Poor Women from Northeast Brazil Learn Joy of Meeting and Helping Each Other

Joined hands The small, coastal town of Condé is located just a twenty minute’s drive from João Pessoa, the capital of Paraíba. The Northeast of Brazil has historically been a place of encounter and mixing between peoples. For millenia groups of indigenous people fished, farmed, migrated and sometimes fought along this large, fertile area.

Five hundred years ago, the Portuguese and other European invaders arrived and made their own settlements, at first to cut and export brazilwood and later to plant sugar cane they brought from their other colonies in Asia.

Soon after this began, the Portuguese brought enslaved Africans to work the sugarcane fields. As larger and larger port cities grew up to transport the commerce, those living and working in the Northeast of Brazil increasingly reflected the mixing of indigenous, European and African peoples.

Today, the descendants of first peoples, settlers, slavers, enslaved – the powerful and the powerless – are mixed together and new encounters are occurring in this global age.

The women who come to a women’s gathering in Condé show how the mixing and new encounters continue. They are from a variety of small towns in the interior of Paraíba or Pernambuco. They left these beautiful rural areas for what they hoped would provide them and their families with greater food security, jobs and educational opportunities.

On a hot, sunny afternoon as they held the end-of-the-year party and program review, there were grandmothers, mothers of grown children, two pregnant women and a teen-ager and a child all gathered together.

Many of them spoke with the timidity and accents of people from the interior. While they do not make up the most destitute in their community, these are women who know the difficulty of gaining literacy and experience the struggle to find adequate work on a daily basis.

The women who lead this group also reflect the great mixing, not only of the Brazil, but of the world: a lay missioner from the United States, a missionary nun from Tanzania and a popular educator from Brazil.

They were invited to start and lead this women’s group by a Franciscan sister from South Korea, Sister Natividade; the Franciscan convent in the town of Condé is where the meetings are held. Sister Natividade saw an opportunity to bring in facilitators who could animate a women’s group with the women she knew from her outreach in the community.

Since March, 2008 the women have been gathering weekly and discussing topics of sexuality, human rights, health and spirituality. In this unique space in their lives, created by and maintained by women, they reflect on their lives, on the cycle of life and on themselves as people with rights.

The importance of their relationships with others has been affirmed and they have learned more, through the health unit, about the very real threats to their well-being and the well-being of their loved ones.

The meeting began with an quiet meditation with visual images of the topics they had covered. As the women discussed the past year, a number of them spoke about their health concerns and their risks for diseases addressed in the course, especially cancer. Many participants spoke of how they appreciated the friendship and the joy of being together and sharing.

They noted an impact in their lives beyond the meetings. Their relationships with their children, husbands, parents and neighbors have improved in some way. Empowered and supported by the group, they may have stood up for their rights in a situation of oppression or shared what they have learned with others.

Alta Severina da Silva, one woman from the group who has participated since the beginning, is very timid about being interviewed by a foreigner but agrees out of kindness. She shares that she likes learning new things, being able to tell others about her life and to hear about their lives and seeing life in a new way.

“I like my new friends. Now I am less timid in talking to my daughters. I understand their lives and needs better.” She says that the group has helped her in a number of ways: expressing her thoughts and feelings more, feeling supported to overcome her challenges and teaching her to see how discrimination impacts her life.

Ivanilda Barbosa agrees. She brought her teen-age daughter with her to this meeting because she wants her to enjoy the benefits as well. “People speak the truth here. We learn about the important things in life.” She cites the discussions about health and the body as well as defending women’s rights as the most important aspects of the group.

“I have grown very much [from this experience],” says Ivanilda with her daughter looking on.” I have more patience with my family and with people at work. I have less fear in dealing with prejudices.” She also cites how the group supported her as she recently faced the death of a loved one. It was a very difficult time for her. “All these women participate in the group and help each other. It is very helpful when someone is dealing with depression. This experience improves our lives.”

And that is the lasting impact of a women’s group such as this one. These women are learning how to support and draw strength from each in the midst of great struggles for maintaining their families and communities. In the process of that struggle they grow in self-esteem and have the confidence to pass on what they are learning to their daughters and the younger women in the neighborhoods.

This region of Brazil, the Northeast, has had centuries of exploitation of women and of people of color, centuries of overworking the poor, centuries of draining the very earth of its resources.

Right here is a group of women who struggle in conditions of poverty, illiteracy and lack of employment, coming together, “learning new things” and passing on that knowledge to the next generation. The most significant thing about this work is that it gives birth to hope.

Brazil Justice Net

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