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Silvia Pimentel: Women’s rights

The lawyer who chaired the most important international committee for the defense of women’s rights speaks about the more than four decades she spent in teaching, research, and activism

Silvia Pimentel was born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, and grew up in a house designed by architect João Batista Vilanova Artigas (1915–1985), in the São Paulo neighborhood of Pacaembu. The daughter of a couple who valued education and culture, at 16 years of age, she spent 10 months traveling throughout Europe with her parents. “I had two sisters,” she says. “One of them had a minor intellectual disability. She knew how to add, but could not multiply or divide. As a result, I believe my parents made an effort to ensure I received the best possible education,” she shares.

Despite the comfortable life provided by her father, since childhood she has been concerned about social atrocities, particularly the difficulties faced by women. Attentive to what would later come to be known as gender inequality, Pimentel discovered feminism at the end of the 1970s, when she was already separated from her first husband, with whom she lived for a decade and had four children—who gave them seven grandchildren. She credits sociologist Octavio Ianni (1926–2004) for her Marxist education—it was with him that she read Marx’s book Capital (1867). At the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), where she built her academic career, she learned with professor and former governor André Franco Montoro (1916–1999) to think about “the concept of rights as fundamental to law” and about law from various perspectives. “At the end of each chapter of his book Introduction to the science of law, he included philosophical and legal ideas that were very different from his own line of thinking,” she recalls. “I translated many of these fragments, from English, French, Italian, and Spanish.”

Married for 35 years to Dr. Fernando Proença de Gouvêa, during this interview the activist partnered with various women’s groups—“I always knew the feminist collective was very important”—speaks about her participation in the National Constitutional Assembly, about her work with the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW-ONU), and about feminicide. “The theoretical-conceptual framework of gender shows us how violence against women is relational and involves relationships of power,” she notes. “Only through collective action will we, women, be able to free ourselves of this structural situation of subordination.”

Age 79
Theory and philosophy of law and women’s rights
Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC- SP)
Graduation (1970) and doctorate (1977) in law, from PUC-SP
13 books written or coordinated, 31 book chapters

You studied at a school run by nuns and did your undergraduate and graduate studies at PUC. How did religion give direction to your professional choices?
I was a student at Sacred Heart of Mary and later studied at Des Oiseaux. My parents were not concerned about religion. They were looking for the best school for me. When I was 12 or 13 years old, one of the Sisters, who overheard me say that I did not believe in God, took me to speak with the Mother Superior, who wanted to know the reason for my nonbelief. I answered that I had learned that God was perfect goodness, but this was not what I had seen in the world. I saw a lot of sadness and a lot of inequality. In particular, I was impacted by the difficulties of women, such as those who worked in our house, who had left children behind in the Northeast to make a living. I did not understand this unjust society—that almost half of a woman’s children die and that she had to leave those that survive to take care of another’s home, in another city. Mother Maria Inez de Jesus was very intelligent. After listening to me, she said: “You are so young and belong to a Catholic family and study in a Catholic school. This is an issue that is not easy for you. You will contradict everyone at school and in your family. What do you think about leaving this issue aside for a bit? You can keep it to yourself and return to it later.” I agreed. At this school, God was love. Whatever was most beautiful, in terms of religion, was there. But I continue agnostic and I do not know if my involvement with vulnerability and human suffering was partly responsible for this.

Besides law, you also studied psychology?
My father wanted one of his three daughters to study law. In his mind, law was a masculine profession and it was “a profession of the truth.” I did my undergraduate degree in two phases. I completed the first three years, then got married and put my studies on hold for six years while I raised my four children. Immediately after my youngest was born, I returned to finish my undergraduate. I did my postdoctorate in psychology before doing my master’s in law, which took three years. Roberto Aguiar, who was the assistant to professor Montoro in the PUC Law School, said to me: “It is not possible for you to realistically tear up your law diploma. Why don’t you focus on the psychology of education and stay here with us, as a teaching assistant?” He convinced me to not dismiss my five years of law studies. And that is how I worked in both areas at PUC.

How did you balance motherhood and your academic studies?
After I got married, I lived in a house that was very far from the city center, without a telephone or car. Every 16 months, I had a child. In order to not stop my intellectual development, I set aside time for myself every day. During this time, I spent one hour listening to classical music and one hour reading the classics. I read all of Tolstói [1828–1910], Shakespeare [1564–1616], and Dostoiévski [1821–1881].

In 1977, at the end of your doctorate of law, you defended your thesis titled “The evolution of the rights of women – standard – fact – value.” Why did you choose this topic?
My advisor, Haydée Maria Roveratti, was a sociologist of human rights. I did not know exactly what area I wanted to work in and she gave me the following advice: choose an area that speaks to your heart and to your intellect. I chose to study the evolution of women’s rights.

Personal Archive Mário Covas, Franco Montoro and Silvia Pimentel in the Ruth Escobar Theater, in 1982Personal Archive

This choice ended up defining your professional career.
It was an answer to the desires of my heart and my intellect. It was also because I had a very heavy personal burden of psychological abuse, which further convinced me of the importance of understanding the situation of women. At that time, no one cared about women’s rights. As a subject of rights, women were invisible. They were only visible in situations of “punishment” for crimes, such as adultery, for example, until 2005, when it was removed from the Penal Code.

Women were invisible with respect to rights, but their apparent duties were always remembered?
Exactly. In order to understand this reality, I began with the three-dimensional theory of law developed by Miguel Reale [1910–2006], which criticizes legal positivism and says that law is not only a positive standard, but the dialectic integration of fact, value, and standard. According to this theory, the legal standard is the result of the tension that exists between fact and value. Often this tension originates in a new standard, or a standard that repeals another that lost its meaning for being related to values that arise and that are based on new factual relationships. This theory allowed me to identify that the definition of the condition of women, as hierarchically inferior, is the result of a set of historical, economic, and social circumstances.

You seem to be very comfortable in declaring yourself a feminist. Is that correct?
I began my activist work soon after I defended my thesis. I am one of the founders of the Feminist Women’s Movement, which was led by the great Ruth Escobar [1935–2017]. I have never once stopped introducing myself as a feminist, and even as a feminist academic. Costa Rican lawyer, Alda Facio, explains this very well. None of us, all being feminist academics, are purely theoretical. When studying a law or a standard, here in Brazil or in another country, we are committed to equal rights between men and women.

In addition to the philosophy of law, you also lecture in the elective interdisciplinary course open to students from all programs, called Law, Gender, and Equality. Is it important to teach about gender at university?
More than ever. For some time, it has been clear that the concept of gender is an important analytical tool to better understand the situation of women’s inferiority. The course uses the same language structure of law and gender that I wrote for PUC’s digital Legal Encyclopedia. We address the origin of the concept of gender, of the three waves of feminism, of the intersection between gender and other social markers of difference and inequality, such as class, race, and ethnicity, for example, and of contemporary practice. Because the concept of gender is dynamic and constantly changing. During the course, we also work on the relationship between gender and law, in both national and international contexts. In this sense, my time at the UN was very strategic. However, the idea for the discipline arose because I spent 12 years on the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women–CEDAW.

It was three mandates of four years each on the CEDAW Committee. How were you elected?
In 2005, my name was put forward to the Ministry of External Relations by the women’s movement. The Brazilian government made the commitment and nominated me as a candidate. I went to New York three times to speak with state representatives—part of the CEDAW Conference. I learn languages easily, but what most impressed my colleagues, which I found out later, was my activist work in support of women’s rights in Brazil.

Never, at any moment, did I stop introducing myself as a feminist. Including an academic feminist

Your participation in the Constitutional Assembly, for example?
The greatest milestones of my career, which contributed to my being elected, were participation in the changes to the Civil Code and the Constitution. Since 1980, I worked with my friend and feminist lawyer Florisa Verucci [1934–2000] to develop a proposal for changing the code of 1916. Our Civil Code was almost a copy of the Napoleon French Civil Code of 1805. Two articles were particularly problematic. Article 233, which dealt with the rights and responsibilities of the husband, of the management of marital society, including the right to authorize a woman’s profession, and article 380, which established that, during marriage, the husband as head of the family exercised paternal power. In other words, in any situation in the life of children, the last word would be that of the father. Our proposal, for a new Civil Statute for Women, was delivered to National Congress in 1981.

Were you optimistic with regard to acceptance of the proposal?
The proposal was not passed immediately, but it ended up evolving into at least 10 law projects, as part of the project for the new Civil Code, which had been in process since 1975 and was approved in 2002. Today, the current code has some of our actual wording.

And with the Constitution, what was your involvement?
Beginning in 1986, many women joined together under the direction of sociologist Jacqueline Pitanguy, then president of the National Council of Women’s Rights. Very few of us were lawyers. We traveled throughout the country to listen to women in every region. Many said: “You are lawyers; you know what to do.” We replied: “We will provide the structure, but you will be the ones to provide the content.” The women talked a lot about education, health, difficulties involving title of their own land. To give this structure, I enlisted the support of another friend, Sylma Correa, who researched constitutions in other countries, searching for articles that indicated advances for women.

Were you looking for inspiration?
Yes; we wanted examples upon which to base our discussion. Through various consulates, she was able to obtain almost two dozen constitutions. They were from Germany, Angola, Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, and Cuba. I did a kind of comparative study with some peculiar editing that ended up becoming the small book Women and the Constitution: A contribution to the debate, simply because they were the texts that we were able to access quickly. In the Constitution, we insisted on equality between men and women. My colleagues at PUC, who were monitoring the constitutional process, criticized me for my desire to repeat, in article 226, which dealt with the family, the concept already explained in article 5. They said that I did not seem to be a lawyer. Granted, the Constitution is not a document that is strictly legal. It is a political and legal document. And my studies already showed the significant discrimination toward women in the family nucleus. That is how we included paragraph 5, establishing that “the rights and responsibilities in relation to marital society are exercised equally between the man and the woman.” And we also included paragraph 8, indicating that it is the State’s responsibility to inhibit domestic and family violence.

In a country with such inequality as Brazil, it is not necessary to go to the UN to determine the diversity and difficulties of women

You also participated in the development of the Maria da Penha Law. How was this process?
It is important to convey how much these advances in legislation in our country arose from the women’s movement. During my 12 years at the UN, I had the opportunity to get to know various women’s movements. The Latin American movement and that of Brazil, in particular, are good examples. They knew how to align with the need to change the laws, but also the mindsets, through service groups and influencers. The Maria da Penha Law came about through the leadership of Leila Linhares Barsted, who, over the course of more than one year, brought together seven nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] in Rio. It was a consortium of NGOs and I represented the Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights for Latin America and the Caribbean (CLADEM). Our work was inspired by the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. This convention is from 1979, but at the time of its approval, there were no conditions such that proposed advances be inserted into legislation. In this regard, however, the international standard leaves no doubt: overcoming violence will only happen when we deal with violence with respect to gender, such as violence that is structural and structuring, in unequal and patriarchal societies. Fighting violence against women is about fighting for their inclusion in a democratic society. It is about empowering women.

In this sense, what do you think about feminicide?
Beginning with affective relationships, for example. All of us know how difficult an affective breakup can be. Could we, as women, not suffer immensely in these moments? Of course we do. Suffering is part of being human. On the other hand, in terms of morals, men are worse than women. But they are part of the society that taught them and many think they have the right to hit and kill women. Why? We have only found one reason: they do what they are allowed to do. In Roman law, the power of pater familias [father of the family] is vitae necisque potestas, that is, power of life and death. Naturally, it was not Roman law that created violence against women. Humanity built this violence over time.

How does scientific knowledge help break cycles of violence, such as domestic violence?
The undertaking is multidisciplinary and goes beyond criminology. It requires effort from various areas. The law can help, but to guarantee the rights of women, what is most important are the public policies substantiated in a set of standards for prevention, protection, punishment, and restoration, such as the Maria Penha Law. It is very important to have politicians with sufficient education to understand that women are not different from men only because they are born biologically different, but rather, because we live in a society in which there are roles traditionally assigned to women and those traditionally assigned to men. That is where the concept of gender, and all knowledge accumulated on the topic, enter with the contributions of Simone de Beauvoir [1908–1986], Kate Millett [1934–2017], Gayle Rubin, Joan Scott, Judith Butler, Heleieth Saffioti [1934–2010], Lourdes Bandeira, Lia Zanotta Machado, among others. And it is this instrumental theory that allows us to take the topic of violence against women from the individual world, in order to truly understand the place women occupy in society, which is structured by class, race, and gender. Without considering this, it is impossible to effectively deal with public policies.

The UN system has played an important role in building this. In 2015, when you were managing CEDAW, another significant step was taken with the approval of General Recommendation 33. How was this made possible?
I only ran for a third mandate on the CEDAW Committee because I was committed to the idea that it was important to carry out a general recommendation, with all of the member states in the system, on women’s access to the legal system. I continue to be convinced that substantive rights are not enough, both in the constitutions and in infra-constitutional legislation. It is indisputable that, outside Brazil, there has been very significant formal progress. But this is not enough. Even with constitutional and infra-constitutional legislation that guarantees and reinforces gender equality, we do not have legal systems that are accessible for the population. And this is one of the greatest problems with the law, for someone who does not see the law as just a set of formal laws, but as a living system, effectively serving its own society. General Recommendation 33, which we were able to approve, addresses the importance of the authorities and of legal systems to consider the difference of including women in society, in comparison with men. By calling attention to compliance with the standard on this topic, the recommendation addresses the essential components of access to the legal system, in addition to highlighting the need to inform the public about the rights of women and the urgency for promoting the gender perspective among law operators.

Department of Information Services, Executive Yuan Silvia Pimentel and other members of the international committee, during a meeting to assess a report from the Republic of China, in Taiwan, 2018Department of Information Services, Executive Yuan

Your professional career is proof of your strong capacity to talk about other areas of knowledge.
It is not enough to only work on the legal side of women’s rights. Gender studies look at the thinking of Claude Lévis-Strauss [1908–2009] and often cover Michel Foucault [1926–1984]. This is because it is necessary to accurately understand who the female subject is and how she is included in society. Interdisciplinary studies serve to broaden, in the feminist movement, the idea that it is not about a universal and abstract concept of woman, but rather about women in their concreteness and diversity.

They are the women.
Yes, in the plural. This is a construct of the movement itself. In a country with so much inequality, like Brazil, it is not necessary to go to the UN to determine the diversity and difficulties of women. From an academic perspective, today we include women who were not born biologically women and all those who do not live what we call imposed heterosexuality. In our courses, we address the question of LGBTI, we use the “queer” theory, which includes the construction and flow of roles and behavior. Working with this tool, I also use a key principle, which is very costly, that is, social inclusion.

A large percentage of Brazilian women are black and come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. It is impossible to ignore these two significant social vectors, which we call social markers. It is not enough to study women without seeking this interdisciplinary and intersectional perspective.

In the 1990s, you developed a research project titled “The woman figure/character in family processes.” What was the key finding?
Together with Beatriz Di Giorgi and Flávia Piovesan, we established that there are very strong gender stereotypes and assumptions about us, women, held by law operators. The gender stereotypes and assumptions exist universally and are present and deeply entrenched in all cultures. They are, therefore, absorbed by law operators and reflected in their legal practice. Some years later, I worked with Ana Lúcia Schritzmeyer and Valéria Pandjiarjian, to produce a more encouraging reflection, in the book Rape: Crime or “courtesy”? A socio-legal approach to gender.

The ambiguity suggested in the title of this book is very strong.
The title was taken from records of a sexual violence case. A law student brought me a newspaper clipping with a declaration by a prosecutor of the Public Ministry of Rio de Janeiro. He claimed that the defendant should not be considered guilty because the victim, a 13-year-old girl, had harassed him throughout. In writing, he said: “Would it be fair, then, for the defendant Fernando Cortez, first-time offender, worker, to suffer incredible punishment and have his life destroyed due to an inconsequential fact, coming from a fake virgin? In the end, the victim, who continues to be loving with other boys, will continue to be one. With Cortez, she harassed him until he gave in. And what, in turn, did Cortez do? A courtesy…” In cases of sexual violence, today there is still the maximum in dubio pro stereotypo.

You achieved something that many researchers only strive for: using scientific knowledge to change reality. How do you feel about that?
Just months away from turning 80, this significant age allows me, happily, to feel joy for having done something related to justice. I feel privileged. At the same time, I am certain that it was not very much. Because much more needs to be done for women to effectively achieve equality. I have heard young people in the area of law say that they are feminist lawyers inspired by my work. It is interesting how my published works did not have a significant impact in the 1970s and 1980s, but today, it seems they are motivating the new generation. I continue to be delighted by my subject area.