Brazil’s female diplomats in new equality push after dark days of Bolsonaro

Brazil’s female diplomats in new equality push after dark days of Bolsonaro

Updated: 9 days, 12 hours, 58 minutes, 47 seconds ago

More than a century after Maria José de Castro Rebello Mendes became, in 1918, the first woman to enter Brazil’s diplomatic service, the country’s female diplomats have launched a new push for equal rights and opportunity. Women make up less than 25% of Brazil’s diplomatic corps and just 12% of ambassadors.

“We are blossoming at this moment of democratic government,” said Irene Vida Gala, a senior diplomat who served as ambassador to Ghana and is now the president of the newly created Association of Female Brazilian Diplomats.

This institutional push to address the lack of diversity within Brazil’s foreign office, known as Itamaraty, after the 19th-century Rio palace where it was once housed, coincides with the return to power of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after the four-year term of his openly misogynistic far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Lula, who has appointed Brazil’s most diverse cabinet ever, promised a fresh start after the trail of devastation left by Bolsonaro.

In the case of Itamaraty, this means “total reconstruction, because what we have today is scorched earth,” said Marília Closs of Plataforma Cipó, a thinktank focused on governance, peace, and climate. “Bolsonaro’s foreign policy wasn’t used as a tool to guarantee Brazil’s national interest, but instead as a tool for bolsonarismo.”

When he took office in 2019, Bolsonaro appointed a Bible-bashing climate denialist to lead the foreign office and defend his nationalistic, ultraconservative agenda abroad. Together, they took a hammer to Brazil’s decades-old tradition of foreign policy based on cooperation and multilateralism, cosying up to rightwing strongmen, torpedoing Brazil’s environmental leadership, and undermining the country’s past work defending human rights, with a particularly persistent campaign against expanding gender rights.

“Gender was emblematic of the transformation of Brazil’s foreign policy [under Bolsonaro],” said Jamil Chade, a Brazilian foreign correspondent in Geneva.

The country’s highly professional and once-respected foreign service was “hijacked” to serve this ultraconservative agenda, Chade added. He describes watching embarrassed Brazilian diplomats forced to defend outlandish positions at the United Nations, while the international community looked on with befuddlement and concern.

“We were there having to back positions that were basically against our vocation, against our very nature,” said Vida Gala. Fearing retribution that would further harm their career progression, female diplomats who were once vocal about their demands retreated into the shadows.

Now, they are being given a role in recovering Brazil’s international credibility and soft power. There is some disappointment that Lula failed to name Brazil’s first female foreign minister – the post went to Mauro Vieira, who previously held the position in 2015 to 2016 under Lula’s hand-picked successor Dilma Rousseff – but Itamaraty nonetheless gained its first female secretary-general, the second highest position, in Maria Laura da Rocha.

Meanwhile, women are tipped to represent Brazil in Washington and Buenos Aires, two of the most prestigious diplomatic postings.

“We women have a really important contribution to make to [Lula’s] agenda,” said Vida Gala. “We can strengthen diplomatic action … to contribute to a diplomacy focused on reducing inequality, care of the most vulnerable, and even the construction of peace.”

The three-week-old government has already turned its back on the Bolsonaro era with regards to Brazil’s position on Israel, migration, and reproductive rights, notably withdrawing from a coalition of ultra-conservative, anti-abortion nations known as the Geneva Consensus. Bolsonaro-appointed ambassadors in the US and Israel have been sacked.

Restoring Brazil’s battered reputation will not happen overnight, warned Chade, but these signals are welcome, “showing, look, we’re not only formulating a new policy, but also a new team that is going to take the lead on this new foreign policy”.

“Brazil no longer wants to be part of the problem, it wants to be part of the solutions,” he added. Ambassador Vida Gala and her colleagues will be striving for those solutions to be female.