Politics, Women’s Rights and the Evangelical Parliamentary Front in Brazil

An essay by Daniela Verztman Bagdadi

  1. Introduction

In spite of the establishment of a democratic system in 1889, Brazil experienced two dictatorships in the twentieth century. After 21 years in power, the military coup left the government in 1985 and a new Constitution was written in 1988. In this period, many political and social actors, which were previously oppressed by the regime, such as feminist and human rights movements, gained space and largely contributed to the new legislation. The Constitution is, therefore, considered a victory for these groups not only because it reaffirmed the importance of a secular and democratic State but also because it prescribed the equality of all genders before the law. (Guedes and Pedro, 2010)

In the past three decades, Brazil witnessed the multiplication of policies and institutions focused on women’s rights. (Guedes and Pedro, 2010) Examples such as the sanction of Law Maria da Penha (2006), which protects female victims from domestic violence and the creation of the Secretaria Especial de Políticas para Mulheres (2003), which simplifies women’s access to public services as well as promotes their economic independence, were important steps to women’s broader social and economic inclusion.

Parallel to these policies, however, the number of law projects pressing for restrictions on women’s liberties and rights has increased. 2015 was, for example, a delicate year for women’s rights in Brazil. The lower house of Congress, for instance, voted laws or maintained agendas, which could threaten women’s access to morning-after pills, the possibility of abortion in case of rape, not to mention the law project PL 6583/2013. If approved, it would mean that, in Brazil, families would only be officially recognised by the State as such if composed by a man and a woman. (Negrão, 2015) The increasing number of single mothers, for example, would be, in this context, disregarded.

These projects are a result of several processes which include the growth of conservative politicians, especially from the Evangelical Parliamentary Front (FPE), such as Eduardo Cunha, Eduardo Bolsonaro, Pastor Marco Feliciano, etc. It is important to note that many politicians who are evangelic are not conservative or part of the FPE and will not be referred to in this essay.  This paper, in this context, investigates the economic, political and social rise of the members of the FPE and their impact on women’s rights in Brazil.


  1. The growth of evangelical churches in Brazil and the question of gender

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center (2010), demonstrated that Brazil is the most catholic country in the world with an estimated population of 126.750.00 devotees. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics – IBGE (2010), however, pointed out that the percentage of self-identified catholics in fact decreased in the last decades and the number of evangelical converts expanded. If in 1991, they represented 9% of the Brazilian population, in 2010 this percentage reached 22,2%.

In 2004, Prof. Dr. Ricardo Mariano, from the Department of Sociology of the University of São Paulo, pointed out the unequal distribution of evangelicals throughout Brazil. If in his first study, he noted their concentration in peripheries of urban areas in the Southeast region of the country, nine years later, he (2013) also observed their expansion to northern and midwestern agricultural frontiers.

It is important to point out that evangelical churches and their communities are very diverse in their organisation, religious practices, political views and social configurations. Their growth, in the past decades, was mostly felt by pentecostal and neo-pentecostal churches while traditional evangelical churches and missionary groups remained considerably steady with the exception of the Baptists. (Souza, 2013)

Despite of the difficulties of tracing the demographic profile of a constant expanding and diverse community, Machado (2005) pointed out that the number of women exceeded the number of men in pentecostal churches. Concerning their reasons to convert, the author (2005) noticed that while men sought religious help due to unemployment, financial difficulties and personal health problems, women wished to resolve domestic issues. In this regard, Farias and Fonseca (2010:8) pointed out that, if on one hand evangelical churches offer immediate answers to women’s personal and domestic issues, on the other hand they reaffirm their traditional roles in society.

Notwithstanding the previously mentioned gender distribution, Machado (2005) revealed that the vast majority of positions of leadership inside evangelical churches are still occupied by men. In a recent study, she also highlighted (2012: 37) that 61% of pentecostal devotees believe that women should obey their husbands at all times. Albertina Malafaia, mother of the evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia of the Assembléia de Deus church, for example, believes that women should honour their husbands by remaining behind the scenes. (Malafaia in Farias and Fonseca, 2010: 26) Additionally, according to her son, marriage is a sacred institution in which men and women have different roles. He states that men, as more rational individuals, are responsible to lead, protect and provide for the family, while women should help men in their duties through balancing family relationships. (Chagas, 2014)

Despite of the uncommon dialogue between feminism and evangelical churches, there are evangelical female movements, which claim for more representation inside their religious communities. The Liga de Senhoras Luteranas (Lutheran Women’s League) as well as groups of wives of pastors at the Assembléia de Deus, for example, aimed to gather more space for women inside their communities. At the Assembleia’s national convention in 1999, for instance, 500 pastors voted against the ordination of female pastors. Only 3 votes were favourable. (Farias and Fonseca, 2010) In this context, despite their high numbers, women still face difficulties to occupy leadership positions in their religious communities.

Regarding the topic of representation, the Brazilian media in general tends to be recognised as sexist. Machado (1999) pointed out that topics such as autonomy and sexuality are hardly covered and reported through a female perspective. It is important to note that the second largest media corporation in Brazil, Rede Record, is owned by the evangelical pastor Edir Macedo, leader of the neo-pentecostal Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus – IURD church. The company was previously founded and owned by the businessman Paulo Machado de Carvalho but was purchased in 1989 by Macedo for $45 million dollars. This reveals the economic power of this church in Brazil today. Although considered more liberal regarding women’s clothing and cosmetics, their access to beaches, cinema and television, the IURD has also a strong male hierarchical structure (Mariano, 2004).

In spite of the fact that the demographic profile of evangelical churches is difficult to trace, it is possible, however, to note that the large percentage of women in these communities does not result in vaster opportunities of female leadership and representation.


  1.  Political Representation after 1985

During the dictatorship, evangelical churches preached that devotees had no business in politics. In the 1980s, however, they initiated their political activities after the redemocratization by sending a limited number of representatives to the Constituent Assembly in 1987-1988. In the following years, they adopted the slogan “irmão vota em irmão” (brother votes in brother) in order to attract the support of their followers. In this context, they preached that voting is not only an exercise of citizenship but also a religious act against the Devil which, in their perspective, is installed in the National Congress. (Trevisan, 2013)

The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD) church was one of the first in Brazil to create an organized electoral system. They initiated their political activities in 1986 but it was only in the mid 1990s that they created the so called model of ‘official candidacy’. According to its guidelines, the number of candidates must correspond to the number of devotees in each region. After being chosen by an evangelical council, the official candidates are presented to the devotees in cults, worship services, mass concentration events such as the March for Jesus and through the evangelical media. The candidate is usually a person well-known by the community, for example, a pastor, where there’s a clear transference of power from the church to the political arena, and their term in office is strictly connected to the evangelical institution. The model of “official candidacy” was so successful in Brazil that other evangelical churches applied it in their own communities. (Souza 2009)

In spite of being the majority of the Brazilian population and of evangelical churches, the number of female politicians is still limited. During 2010-2014 administration, for example, 68 parliamentary evangelicals were elected but only 8 were women. (Souza, 2011) The little but existent interest in female evangelical candidates can be explain by the quota policy established in 1996 which guarantee the current percentage of female politicians in Brazil. The existence of female evangelical candidates therefore work to boost the evangelical electoral gains.  (Machado 2005)

The economic and political power of evangelical churches attracted many political parties which offered them several positions in their platforms. (Machado, 2005) As previously mentioned, evangelical churches are very diverse. There is, however, a tendency for them to unify in what they consider important matters. As a result, in 2003 evangelical politicians from different parties created the Frente Parlamentar Evangélica – FPE (Evangelical Parliamentary Front), an organized group established with the purpose of weekly discussing topics which are against or in accordance to Christian values. One of their objectives is, therefore, to monitor political projects which threaten their ideals. A topic which is constantly debated in this group is, for example, abortion. In order to mobilize and unify their followers against this project, they launched the Jornadas Nacionais em defesa da vida e da família (National day journeys in defence of life and family) where they not only amplify the project’s popular disapproval but also strengthen the bonds between politics and religion as well as empower evangelical youth activists. (Trevisan 2013) As previously mentioned, it is important to note that not all evangelical politicians were elected through their churches and not all are members of the FPE.

In her research, Negrão (2015: 209) reveals that the FPE today is not an isolated political force. It has, on the contrary, a connection to the Frente Parlamentar Agropecuária (Agriculture Livestock Parliamentary Front) and other sectors composed by ex-military, the gun industry and businessmen in the field of security services. These groups have therefore created together a strong political agenda compromised with the restriction of sexual and reproductive rights and which advocates for the non-restrictive use of guns, the expansion of the agribusiness and the amplification of State intervention in the economy. Recalling Mariano’s research (2013), it is interesting to remember the recent evangelical expansion to agricultural frontiers. One may therefore conclude that there can be also an agenda to control rural communities which historically fought for land reform.

In this context, the FPE today can be considered a right-wing political force in contemporary Brazil which is not only resistant to several social and economic reforms but also advocates for legislations which regulate women’s autonomy and sexuality.


  1. Evangelical Politicians and Women’s Rights in Brazil

The Constitution of 1988 is a milestone for women’s and human rights in Brazil as well as for the establishment of democratic governments in Latin America. However, the combination between religion and politics in a secular state can be problematic for democracy and a threat to women’s rights.

Between 1980 and 2010, 92 thousand women were assassinated in Brazil. (Negrão 2015) The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics – IBGE (2012) also shows that in 2012 the Central de Atendimento à Mulher (Women’s Service Center), created to manage complaints and collect notifications of violent assaults against women, received 47.555 registrations just in the first semester of the year. Violence against women is therefore a relevant issue in Brazil and needs to be taken seriously.

The National High School Examination (Enem) was established to manage the entrance of high school students in Brazilian universities. Each year, students need to fill a multiple choice exam as well as to write an essay on a contemporary issue. In 2015, the topic of the essay was violence against women and the headlines of the exercise contained a quote by Simone de Beauvoir. Some evangelical politicians all over Brazil demonstrated their disapproval to the topic and criticised the government of Dilma Rousseff as well as the Ministry of Education. The evangelical deputies of Campinas’ city council even approved a motion condemning the thoughts of de Beauvoir apart from requesting the annulment of the test. The politician Campos Filhos, for example, explained that the government is attempting to impose the discussion of gender which, in his opinion, is an absurd. According to him, “men are born men and women are born women” and the State should respect that. (Estadão 2015).

The example above reveals how the topic of women’s rights finds resistance in contemporary Brazilian politics. Some evangelical politicians constantly demonstrate their discontent with gender debates. Since they have not only political representation but also the power to develop law projects they can directly affect affect women’s rights apart from disrespecting the 1988 Constitution. Some of these projects by them are are:


  • Law Project PL 5069/2013: create restrictions for victims of rape to go through an abortion procedure apart from punishing medical professionals who assist them. Furthermore, this project proposed to reestablish a mandatory corpus delicti exam. This practice was abolished in 2004 and is considered by many specialists invasive and humiliating. The author of this project is the president of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha. It was approved in the House of Representatives and was forwarded to the Brazilian Senate. (Negrão 2015)
  • Law Project PL 6583/2013: aims to create the Family Statute. This would mean that a family would be only recognized as such if composed by a man and a woman. The author of this project is the evangelical politician Anderson Ferreira. (Negrão 2015)
  • Law Project PL 470/2007: aims to create the Statute of the Unborn Child. According to it, no woman is allowed to do an abortion in case of rape even if her life is endangered or if the fetus is already dead. Additionally, artificial insemination and stem cells research would not be allowed in a national scale. Even though the project was not approved, it remained a permanent threat. (Negrão, 2015) This project was created by the evangelical politician Flavio Bezerra who is also a pastor at IURD. (Bresciani, 2009)

As can be seen above, there is a clear attempt of many evangelical politicians to regulate female autonomy and sexuality through these law projects.  In  PL 5069/2013 and PL 470/2007, for example, it is clear that there’s an imposition of motherhood to women whose life is endangered by pregnancy, whose fetus is already dead or who were victims of rape. Furthermore, PL 470/2007 would also create a barrier to women who wish to give birth in their late 30s through egg freezing procedures. By denying women this possibility, those who wish to become mothers would need to pause their professional pursuits much earlier to have a baby. Additionally, PL 6583/2013 would officially disregard women who are in the forefront on their families such as single mothers. Furthermore, it could also limit the possibility for single women to adopt a child.

Apart from these projects, many evangelical politicians constantly pressure president Dilma Rousseff regarding many policies. It is worth mentioning that in her first presidential election she fully committed to reject abortion so that she could establish an alliance with evangelical churches. When she sanctioned a law which guaranteed free morning-after pill access to victims of rape, the evangelical community was outraged. (Passarinho 2013) It is interesting to note that today one of the leading figures of Rousseff’s impeachment process is Eduardo Cunha. This paper, however, will not refer to this current situation.

In respect to contemporary Brazilian politics, the recent rise of the FPE  who aim to introduce religious dogmas as State laws can be therefore considered a threat to women’s rights in Brazil. Not only their projects aspire to interfere with female autonomy and sexuality but also they disrespect the Constitution by disregarding the fact that Brazil is a secular and democratic State.


  1. Conclusion

As seen on this paper, evangelical churches are rapidly growing since the end of the dictatorship. If before they supported the military coup, now they are engaging in politics introducing religious dogmas to the political arena. In this context, to vote is not only an exercise of citizenship but it also has a religious purpose of purifying Brazilian politics from, what they consider to be, bad influences.

In spite of being the highest percentage of devotees, women are still not occupying leadership positions inside their churches and those who became candidates are mostly supported due to the quota policy recently adopted by the Brazilian State. This does not mean, however, that there are no exceptions. Nevertheless, one may therefore conclude that most evangelical churches are a male dominated environment where there’s still the belief that women’s role in life is fulfilled through motherhood and procreation as well as in the domestic support of their husbands. In this context, many evangelical politicians in the FPE represent today a threat to women’s rights in Brazil. There’s therefore a national need to reinforce secular and democratic values in Brazil in order to ensure that female autonomy is not put at stake.


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