Agenda Setting and Framing
Beyond the political environment in which the March was forged and the influence of allies and political actors steeped in redistributive justice issues, the final section of this essay focuses on the issues the March has chosen to emphasize and the manner in which the March has chosen to frame them, often highlighting the connection between redistribution and recognition. Highlighting these connections is an essential trademark of the March’s collective identity. Even though there has been no intentional strategy on the part of its leadership to connect the two, after-the-fact analysis of March campaigns reflects this dual focus or due attention to redistribution. For its leaders, the issues which have risen to the top of the March’s agenda have stemmed from the concerns of March participants through their on-the-ground organizing processes. Connections between redistribution and recognition are revealed through the collective knowledge generated by women reflecting on the challenges they face in daily life. It is the imbricated nature of redistribution and recognition in popular women’s everyday lives which leads to a dual-focus framing. While this is an accurate portrayal of the process, at times priorities have required a choice between one issue and the other. Here are a few examples:
First, in some cases the Brazilian March has chosen to focus on issues that lay squarely in the redistribution camp and that the feminist movement has traditionally neglected, but that affect large numbers of women. Again, this was not part of a strategy. The best example is that early on, as the March was getting established in Brazil in 2003, it chose to launch a campaign on raising the minimum wage (campanha da Marcha pela valo- riza^ao do salario mfnimo), an issue that had not received much traction from any movement or political party for a while in Brazil, but that greatly impacts women since more women than men earn very low wages.
Second, the March’s framing of a given issue often highlights the connection between exploitation in the economic system (redistribution) and the devaluation of the Feminine (recognition). For example, in mid-2000, the Brazilian March launched a campaign, which was extremely successful among young women, with a focus on “mercantilizafao do corpo (das mulheres) e da vida” (commodification of (women’s) bodies and of life). A blog was launched in 2008 (http://www.ofensivammm.blogspot.com.br/2008/04/ somos-mulheres-e-no-mercadoria.html). The focus was moved beyond simple “objectification” of women’s bodies, often used in mainstream feminism in the USA, for example, to commodification, which highlights the role of the market in using women’s bodies for a profit.
Third, the March tends to embed an issue in its broad political economic context and to focus on the root causes of women’s oppression: In this way, it reveals the deep correlation between redistribution and recognition for a given issue. The March’s analysis and framing of prostitution/sex work, and of abortion rights will illustrate this focus on the political economic context. How to handle prostitution has generated much conflict within the feminist movement at large, in Brazil as elsewhere. Many feminists, among them the leadership of the French March for example, argue for an “abolitionist” position, which rejects any attempt at regulation of the sex trade and seeks instead to make it disappear. Other feminists, and the majority of organized sex workers, argue in favor of the regulation of the sex trade so as to improve the day-to-day living, safety, and working conditions of sex workers. Yet other feminists view sex work as a place where women can liberate themselves from the “good girl” straitjacket of the patriarchal, sexually repressive, order. The Brazilian March, although it favors an abolitionist stance, is trying to move the debate beyond these divisive dichotomous stances (yes or no to regulation). It seeks to refocus the agenda on the dramatic increase in the sex trade over the past few decades and on the prevalence of prostitution—and in particular of sex tourism—around mega events such as the World Cup, or mega-projects such as road and damn construction in the Amazon region for example, where the State is generally ultimately involved. In the latter case, large numbers of women are relocated, or relocate themselves, away from family and other personal networks in places far from home, thus increasing their vulnerability.
In the March’s analysis, the appropriation of women’s bodies to the servicing of men’s pleasure—a common feminist analysis of prostitution/sex work—is connected to economic processes and a critique of the country’s economic development strategies via mega-projects. This analysis also critiques the intrusion of market dynamics in our lives through the commodification of bodies, and the massification of the sex trade worldwide.
Reproductive rights, in particular abortion rights, provide another example of establishing connections between redistribution and recognition: The Brazilian March is a staunch advocate of the right of a woman to choose when and whether to bear a child, a recognition issue. In Brazil, abortion is legal in cases of incest, rape, or of threat to the life of the mother. The pro-choice position of the March to make abortion free and legal in all circumstances is quite challenging for many working-class women participants of the March, many of whom participate in organized religion. However, Brazilian feminists’ approach to abortion rights is quite different from that of mainstream European or North American feminist activists. Indeed, the focus chosen here by Brazilian activists is that of reproductive rights more broadly defined and within a perspective of public women’s health. Tensions have thus arisen on this issue within the World March: For example, during their Third International Meeting/Encontro in Montreal in 2001, differences with some French activists became clear: “They did not have much patience” for the way Brazilians presented their argument for abortion rights, embedded in a much broader perspective of access to healthcare and prenatal care, decent birthing conditions (parto decente), the fight against sterilization abuses, along with the rights of women to decide whether or not to have children (Miriam Nobre, interview 2014).
The Brazilian approach takes into consideration the broader, socio-economic, in particular public health, context in which women live. Their attention to, and insistence on, ensuring access to health care—a major source of inequality in Brazil today—reveals their redistributive stance behind a key women’s rights issue. Interestingly, this position is reminiscent of the approach to reproductive rights by US women of color (Ross et al. 2002).