At the United Nations, Brazil Allies with Ultra-Conservatives on Gender and Sex-Ed | Wilson Center

At the United Nations, Brazil Allies with Ultra-Conservatives on Gender and Sex-Ed

Brazil sided with unusual allies at a recent United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva, underscoring just how much Brazil’s international stance on human rights and gender equality has shifted under the Bolsonaro administration. At the UNHRC’s 41st session, held from June 24 to July 12, the 47-member council adopted a slew of resolutions covering a wide range of issues, from the human rights situation in Eritrea to the impact of corruption on human rights. In clear departure from its traditional position, Brazil—which is seeking reelection to the UNHRC this year—abstained from a number of resolutions aimed at gender- and sexuality-based protections and supported conservative amendments from several Muslim-majority countries that sought to weaken language protecting the rights of women and girls to make their own reproductive choices. 
 
In response to the Netherlands’ proposed resolution to combat forced and child marriage, which noted that one in five girls are married before the age of 18 (A/HRC/41/L.8/Rev.1), Brazil—along with Bahrain, Somalia, and Qatar—voted in favor of an amendment proposed by Egypt and Iraq to eliminate the notion of a “right to sexual and reproductive health” from the resolution’s text. Brazil also supported a second amendment proposed by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to grant parents and guardians the right to decide whether their daughters required sex education, overriding the call for comprehensive, scientifically accurate and culturally-relevant sexuality education for adolescents (boys and girls), according to age level and maturity. In a proposed amendment to a resolution on eliminating sex and gender-based discrimination, Brazil voted with Pakistan to do away with a call for member states to “guarantee universal access to evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education” (A/HRC/41/L.6/Rev.1). The government of Bangladesh also voted in favor of this amendment, warning that sex education could lead to greater “promiscuity and abortion.” 
 
Brazil did not justify any of its votes, but it is clear that Ambassador Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo (a career diplomat and former chief of staff to Foreign Minister Celso Amorim) voted in line with President Bolsonaro’s foreign policy, made explicit in the Brazilian government’s letter of intent to seek re-election to the UNHRC seat. The letter makes no mention of LGBTQ+ rights, gender, reproductive rights, torture, or inequality. Instead, it states that Brazil plans to prioritize "the strengthening of family structures." This is a marked shift for a country that, just a few years earlier, introduced a UNHRC resolution condemning violence and discrimination based on sexual identity and gender—a resolution opposed by many of the same member states that Brazil is now voting with.
 
Troublingly, this new human rights agenda at the United Nations—which mirrors Bolsonaro’s domestic social agenda—patently ignores the real challenges that women and girls currently face in Brazil. According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Brazil has the fourth highest number of child brides in the world; one in five babies in Brazil is born to a mother between the ages of ten and 19; and maternal mortality rates are five to ten times higher in Brazil than in other countries with similar levels of economic development. Moreover, while Bolsonaro has stated on several occasions that he is against sex-ed in schools, the majority of Brazilians favor the inclusion of gender and sexuality topics in the school curriculum. 
 
At the UNHRC, the amendments failed in the face of substantial opposition from the rest of the council. In Brazil, it will fall to democratic institutions and society more broadly to hold the government accountable on gender and sexuality human rights. 
 
Lara is the Program Assistant at the Brazil Institute. She holds a B.A. in International Studies, with a focus on identity, race, gender, and culture issues. 
More posts by Lara Bartilotti Picanço
Anna is the Program Associate at the Brazil Institute and a specialist in U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-Brazil relations. 
More posts by Anna (Anya) Prusa