Conservative mobilization and adolescent pregnancy in Latin America

by Camila Gianella, Marta R. de Assis Machado and Angélica Peñas Defago

On September 27, 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court – in a 6 to 5 judgmentdecided that public schools can have “confessional” (Catholic) religious teaching in their curriculum. The constitutional case had been proposed by the Attorney General, who argued that current practice – that privileges Roman Catholic indoctrination – would violate the separation between Church and State as well as religious freedom. Although the judgment brings severe consequences to education rights in Brazil, it is only one example of the recent battles by conservative religious groups to influence Brazilian public education. The Catholic church has a long history of interference in Roman Catholic countries, aiming to block comprehensive sex education in schools. More recently, other churches and conservative groups have adopted similar strategies to influence educational policies in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.

In 2011, a school booklet advocating “Schools without Homophobia,” prepared by the Brazilian Ministry of Education, was recalled after strong pressure from conservative movements, evangelical and Catholic leaders. It was denounced as an instrument to promote homosexuality among children and to destroy families. In 2014, the debate over Brazil’s National Education Plan was the battlefield of conservative and religious groups against what they called “gender ideology”. Supported by civil society mobilization, including a organization (ironically) called Escola sem Partido [Schools without Politics] conservative members of congress overruled a clause in the Brazilian National Education Plan that stated, among the goals of the public educational system, overcoming educational inequalities, with emphasis in the promotion of equality among races, regions, genders and sexual orientations. Vocal critics of anti-discriminatory public policies in education also applied political pressure during the discussion and passing of state and municipal education plans.

Brazil is only one example of a new wave of conservative mobilization that is sweeping Latin America, characterized by the gathering of powerful old economic elites and religious conservative groups. Among its central political strategies, this new wave fights against the inclusion of a gender equality approach in public policies, including school curricula among their principal battlegrounds. Across the region, this movement has won many major disputes with significant impact. They have succeeded on blocking gender approaches and comprehensive sexual education not only in Brazil, but in the Argentinian provinces of Mendoza and Entre Rios, in Monterrey (Mexico), Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and even in the most secular country in the region, Uruguay.
As our forthcoming letter to the Editor of The Lancet (2017) explains, this new wave of conservative mobilization has tangible health effects. By opposing sexual education in the schools as well as the introduction of a gender equality approach within the school curricula, they hinder a core element of public health strategies to empower girls and adolescents, and consequently to prevent teenage pregnancies, which have a devastating negative impact on women, by, for example, contributing to female poverty.

Latin America is already the only region in the world where adolescent pregnancies are not decreasing. . . . Continue reading

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The “Rights of Aliens” in Brazil – Beyond the use of a Mistaken Term

The “rights of aliens” in Brazil – beyond the use of a mistaken term

As it is widely known, the settlement of people in Brazil mainly occurred through immigration of the Portuguese, as well as of the people being brought from Africa (because of the Atlantic slave trade). Now, however, Brazil receives people from many different nations. These newcomers glimpse in Brazil the opportunity to undertake their businesses, complete or start their studies, or even escape from dire situations in their home countries.

According to Brazil’s last census, there were 431,319 foreigners living in Brazil in 2010.[1] In comparison to the census of 2000 (510,067 foreigners), the number of foreigners in the country has decreased. [2] However, the last census did not include either the massive inflow of Haitians Brazil has been receiving since the end of 2010, nor the current global refugee crisis, which Brazil, in a smaller proportion, is also experiencing.[3]

Foreigners in Brazil have their rights guaranteed by the Brazilian Foreigners’ Statute, which regulates the entrance, permanence, and compulsory departure of a foreigner in the Brazilian territory.[4] This Statute is, together with some specific refugees’ protection instruments as well as with the Brazilian Constitution, the most important legal instrument for the protection of all foreigners in Brazil.

The Brazilian Constitution was brought to life after the Foreigners’ Statute and it grants an equal treatment of both Brazilians and foreigners. Article 5 of the Constitution states that all people are equal before the law, i.e., all Brazilians and foreigners residing in Brazil are entitled to the inviolability of the right to life, freedom, equality, security and property: the so-called fundamental rights.[5] From the literal interpretation of Article 5, it could be understood that only the foreigners residing in Brazil have their fundamental rights guaranteed. However, the doctrinal interpretation[6] and the courts[7]  understand that the text of this article takes into account all immigrants, including the nonresidents in Brazil.

Further, according to Article 95 of the Brazilian Foreigners’ Statute, foreigners living in Brazil are entitled to the same legal treatment as Brazilian citizens.

In April 2016, however, some of the fundamental rights of foreigners living in Brazil were jeopardized. The National Association of Federal Police Officers (FANAPEF) has issued a polemic press release on its website. That press release recalled that, in the territory of Brazil, foreigners are prohibited from not only supporting any political position, but also from taking part in any demonstration or from organizing and taking part on reunions of any nature.

Less than one month after this press release, for example, an Italian citizen who works as a professor for a Federal University in the State of Minas Gerais was under formal police investigation for being active inside political parties, taking some political actions and taking part in demonstrations.[8]

FANAPEF has supported its press release on Article 107 of Brazilian Foreigners’ Statute, which states (among other points) that foreigners cannot exercise political activities in Brazilian territory, and cannot (directly or indirectly) interject into Brazil´s public issues. In this sense, the same article prohibits foreigners from maintaining any political society, group or entity or from organizing demonstrations that aims at discussing either Brazilian internal issues, or political issues of their home countries.

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Brazilian Judiciary Discusses Alternative Sentencing

Over 600,000 people are in prison in Brazil, according to data from the Prison Studies Centre from June 2014. This makes it the country with the 4th largest prison population in the world, after the United States, China, and Russia. With about 202 million inhabitants, 301 people are incarcerated for every 100,000 Brazilians. And with an occupancy level of about 154%, the prisons in which they are held are very overcrowded.

The country’s prison population has grown exponentially in the last two decades. In 1995, 173,104 people were incarcerated, but in June 2014, 607,731 people were held in detention centers (in the prison system and police detention facilities): an increase of more than 350%.

The past decade demonstrates that increased incarceration produces no significant measurable effect on homicides. Over the last thirteen years, the national homicide rate remained virtually constant: 28.5 per 100,000 in 2002 and 27.0 in 2013 (the most recent data available). During that period, the incarceration rate continued to soar, from 122 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to 301 in 2014. While no discernible reduction in homicides occurred, tens of thousands of families were destabilized and millions of Brazilian reais spent on incarceration.

Prisons impose enormous costs. On the imprisoned, on his or her family members who might depend on them for care and (financial) support, but also on the State. It is hard to calculate these costs exactly, but a number of studies in the United States have attempted to do so. However, it is important to note, first, that it is hard to make sound comparisons between countries because of methodological differences in the calculation of those costs, as well as because of a general absence of recent data. Moreover, the type of detention regime has an important impact on costs: logically, stricter security regimes are more expensive than lower-security settings. Lastly, richer countries have more money to spend on public institutions, including prisons, than poorer countries. This means that the monetary costs of the U.S. prison system do not necessarily reflect the situation in Latin America. However, it is fair to assume that the “collateral costs” of imprisonment are proportionately comparable.

This makes it relevant to note that in 2012, the Vera Institute calculated in The Price of Prisons that incarceration cost U.S. taxpayers about $39 billion per year—13.9% more than was reflected in the budgets of the 40 states that participated in the study. And the Pew Charitable Trusts found in 2010 that incarceration has a lasting negative economic impact on economic opportunity and mobility for inmates in the U.S., that those costs are largely borne by a person’s family and community, and that they reverberate across generations. Moreover, the Vera Institute’s The Human Toll of Jail provides an illustration of the impact of imprisonment, as well as the positive contributions that alternative sentencing can have.

Such studies are lacking in Brazil. Continue reading

Custody hearings lower rates of pretrial detention, but show structural problems in Brazilian criminal justice system

Pretrial detention should be an exceptional measure. According to the inter-American system of human rights (comprised of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights based in San Jose, Costa Rica), States are only allowed to apply it for procedural purposes: when there is a risk that the defendant might flee (and the case might thus not be brought to justice), and/or where proceedings (such as the investigation of the case) might be affected. Even in such situations—which must be corroborated by facts, not suppositions—the application of pretrial detention must be necessary, limited, and proportional, and should be reviewed periodically. The mere existence of indications of guilt of the defendant is not sufficient for the application of pretrial detention.

However, despite the fact that these standards have been applicable for more than two decades, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded in its 2013 Report on the Use of Pretrial Detention in the Americas that the application of pretrial detention continues to be the norm, rather than the exception, in the region.

That is why it was good news when, just over a year ago (at the end of February 2015), the Brazilian National Judicial Council (CNJ) started a pilot project in the city of São Paulo to organize so-called custody hearings. The initiative was the result of a collaboration between the CNJ, the Ministry of Justice and a Brazilian NGO called IDDD (Instituto de Defesa do Direito de Defesa – Institute for the Defense of the Right to Defense), and aimed to apply international law, transform the criminal justice system, stimulate restorative justice approaches, and collect data about the impact of alternative sentencing in Brazil.

In custody hearings, people detained in flagrante delicto are brought before a judge within 24 hours. This includes cases in which a person can be linked to a crime relatively shortly after its occurrence. However, no time limits are given, so judges can interpret this provision broadly. The judge, after having heard the defendant, the public prosecutor, and the defense counsel (a public defender or a private lawyer), decides whether the defendant will be allowed to await trial in freedom (posting bail or complying with provisional measures), or whether pretrial detention will be applied.

The custody hearings are still in an initial phase—even though they have been implemented throughout the country, their coverage beyond state capitals and outside of normal working hours is still limited. However, in May 2016, all jurisdictions in the country are required to organize these hearings.

The Stanford Human Rights Center, together with graduate student Thiago Reis, is monitoring the impact of these custody hearings in the city of São Paulo. Brazilian human rights organizations, such as IDDD, Instituto Sou da Paz, and Conectas, do this at a larger scale.

The initial results of the custody hearings are promising. Continue reading

CONSISTENCY: The Most Urgent Action Against Climate Change

During the first two weeks of December, world leaders will lay the foundation for a new global agreement on climate change at the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru. Its focus will be creating a draft agreement that, at next year’s COP in Paris, will replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This time, as stated by Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Peru’s Environment Minister and next President of the Conference, “the world will not accept another failure.”

Not without reason. Each year we are both witnesses to and victims of the worsening impacts of climate change. And our role in the problem is conspicuous: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in their fifth report.

With COP20 nearing and recognition of the problem growing, world leaders are increasingly giving speeches, promising action and making hopeful commitments. One recent example is the unprecedented agreement between China and the United States, which established limits and objectives for the reduction of emissions. In Latin America we, too, have taken effective steps to confront the greatest threat to the human race.

Despite this progress, however, there remain in practice many policies that both created the problem and make it worse. In particular, the reliance of our economies on fossil fuels, which generate 57 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide. In the search for alternatives, we have boosted hydroelectric power from large dams. But dams are not clean energy. They generate significant amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, particularly in tropical regions. These and the other negative impacts of dams are often ignored, resulting in rudimentary solutions to climate change.

Consistency, then, becomes critical. What follows are examples of the lack of it in our own countries. Let’s take them into account as an effort to make adjustments, align objectives, and not erase with one hand what was written by the other:

  • Brazil is a key player in the region, and has demonstrated its will to achieve positive results on climate change. Proof of this is the historic decline of deforestation in the country, 79 percent in the last decade, as announced by Brazil’s President at the Climate Summit. However, Brazil continues to focus its development on fossil fuels, mining and large dams, particularly in the Amazon Basin. Under the influence of Brazil, 254 new dams are either under construction or in planning phases in the Amazon Basin, including the massive Belo Monte Dam on the Xingú River.

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Brazil Protests Tie Present Grievances to Legacies of Dictatorship

As up to two million people took to the streets of Brazil’s cities last week, protesting a range of issues, I was struck by a comment at the end of one of the news reports.  The reporter quoted a protester as saying that “we never dealt with the end of the dictatorship and the legacy of authoritarianism, that’s why it’s so important that we’re waking up and taking to the streets.”

Indeed, Brazil is only now starting to deal with the legacy of its military dictatorship, which lasted until 1985.  Compared to other Latin American countries, there were few deaths, but large numbers of people were imprisoned, forced into exile, or lost their jobs as a result of their political activism.  Moreover, patterns of lack of accountability of police and military forces date from that era, and have never been changed.   The military, in particular, closed ranks to ensure that no officials were ever brought to justice.  In part as a result, police brutality is rampant, and the automatic response of security forces to social unrest is repression.  This is the connection between present and past that a new generation of Brazilians has recognized.

I was in Brazil last month for a discussion of measures to deal with the authoritarian past 25 years after the approval of a new, democratic constitution.  What was striking was the number of young people who have taken up the issue, even though they weren’t born at the time the military left power.  They see the connection to current corruption and abuse of power clearly.

Last year, after the Inter-American Court told Brazil to change its amnesty law to allow prosecutions for crimes against humanity (case is here) , but the Supreme Court declined to do so, President Dilma Roussef created a Truth Commission to look into what had happened.  The Commission, with part-time commissioners and a range of viewpoints, has taken a long time to get itself organized, and will probably need an extension to complete its work.  However, it spawned an interesting process of fragmentation:  impatient with the slow pace of hearings, states, cities and even universities have created their own Truth Commissions to look into what happened in their area.  They are holding hearings, commemorating victims, celebrating resistance to the military, and compiling information that they will both use locally and feed into the national process.   Their efforts combine with those of two other bodies:  a Commission on Amnesty, described here, that continues to hold sessions around the country where those who suffered economic harm as a result of the dictatorships’ policies can receive recognition and some compensation, and a Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances.  In addition, some prosecutors are looking into cases of forced disappearance, which, as continuing crimes, extend beyond the dates of the amnesty law.

It’s not possible to draw a straight causal line between the increased attention to the period of authoritarianism, and resistance to it, and what is happening in the streets  today.  But the renewed discussion of how people resisted the dictatorship, and what happened to them because of it, is no doubt one factor among many leading to today’s “wake-up.”