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14 December 2022

What does the re-election of Lula mean for gender equality in Brazil?

Aleida Borges & Ligia Carolina Oliveira

From high rates of gender-based violence, to poor female representation in politics, there is much for Brazil's new President to address if he's serious about gender equality

Brazil elections news story

On 30 October 2022, Brazilians voted to bring the Workers' Party back into power, through the re-election of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, for his third term as President. This was by no means an easy win, as Lula was only able to beat the incumbent, President, Jair Bolsonaro, by an extremely narrow margin of 1.8 per cent. Brazil’s voter base is divided along socio-economic, racial, and gendered lines. Polling data from the two election rounds shows that people from poorer economic groups and women – particularly black women – are most likely to support Lula, while Bolsonaro’s voter base was mainly male and people from more affluent economic groups. This gendered divide highlights how much is at stake for Brazilian women when it comes to these tightly fought elections.

Violence against women remains a major issue

According to the World Health Organization, Brazil ranks fifth globally in femicide rates. Although the overall murder rate declined in 2019, femicide rates had a 12 per cent increase, according to an analysis based on official data by state governments. In 2021, the Brazil Forum for Public Security reported that, in Brazil, a woman was raped every 10 minutes and killed every seven hours. And this picture is particularly bleak for Black women. While femicide rates in Brazil increased for all women between 2007 and 2017, the murder rate for Black women increased by 29.9 per cent, more than seven times the increase for non-Black women (4.5%) over the same period.

Violence against women is a longstanding and pervasive problem in Brazil, and governments play a crucial role in addressing, or perpetuating, this problem. In addition to budget cuts, Bolsonaro’s term was marked by the routine undermining of efforts to fight gender-based violence and the constant humiliation of women. Examples include publicly declaring that women should have fewer employment opportunities and earn less than men for the same work because they go on maternity leave, and arguing that efforts to fight gender-based violence do not need more money, just “a change in attitude and behaviour”. This despite reports by Oxfam that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2047 for Brazil to close its gender wage gap. It will take until 2089 to close the gap for Black women.Through Bolsonaro’s misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, elitist, and belligerent public discourse, he legitimised widespread discrimination and impunity for explicit sexism.

Longstanding inequalities in women’s political representation

While women account for 52 per cent of Brazil’s population, 52.5 per cent of the electorate and almost half of party membership (44.2 per cent), they constitute just 15 per cent of representatives at federal level. This places Brazil in 157th place out of 196 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranking of women in national parliaments. The lowest representation was at the level of governors, with only 3.7 per cent of women elected, but the representation was depressingly low across the board – mayors (10.7 per cent), senators (12.9 per cent), councillors (13.5 per cent) and state deputies (15.3 per cent). At government level, Bolsonaro’s administration had one of the lowest rates of women in the world, with only 2 out of 22 ministers (9 per cent), well below the average of 20.7 per cent of women leading ministries. Bolsonaro argued that this was a "balanced proportion", despite global figures and counties like Spain, Colombia, Costa Rica, France and Canada reaching rates of over 50 per cent. This places Brazil last, among all countries in South America, and second to last in the Americas, ahead of only Belize.

However, the lack of women’s representation in politics is not specific to Bolsonaro’s government. Despite the enactment of a parity law in 1995, between 1998 and 2018, the increase in the representation of women was only 9.4 per cent at the federal level and 5.3 at state level. There is even less representation of Black women who constitute a quarter of Brazil’s population, the largest demographic group in the country.

Does Lula’s re-election matter for equality?

Globally there is much enthusiasm for the return of Lula, hailed as the return of democracy to Brazil. So far, it seems that gender equality and poverty reduction policies will be key to Lula’s legitimacy during his term. During his campaign, Lula made it clear that the gender pay gap is on his agenda. Research by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership found that a dedicated, well-funded body with the authority to impose sanctions and guarantee full transparency is crucial to effectively tackle pay gaps. Thus, Lula’s pledge to reinstate the Ministry of Women – which was merged into the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights by Bolsonaro’s administration – is a step in the right direction.

Yet, there is still much about Lula’s vision on gender equality that is unclear, as he only officially takes office in January 2023. He is already attracting condemnation for appointing a transition government that is 64 per cent male and 75 per cent white. Also, critics have highlighted that Lula is inheriting a much more fragile economy than when he was last in power and thus it remains to be seen how much focus he will have on social policies that benefit the poor and most marginalised in society. Lula also promised a government that will strengthen the institutional support available to victims of domestic abuse; prioritise the prevention, investigation and prosecution of crimes and violence against women; and create an Integrated Care Policy, expanding service networks such as childcare centres, care homes and comprehensive investment in education, aiming to socially distribute the care burden.

Brazil is a country of over 214 million people, which despite being the largest economy in Latin America continues to have extreme levels of inequality. Compared to neighboring countries, Brazil is 35 years behind Uruguay and 30 years behind Argentina. Clearly there is much to be done, so whatever direction Lula’s government takes on gender equality, poverty alleviation and the protection of the environment, all eyes will be on Brazil.


Aleida Borges is a Research Associate at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership and leads the Grassroots Women Leaders research stream.

Ligia Carolina Oliveira is Associate Professor, Work and Organisational Psychology, Universidade Federal de Uberlândia and an Affiliated Researcher at our sister institute, the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at the Australian National University.