An Interview with disabilities activist and new Brazilian Senator Mara Gabrilli
In October, disabilities activist Mara Gabrilli was elected to the Brazilian Senate at the age of 51. Many saw her victory as a sign that although a lot of extremism and hatred has been expressed in Brazilian politics over the past few years, it’s possible for this nation to elect figures aligned with a progressive agenda.
In 1993, Gabrilli broke her neck during a car crash and was rendered tetraplegic. After becoming known in her community as an activist for people with disabilities, Gabrilli went on to represent São Paulo as a councilwoman, then municipal secretary for people with disabilities, then a congresswoman, and, now, a senator.
In addition to advocating for those with disabilities, Gabrilli fights for better education and health public services in a country that is the ninth world economic power, but struggles with deep inequality among social classes and is embroiled in political corruption scandals. The recently elected senator told The FBomb about her positions on the dilemmas her country faces, discrimination, and how to deal with the newly elected president, the polemical, far-right Jair Bolsonaro.
The FBomb: Based on your experiences living with different ability statuses, how do you think sexism impacts the lives of disabled women?
Senator Mara Gabrilli: Sexism impacts not only the lives of disabled people, but of everyone. We still live in a very sexist society.
But specifically, in the universe of those with disabilities, the reality is that a large number of women with disabilities around the world suffer on a daily basis with violence from partners, relatives, caretakers, and people [close to them]. A survey by International Network of Women with Disabilities (INWWD) pointed out that 40 percent of disabled women around the world are victims of domestic violence and 12 percent have been raped. The survey also affirmed that disabled women are more susceptible to abuse than nondisabled women.
There is also the passive-aggressive violence that lies in the manner that society acts (and reacts) towards a disabled woman. People aren’t used to facing her as an ordinary citizen. Many people believe that a disabled woman can’t be a mother, can’t date, or can’t hold some working positions. This prejudice is based in gender and hails from a sexist society that still has a long way to go. However, the violence perpetrated against disabled women is even more hostile and cruel, so it must be fought against.
How do you view your election as a way to represent previously marginalized Brazilians who share parts of your identity? How do you think the elections of other women will also help the country?
As a senator, I’ll not only be more helpful to disabled citizens, but to everyone in the state of São Paulo and all Brazilians. In Congress, I’m one among 513 deputies. In the Senate, I’ll be one among 81. The attention is bigger, the projects run faster. Take, for example, that [as a congresswoman I helped] promote important changes to the Brazilian Inclusive Law (a measure to help disabled people access rights guaranteed to them). Picture what can be done in the Senate.
Although we didn’t grow the number of female senators, the number of congresswomen will be way bigger in the next term. For a long time, Brazilian politics has presented itself as a homogenous, closed environment that is, above all else, commanded by men. Not having the true diversity of our society represented blocks our representatives from [considering] different political questions and taking social layers into account. We must oxygenate politics with diversity, and next year we will have many positive examples of this renovation. For example, in the lower Chamber we will have Tábata Amaral, 24, born in the outskirts São Paulo, daughter of a maid and a bus ticket reviser who went to Harvard and came back to Brazil to dedicate herself to politics, mostly in the educational area. We will also have Joênia Batista, the first indigenous women elected for the chamber. In the Senate there is Fabiano Contarato, the first openly gay senator (representing Espírito Santo state, from the southeastern region of Brazil).
I can say that I’m an example of an intersectional minority in politics as I’m a woman and tetraplegic. My life and work personify this line of thinking. When I started in politics after breaking my neck and losing movement in my arms and legs, I was imbued with a feeling to work for those like me — people who have a disability and never felt included. This work has qualified me to work for every Brazilian citizen. In addition, from 2019 and on, I will bring my experiences and my attention to evaluate public policies for disabled people around the world as an elected member of the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In Brazil there is a quota for women running in the elections; at least 30 percent of a party’s candidates must be women to promote the overall number of women elected. What is your position on the quota? Has it influenced your career?
I believe it is important and necessary. We still have a very sexist culture in our politics. The problem is that many political parties still use female candidates as “stooges” to fill the quota. This year we had something new: the obligation to use of at least 30 percent of the party’s monetary fund for female candidates. When I started my public life, this quota didn’t exist. Coincidently or not, the number of elected congresswomen saw a huge leap after it was created.
You have advocated for health and education to be improved in our country. What do you think must be done in these areas and why are they so important? What other issues are important to you?
Education and health are two pillars to the country’s development. Without health, nobody leaves home, nobody does anything. And among all public policies that favor social inclusion, the one with the most potential to generate opportunities and fight poverty and marginalization is education. Half of those entering primary school today won’t complete middle school. We need to change this reality. I also say that I’m privileged to have broken my neck after going to two colleges to study psychology and marketing and advertising. It is very hard to study in Brazil while having a disability.
Besides those areas, I want to intensify the work to combat corruption in the Senate by creating a permanent commission that will promote the allied work between politicians and civil society institutions that are already undertaking this task. Corruption is a plague that takes money from where it really matters — health and education. I want to bring to the Senate the experience I acquired by connecting agents from the universe of the civil society institutions and the legislative and executive powers. Another objective is to value cities through projects that aim to not only improve education and health but also urban mobility, security, and environment.
Much global attention has been paid to how Brazil is leaning towards conservative leaders, like Jair Bolsonaro. What is your position on for this new era that Brazilian politics is entering and what can Brazilians concerned about this shift do?
We’ve had a very polarized election process with a lot of violence and aggression. It is bad for Brazil. However, at this moment, we have an elected president and from now on, Brazil must conserve its strength and energy to make the country work properly. I get angered when I see elected deputies who have “opposition” as a stance and sabotaging the country on their agenda. This can’t happen, as we’ve suffered a lot from corruption and governmental inefficiency.
Now we must get together and help build [a better country]. I have confidence that we will have a good government. As for my role, I will constantly keep watch, proposing ideas and criticizing everything that is bad and compliment what is good. This is my way of working.
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