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Social Change=Strong Women at the Forefront

July 2005

Imagine that your family, descended from freed slaves, has been working the same plot of land where your ancestors once toiled in bondage for generations. Now imagine waking up one morning to find that your government has sold the land out from under you to foreign speculators. What would you do?

When it happened to Dona Maria de Jesus, or Dona DeJe as she is affectionately called, she knew she had only one choice: fight for her community and for her rights.

Brazilian Bishop on Hunger Strike In Defense of Sao Francisco River

Dona DeJe, now in her late 50s, is a proud African Brazilian and a leader of the Quilombo community of Monte Alegre near the town of Pedreiras in Maranhão state. DeJe’s community is directly descended from African slaves who were emancipated in 1888. For nearly a century her community continued to live on and farm the lands they had been forced to work on earlier. Then in the 1970s they learned that the lands they’d toiled on were no longer theirs. As a result of widespread speculation following the then Brazilian government’s land colonization project, a Japanese corporation had “bought” Monte Alegre. Facing eviction, DeJe and two other women refused to quit and rallied their community to stand their ground.

They resisted in the face of continued violence, including the burning down of their villages, and were instrumental in helping form the first rural women worker’s union in Maranhão. This union of rural women who harvest, break, and sell babaçu nuts is one of the founding members of Grassroots International’s partners, the Association in the Settlement Areas of the State of Maranhão (ASSEMA) (Website in Portuguese). Dona DeJe serves on the ASSEMA Board as a representative of Monte Alegre and the surrounding settlements. After years of struggle, Monte Alegre was officially accorded Quilombo status recognizing it and its people as African Brazilians with their own distinct culture, history and rights. While showing us the certificate of Quilombo status, DeJe noted that, “The internal debt that upper-class Brazilians owe the country’s poor majority, particularly African Brazilians, is far greater than any external debt they owe foreign banks and governments.”

Like DeJe, Dona Françesca is probably in her late 50s or early 60s. A mother and grandmother, she was one of the first occupiers of what became the settlement of Villa Diamante with her five children. For years she persevered in her struggle to gain title to agricultural land in the face of violence from the landowners, police repression, multiple evictions and humiliation. Her enduring hope for a better life, her tenacious belief in the struggle for land reform and its ideals and the sustained support she got from the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) saw her through (Friends of the MST) .

A self-described militant of the MST, Dona Françesca’s home is an open house for MST activists and visitors where she presides over the cooking and feeding of dozens of MST activists who come from across the state and country to her village for teacher training. She continues to farm, takes care of her grandchildren and participates in political activities like the May 2005 National March that the MST organized to highlight the situation of millions of landless families in Brazil.

It was exciting and humbling to meet Dona DeJe and Dona Françesca on my trip to Brazil this June. I feel fortunate to have been able to meet and learn from them, and from other strong, radical, and fierce women at the forefront of struggles for human rights, equality and justice in their countries, women like Andhari Majhi, Rashida Bi, and Concepión Quispe.

Andhari Majhi is an Adivasi (indigenous) woman from Mailiguda village in India’s Orissa state fighting against ecologically-destructive mining corporations (Click here to see an article on Andhari). I met her during my travels with the National Alliance of People’s Movements in India in the mid-90s. Rashida Bi is the president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, a women’s union leading the fight for justice for victims of the 1984 Union Carbide/Dow Chemicals chemical disaster in Bhopal whom I met during her visit to Boston in 2004 (Click here for information on the BGPMSKS). Concepción Quispe is a Quechua woman from Peru who spoke out against the violence unleashed by both the Peruvian State and the Shining Path movement against indigenous peoples. She came to talk with students at the Center for Human Rights Documentation at the Graduate School of International Studies in Denver in the early 90s.

These two Brazilian women might never have met or heard of their counterparts in India and Peru, but they have a lot in common. Not just their resilience or bravery, but their analysis of the domestic and international inequities in wealth and power, their critique of the dominant paradigm of development, and their involvement in a militant struggle for human rights, and their vision for an alternative world.

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