decades of struggles that should be evaluated in historic terms," Aguiar said.

"Elites weakened by internal disputes have allowed for new ideas as new women writers emerge and disseminate their ideas, advertising this new position for women, opening the cultural system and redefining women's roles," Aguiar said. As democracy flowers, "women's education is used to contribute to more enlightened households, helping to educate their children, thus redirecting the gender roles congruent to cultural traditions, but in an innovative manner.”

Noting the global nature of the women's emancipation struggle, Aguiar said, "In each country and within each culture there have been movements for social change conducted by women, and sometimes by women and men together trying to free women from cultural, religious and economic exploitation, political oppression and patriarchic structures."

Some gains have been made in the face of authoritarian regimes that have often combined with reactionary church administrations to keep men dominant in their societies. Women have progressed faster, though, when the political axis of such church-state combinations have been weakened, Aguiar said. When these ties remain strong, historically as in Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan, military regimes undid the work of legal reformers. Aguiar said:

"Rule of terror makes it difficult for women's organizations to come out in the open and this makes it difficult to assess whether they are merely silent or have stopped to exist."

Latin America's experience with toppling dictatorships, she added, enabled women to increase their political participation and go forward to "create new forms of economic distribution through heightened decision-making and social planning." Women's councils have sprouted to establish communal vegetable gardens and kitchens, milk programs, and to champion land entitlement for women.

Aguiar praised the educational and political strides of Latin women saying that across the continent, with some exceptions, "women are now being more educated than the men at all levels of education" and, particularly in Chile and Argentina, "women have been elected to key positions, including the presidency."

A major awakening among women globally is the recognition that big development projects such as dams have obscured the need for immediate, micro-projects by which women can sustain themselves and their families. An example of this is India's Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in which 200,000 women garment-makers united and "gained access to political power and influence in international agencies," Aguiar said.

"Their focus was not on a growing working class in the midst of capitalist industrialization, but on successful organizations inventing new forms of access to resources that sustained basic livelihoods," Aguiar said. The underclass, she added, "came to the foreground after they found the remedies advocated by major international agencies had not resulted in distribution of the wealth."

One such organization is Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era(DAWN), which criticized the economic policies of agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Instead, it built bridges with agencies having "a distributive justice perspective" such as the UN Food and Agricultural Organization(FAO), Unicef, and Unifern.

Because DAWN believed "capitalist growth would not provide an alternative to fight poverty," it urged "closing of economic borders to foreign investment." Aguiar said, "This redirected the attention of development agencies to focus on the poor directly, and to organize actions that would provide them with access to income instead of hoping that large-scale investments would eventually reach them." Aguiar was elected General Coordinator of DAWN for the 1986-89 period.


Aguiar spoke at the Sixth Feminist Studies Network meeting last June 11th at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she is a professor of sociology. Her theme: “Feminist Issues and Contemporaneous Challenges.” Reach her at Or contact Sherwood Ross at

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