Women From Every Corner Occupy Brasilia: the Marcha das Margaridas

Marcha das Margaridas is fighting for the rights of the working class in general and, in particular, for the rights of rural women workers, while welcoming demands from several other social movements. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Women From Every Corner Occupy Brasilia: the Marcha das Margaridas

One of the largest women's mobilizations in Latin America, the Marcha das Margaridas, is led by rural trade unions, together with agrarian and feminist movements.

On August 13th and 14th, 2019 Margaridas from all over the country occupied the streets of Brasilia to carry out the 6th Marcha das Margaridas (from now on, Marcha). The Marcha das Margaridas has mobilized, in its different editions, between 20,000 and 100,000 women for Brasilia and, according to the organizing committee, is the largest action by rural area women in Latin America.

Who are the Margaridas? Margaridas in English translates to daisies (flowers). The name is a tribute to Margarida Maria Alves, a union leader murdered for her struggle for the rights of rural workers in Alagoa Grande, Paraiba, in the northeast of Brazil, in 1983. As the Marcha explains: they tried to silence Margarida, but she became a seed. In 2019, according to estimates of the organizers, 100,000 women travelled long distances to march together at the Brazilian capital to fight for their rights. It is common to hear from the organizers of the Marcha that Margaridas are, above all, women who fight for rights and citizenship.

The protagonists of the Marcha das Margaridas are the "women from the fields, the forest, the waters" a category used to include a diversity of social subjects: working class women, rural women, urban women, family farmers, peasants, indigenous women, quilombolas, "settled" women [inhabitants of land reform settlements]; landless women, rural wage earners, women gatherers of forest products, women coconut breakers, women gatherers of mangaba, river women [ribeirinhas], and fisherwomen. In the last edition of the Marcha, women from the cities were also included.

The Marcha began in the year 2000 and had its sixth edition in 2019. Since 2003, the March has been held periodically every four years. The Secretariat of Women of the National Confederation of the Rural Workers and Family Farmers (Contag), that is, the women's organization within a federation of rural trade unions, leads and organizes the mobilizing process.

However, the Marcha is not a mass action of the union movement alone. It is a coalition of social movements, feminists, women's movements, trade unions, and international organizations. All the organizations together form the expanded coordination of the Marcha. The Movement of Rural Working Women of the Northeast (MMTR-NE), the Interstate Movement of Babasu Coconut Breakers (MICCB), the National Council of Rubber Tappers, the World March of Women and the United Workers' Confederation (CUT) have been part of the Marcha coordination since its beginning. Most of these movements have already worked together, all of them with strong social ties and overlapping memberships with the rural workers' trade union movement. At the local level, it is common for activists to engage in multiple organizations. Over the six Marcha das Margaridas editions, social movements and organizations have joined, others have left, but many have been part of the coalition since its beginning. This means that the coalition is a dynamic alliance, which has changed over time.

The political debate of the Marcha das Margaridas talk about the rural contexts in which women suffer multiple forms of oppression.

The meeting in Brasilia to march is the culmination of a long organizational process. The Marcha is, therefore, more than a street protest. It is a permanent action with the following features: (i) mobilization, (ii) formation and (iii) claim-making.

(i) Mobilization: Unlike many more common street protests today, several of which are called for by social networks via internet, the Marcha das Margaridas is led by organized social movements and is the result of the dedicated work of the union and social leaders at the national, state and local levels. The march in Brasilia begins to be officially organized more than a year before the street action. The 2019 edition, for example, was officially launched in March 2018, as part of a series of mobilizations of feminist movements around the world due to the International Women's Struggle Day. In the months leading up to the Marcha, the aim is to get activists to join the organization and fund-raising activities.

(ii) Formation: A number of political formation meetings take place before the march itself - courses, as well as national, regional, state and municipal meetings. In these activities, the Cadernos de Textos, the political document that consolidates the Marcha's understanding of the struggle's structural context, are discussed in depth. On the day before the street action, debates, workshops, exhibitions and other activities of a formative scope are held. Leadership roles are forged in this process. For many women, participation in the Marcha is the beginning of an activist trajectory; many women start to identify themselves as feminists in this process. By understanding a feminist as a women who struggles, and the Margaridas as women who march together in struggle, the Marcha becomes a key process of political formation for popular feminist movements.

(iii) Claim-making: the Marcha das Margaridas delineates three broad goals: 1) internal democracy in the politics of the rural workers' union movement, through the equality between men and women; 2) public policies and rights that benefit women and the working classes in general, while particularly attending to the specificities of rural working women; and 3) societal changes that establish egalitarian relations between men and women.

Growing feminist solidarity

Despite the centrality in which class identity, gender identity and rural territoriality assume in the political subject of the Marcha das Margaridas, the Margaridas have been incorporating other differences that are important markers of inequalities among working women in Brazil. Adopting a feminist epistemology, according to which the position of the subjects in the social structure guides their knowledge of the world, the documents that inform the political debate of the Marcha das Margaridas talk about the rural contexts in which women suffer multiple forms of oppression and from which they construct their struggles and diverse political identities.

The Marcha das Margaridas is fighting for the rights of the working class in general and, in particular, for the rights of rural women workers.

These contexts include, for example, women who live in semi-arid environments, the impact of large infrastructure and energy projects, and violence in conflicts over land. Taking these diversities into account, over the years, the political identity of "rural working women" has expanded to "women from the fields and the forests" in 2007, "women from the fields, the forests and the waters" in 2015, and "women from the fields, the forests, the waters and the cities" in 2019. The expansion of the categories hints to an underlying process of negotiating identities, taking internal diversity seriously.

This also reflects the political articulation of rural unionism led by Contag with its partners. The great novelty of this edition was the collaboration with the First March of Indigenous Women, which brought together 3,000 women, who started camping in Brasilia on August 9th, and who took to the streets on August 13th, in defense of their territories and their rights. On August 14th, they joined the Marcha das Margaridas. New partners also joined the struggle in 2019, such as the Peasant Women's Movement (MMC) and the National Coordination for the Articulation of Rural Black Quilombola Communities (CONAQ), both of them part of La Via Campesina.

Much more than a women's mass action, the Marcha das Margaridas is a space of feminist articulation, in which various currents of feminism are brought into dialogue, guided by a common commitment to an anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist project that underlies popular feminist movements. Which brings us to the question: what are the demands of the Margaridas?

The political platform of the Marcha das Margaridas

The motto of the Marcha in the year 2000 was: "2000 reasons to march: against hunger, poverty and sexist violence". The central themes remained the same in the following editions, in 2003 and 2007. In 2011, the motto emphasized the struggle for sustainable development, with a focus on justice, autonomy, equality, and freedom. In 2015, the theme of democracy was added, in a clear response to the threat of democratic setbacks that existed at that time and which were confirmed after the march with the coup of President Rousseff. Between 2000 and 2015, the Marcha elaborated two agendas: one directed at the State and the other directed at the trade union movement itself. The former includes demands for policies of access to land for women, credit policies, social policies for the rural areas, such as health, education and quality housing.

The transformation of social relations, above all, of the dominant gender order, which assigns women care and reproduction work, is another central axis of demands. The Margaridas fight for economic autonomy and income for women in the countryside, for the recognition of their work as rural producers and for access to income from their work. To transform society, they advocate for non-sexist education and the sexual and reproductive rights of women. The Marcha das Margaridas has incorporated themes such as access to water and common goods, the promotion of agroecology, food sovereignty, and energy sovereignty. It questions processes of nature commodification, the predominance of the logic of profit in agrifood systems, and the negative effects of the dominant model of capitalist agrarian development on health, the environment, the working class, and especially women. The Marcha defends an alternative model of rural development, based on social and environmental justice.

At the same time, the Margaridas prepared an internal agenda, aimed at democratizing the spaces of power within the trade union movement. The low inclusion of women in spaces of political participation within the union movement was one of the main motivations to organize the first edition of the Marcha in 2000. Women's capacity for political work is constantly questioned in a space where men always have held positions of power.

In 2019, the organization of the Marcha chose not to draft and deliver a political agenda to the State, because they decided that the newly elected right-wing government that openly attacked social movements, agrarian movements and feminists, would not be open to negotiation. As an alternative, they launched a political platform with their political path for society. At the center of this platform is the struggle for popular sovereignty, democracy, justice, equality and freedom from violence.

In short, the Marcha das Margaridas is fighting for the rights of the working class in general and, in particular, for the rights of rural women workers, while welcoming demands from several other social movements. In their long process of mobilization, they have been weaving solidarity and expanding their demands, so that more and more women are represented.

A unique conjuncture: what is at stake?

In many regards, the 6th edition of the Marcha das Margaridas was unique. After the draconian reforms in labor and union rights that passed in the last two years in Brazil, union movements lost an important source of resources. Moreover, with the election of a government openly opposed to progressive social movements, they could not count on any kind of support from the government to carry out the Marcha das Margaridas as they did in some of the previous editions. More than that, they could not expect, as in previous editions, an official moment of interaction with the representatives of the federal government to receive and negotiate the agenda of demands. Due to the hate speech against the movements of the progressive camp, they feared being received with violence.

Margarida Maria Alves answered to the death threats she suffered: "I don't run away from the struggle"

In 2019, the call to arms was to resist the destitution of rights, as a response to a clear conjuncture of setbacks, after years of an ascendant trajectory for the Margaridas. They had collected many victories in the form of public policies as a result of their struggles, some examples being the National Program of Documentation of Rural Workers, the creation of a credit program for women, the possibility to register the rural settlements in name of the couple or in the name of the woman, if she is single, and the National Plan of Agroecology and Organic Production.

The coup that removed President Rousseff and the election of Bolsonaro's far-right government were harsh on the Brazilian working population, especially rural women: the proposed amendment to the Constitution (PEC) regarding public spending limits, which affected health and education, cuts in institutional markets such as the Food Acquisition Program (PAA), the National School Feeding Program (PNAE), the dismantling of the National Food and Nutritional Security Council (Consea), the reform of social security, the increase in deforestation and violence in rural areas, and the increase in feminicides.

In this unique political setting, the mottoes that colored Brasilia were the defense of democracy, welfare, the Unified Health System (SUS) and other social policies; the denunciation against feminicide and violence against women; the demonstration of the Northeast region's strength, which came with the largest delegation to Brasilia; the denunciation of the environmental crimes committed by mining companies in the face of the dismantling of the already weakened Brazilian environmental policy; the denunciation of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, which poisons the fields, forests, and waters; Lula Livre also echoed during the Marcha das Margaridas, which culminated with Fernando Haddad, the Workers' Party candidate for President of Brazil in the 2018 election, reading a letter written by the former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in the closing act of the March.

Margarida Maria Alves answered to the death threats she suffered: "I don't run away from the struggle". The Marcha das Margaridas follows the legacy of Margarida Alves and reaffirms the leadership of women and the mobilizing power of feminism to build alliances for the defense of common projects such as "the struggle for a Brazil with popular sovereignty, democracy, justice, equality, and freedom from violence".

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