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Woman sewing mask in Rio de Janeiro, credit ;

Women in favelas step up during inadequate COVID-19 government response

Making sense of the impact on society
Professor Cathy McIlwaine

Professor of Development Geography

27 May 2020

Favela communities in Brazil have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not a day goes by without news of increasing deaths and severe political mishandling by President Jair Bolsonaro – intensifying existing inequalities and worsening conditions amongst the extremely marginalised people of Rio de Janeiro. Professor Cathy McIlwaine explores how the women of the city’s ‘slums’ are picking up the slack in an effort to support and protect their communities.

In Rio de Janeiro, the historical and extreme marginalisation of around 1.5 million people who live in the city’s favelas (or slum communities) worsens. The challenges of the pandemic for these communities, which have been systematically neglected by the state, are monumental.

The crisis is especially hard on women in the favelas. Women everywhere are disproportionately affected by multiple caring demands, undermined and insecure livelihoods and a shocking increase in domestic violence linked with the COVID-19 crisis. While these effects are global, women and girls living in marginalised communities are more severely affected.

Yet, although the resourcefulness and resilience of many favela residents has already been reported, it is women who have been major players in confronting the effects of the pandemic, despite suffering its worst effects.

Women and supplies in Rio de Janeiro, credit Casa das Mulheres

The situation in the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro

Nowhere is the crisis more obvious than in the Complexo da Maré – a favela complex of 16 communities and home to around 140,000 people, making it the largest and most populous set of slums in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro.

The proportion of fatalities to positive tests are extremely high at 30 percent (as of 4 May 2020). With many residing in overcrowded housing, with poor access to water and sanitation services and incomes being decimated, it has been extremely difficult to halt the spread of the virus. The health system, comprising seven health centres and one medium-sized hospital is overwhelmed. Hunger and starvation are affecting many residents, especially the homeless and already vulnerable such as those with drug problems.

In Maré, women comprise 51 percent of the population, with 45 percent heading their own households – all of whom have to reconcile family, domestic, livelihood and professional responsibilities.

Many of these women lived precarious lives prior to the pandemic. Recent pre-COVID research, involving 800 women from Maré, revealed that many of the women surveyed had limited education and had restricted access to formal employment, with most either unemployed or running small businesses.

Meanwhile, 36 percent experienced gender-based violence and 76 percent stated that it was a common occurrence. Women also have to deal with the fact that Maré is dominated by four of Rio de Janeiro’s Armed Criminal Groups (ACGs) as well as repeated violent incursions into the community by the police in the name of ‘security’, which have continued during the pandemic.

Evidence of women providing for their community

The non-profit Casa das Mulheres, a subsidiary organisation of Redes da Maré, has been at the centre of a locally-run campaign to save lives, from both the virus and hunger, and to prevent further deaths.

Their campaign, ‘Maré Says NO to Coronavirus’ is based on the collection of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for distribution to professionals working in health facilities in the territory, a daily online health advice service via email and a WhatsApp channel, plus a prevention campaign.

Of the 111 campaign employees, 98 are women. Volunteers make up the rest of staff, totalling 300 people. Thus, it is women who are mainly running and operating the centrepieces of the campaign, including:

  • the distribution of food baskets and personal hygiene and cleaning items to the poorest families and most vulnerable.
  • a catering programme providing 500 meals a day for the sick who are unable to leave their homes and homeless people substance abuse problems. This employs 30 women (out of a total of 42).
  • a sewing programme making masks (with the aim of providing two per resident by the end of June). This employs 56 women.

Thanks to their efforts, 20,000 people directly benefitted in the first four weeks of the campaign: 7,272 households received food parcels and cleaning /hygiene supplies; 4,600 meals were supplied to homeless people; and supplies reached all 16 favelas.

The numbers of those indirectly benefitting are much higher. This means that women have been at the heart of efforts to prevent starvation and the spread of the virus in the community. It is hard to imagine the campaign without the work and energy of these women.

[As] the residents have been neglected by the state, the women are taking on the jobs of keeping people alive and safe.– Director and founder of Redes da Maré, Eliana Sousa Silva
Women cooking in Rio de Janeiro, credit Casa das Mulheres

Dealing with ongoing armed conflict and violence

These same women are also dealing with continued armed conflict. Three police incursions have taken place in Maré since the start of the pandemic. There has also been an increase in domestic violence according to the Casa das Mulheres.

Julia Leal from the Casa das Mulheres reported that although they are not operating normally, they are still providing a remote service for women with a special hotline to support them.

It has increased; in the past women came first for another service such as a divorce or pension and then begin to discuss domestic violence. During the pandemic it changed. Now we have women coming directly for help with violence.– Julia Leal, Casa das Mulheres

While it is very difficult to measure, wider estimates in Brazil have reported a 50 percent in domestic violence, with 62 restraining orders against abusers in Rio state in April alone and five femicides recorded (compared to one in March).

In the face of unprecedented adversity, it is remarkable then that women in Maré have responded with such strength, power and resilience. Of course, it should not be down to women alone to cope with the crisis. They need support from the state and the existing structural inequalities must be addressed. But while the state either ignores Maré and its residents, or sends in police incursions, it has been women who have held the community together.

Women in Rio de Janeiro, credit Casa das Mulheres


Redes da Maré are research partners on a project funded by the British Academy's Heritage, Dignity and Violence programme, as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) led by Professor Cathy McIlwaine in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London (Professor Paul Heritage), People’s Palace Projects, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Professor Miriam Krenzinger) and Redes da Mare (Dr Eliana Sousa Silva).

To donate to the 'Maré Says NO to Coronavirus' campaign, visit JustGiving

In this story

Cathy McIlwaine

Cathy McIlwaine

Vice Dean (Research), Faculty of Social Sciences and Public Policy

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