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This is volatile territory, Brazil and women. Machismo means the same thing in the Portuguese of Brazil as it does in the rest of the continent's Spanish, and it has been linked to the country's high levels of domestic violence and other physical assaults on women. But the nation was profoundly altered by the movimento das mulheres, the women's movement of the 1970s and '80s, and no American today is in a position to call Brazil retrograde on matters of gender equity. When President Dilma Rousseff was running for office last year, the fiercest national debates were about her political ideas and affiliations, not whether the nation was ready for its first female president. One of Rousseff's strongest competitors, in fact—a likely contender in future elections—was a female senator.

Brazil has high-ranking female military officers, special police stations run by and for women, and the world's most famous female soccer player (the one-name-only dazzling ball handler Marta). When I spent an evening in the city of Campinas with Aníbal Faúndes, a Chilean obstetrics professor who immigrated decades ago to Brazil and has helped lead national studies of reproductive health, Faúndes returned again and again to what he regards as the primary force pushing fertility change in his adopted country. "The fertility rate dropped because women decided they didn't want more children," he said. "Brazilian women are tremendously strong. It was just a matter of them deciding, and then having the means to achieve it."

The Cytotec episode offers sober but illuminating evidence. Cytotec is the brand name for a medication called misoprostol, which was developed as an ulcer treatment but in the late 1980s became internationally known as an early-abortion pill—part of the two-drug combination that included the medication known as RU-486. Even before the rest of the world received the news about pill-induced abortion, though—it entered the French and Chinese marketplaces in 1988, amid great controversy, and was subsequently approved in the U.S. for pregnancy termination—Brazilian women had figured it out on their own. No publicity campaign explained misoprostol; this was pre-Internet, remember, and Brazilian law prohibits abortion except in cases of rape or risk to the woman's life.

But that law is ignored at every level of society. "Women were telling each other what the dose was," says Brazilian demographer Sarah Costa, director of the New York City-based Women's Refugee Commission, who has written about Brazil's Cytotec phenomenon for the medical journal the Lancet. "There were street vendors selling it in train stations. Most public health posts at that time were not providing family planning services, and if you are motivated to regulate your fertility, even if you have poor services and poor information, you'll ask somebody, What can I do? And the information will flow."

The open availability of Cytotec didn't last long. By 1991 the Brazilian government had put restrictions on it; today it is available only in hospitals, although women assured me that packs of Cytotec could still be obtained over the Internet or in certain flea markets. But the public health service now pays for sterilizations and other methods of birth control. Illegal abortion flourishes, in circumstances ranging from medically reliable to scary. It may not be entirely easy or safe for a Brazilian woman to keep her family small, but there's no shortage of available ways to do so. And in every respect, women of all ages told me, this is what they now expect of themselves—and what contemporary Brazil, in turn, appears to expect from them.

"Look at the apartments," said a 31-year-old Rio de Janeiro marketing executive named Andiara Petterle. "They're designed for a maximum of four people. Two bedrooms. In the supermarkets, even the labels on frozen foods—always for four people."

The company Petterle founded specializes in sales research on Brazilian women, whose buying habits and life priorities seem to have been upended just in the years since Petterle was born. It wasn't until 1977, she reminded me, that the nation legalized divorce. "We've changed so fast," she said. "We've found that for many young women, their first priority now is their education. The second is their profession. And the third is children and a stable relationship."

So raising children hasn't vanished from these modern priorities, Petterle said—it's just lower on the list, and a tougher thing to juggle now. She has no children herself, although she hopes to someday. As Petterle talked, I heard what was becoming a familiar refrain: Contemporary Brazilian life is too expensive to accommodate more than two kids. Much of the public school system is ruim—useless, a disaster—people will tell you, and families scrape for any private education they can afford. The nationwide health system is ruim too, many insist, and families scrape for any private medical care they can afford. Clothing, books, backpacks, cell phones—all these things are costly, and all must somehow be obtained. And everything a young family might need is now available, as the mall windows relentlessly remind passing customers, with financiamento, short- or long-term.

Want your child to have that huge stuffed beagle, that dolly set in the fancy gift box, that four-foot-long, battery-powered, ride-on SUV? Buy it on the installment plan—with interest, of course. Consumer credit has exploded throughout Brazil, reaching middle- and working-class families that two decades ago had no access to these kinds of discretionary purchases paid off over time. While I was in Brazil, the business magazine Exame ran a cover story on the nation's new multi-class consumerism. The São Paulo journalist who wrote the story, Fabiane Stefano, described the bustle she witnessed inside a travel agency that had recently opened in a downscale city neighborhood. "Every five minutes a new person came in," she said. "Eighty percent of these people were going to the Northeast to see family. It takes three days to get there by bus, only three hours by plane." This was each customer's first time flying. "The guy had to explain to them that in an airplane they wouldn't see their luggage for a while."

It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that Brazilians are having fewer children just because they want to spend more money on each one. But these questions about material acquisition—how much everything now costs, and how much everyone now desires—both interested and troubled nearly every Brazilian woman I met. Smaller family size has been credited with helping boost the economies of rapidly developing countries, especially the mammoth five now referred to as BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. National economic growth brings no assurances of family well-being, though, unless that prosperity is managed thoughtfully and invested in coming generations. "This is something I've been thinking about, the way we're dropping the fertility rate in Brazil and the other BRICS countries, but I don't see any real work on getting more ethical," says the marketer Andiara Petterle. "We could be just one billion people in the world, and with the mentality we have now, we could be consuming just as many resources."

The morning I had coffee with a group of young São Paulo professional women, we sat at a sidewalk table across from a shop that carried eight different glossy parenting magazines. Each was thick with ads: the Bébé Confort Modulo Clip convertible stroller; the electronic "cry analyzer" to identify the reason your baby is crying; the wall-mounted DVD player that projects moving images over the crib ("Distracts better than a mobile!"). We studied the fashion photographs of beautiful toddlers in knits and aviator sunglasses and fake furs. "Look at these kids," said Milene Chaves, a 33-year-old journalist, her voice hovering between admiration and despair. She turned the page. "And it seems you have to have a decorated room too. I don't need a decorated room like this."

Chaves had a long-term boyfriend but has no children, not yet. "And when I do, I want to simplify things," she said. The half dozen friends around her agreed, the magazines still open on the table before us: attractive objects, they said, but so excessive, so disturbingly too much. These São Paulo women were in their 20s and 30s, with two children or one or none. They followed precisely the patterns described to me by national demographers. When I asked them whether they ever felt nostalgia for the less materialistic life of their elders, two generations back—eight children here, ten there, with nobody expecting decorators to gussy up the sleeping quarters—I was able to make out, among the hooting, the word presa. Imprisoned.

But their answers were nearly drowned out by their laughter.

Cynthia Gorney reported on child brides for our June issue. John Stanmeyer documented sacred rituals for our single-topic issue on water, which won a 2011 National Magazine Award.
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