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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009)

Agrarian Change, Gender and Land Rights: A Brazilian Case Study



The main objective of this paper is to contribute to the analysis of the marginalization of women’s land rights in Brazil by governmental institutions and rural women’s movements. In order to contextualize this analysis, the first section of the paper presents the broader transformations of the Brazilian rural economy, principally over the last two decades, and the major changes that have occurred in the position of rural women as a result of agricultural modernization. The paper then describes the challenges posed by women’s land rights from the perspectives of (i) the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA); (ii) the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), which does not have a separate organizational structure for women; (iii) rural trade unionism represented by the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores da Agricultura (CONTAG), which does have a separate structure with a quota system for women’s participation in the rural unions; and (iv) the Articulação das Instâncias de Mulheres Trabalhadoras Rurais-Sul and Articulação Nacional de Mulheres Trabalhadoras Rurais, which has a formally autonomous structure for women. These sections are based on qualitative analysis of documents and pamphlets both from the government and the various movements, and on field research carried out between July and September 2000.

Rural women in Brazil began organizing in the early 1970s, parallel to the rural social movement demanding land, especially in the south of the country. The key period in the struggle and national mobilization for Brazilian rural women’s social and labour rights coincided with the reform of the Constitution in 1988, which guaranteed equality between rural and urban men and women with respect to labour legislation and social rights. The fight for the social and labour rights of peasant women brought together—at different levels of participation—several rural movements, which agreed that the struggle for the implementation of these rights was fundamental for allowing rural women to participate in meetings, to enjoy an active off-farm life and to have their work recognized as a profession. Nevertheless, the title or joint title issue in agrarian reform was not given prominence. The inclusion in the 1988 Constitution of the possibility of joint adjudication and land entitlement to couples or women with regard to land ownership did not mean, however, that government bodies implemented these rights or that they established them as a goal. According to the first census of the agrarian reform organized by INCRA in 1996, only 12.62 per cent of the beneficiaries were women.

Given a number of important problems faced by women—guaranteeing and implementing social and labour rights; occupying positions of power within the leading organs of the movements; stimulating the identity of rural women among women; and guaranteeing economic conditions for the survival of family farming and settlements—the issue of land titles or joint titles for women has still not received its due attention among rural women’s movements. It remains one legal issue among others, and there is little evidence of strong expectations as to the benefits it might bring.

Another important factor discussed in the paper refers to the new consideration, in the 1990s, of family farms, sometimes on the basis of old arguments in relation to the supply of basic foodstuffs, but increasingly in terms of new concepts of rural development. Governmental agencies, social movements and academic researchers see family farms as the ideal model for rural organization, which tends to obscure power differences within the family structure. Policies aimed at strengthening family farming mainly benefit men, still regarded as the heads of the family.

The empowerment of women within agrarian reform, however, is occurring in an unpremeditated way and parallel to demands raised by the leadership of rural movements. The influence of the active role played by women in the encampments of occupied land, as research has shown, may be diluted in the return to traditional gender relations as settlements are established, or may even generate frustrations that cannot be vented. Other opportunities may be emerging for settled women as they become increasingly involved in a variety of productive activities, whether in women’s associations, participating in and even presiding over co-operatives, or working outside the settlement. These new options may well present ways for empowerment.

Julia S. Guivant is Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, where she co-ordinates the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Sustainability and Food Networks.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8208
    From: UNRISD