August 19, 2001
Brazilian lawmakers pass equal
rights for women
A story published today by the New York Times reports that after 26 years of debate,
amendments, delays and parliamentary maneuvering, the Brazilian Congress has finally
approved a legal code that for the first time in the country's history makes women equal
to men in the eyes of Brazilian law.
Among the oddities the new measure eliminates is a much-criticized provision that
allows a husband to obtain an annulment if he learns that his wife was not a virgin at the
time of their marriage.
The new code also abolishes a restriction that prevents anyone determined to have
engaged in adultery, which is a criminal offense here, from remarrying.
The most significant change in Brazilian society is the abolition of the traditional
concept of "paternal power," which gives Brazilian fathers unrestricted legal
rights to make all decisions on behalf of their families. Under the new legislation, they
will have to divide that authority with their wives, and single mothers will be regarded
as heads of households.
"These are important advances, and we have reason to celebrate," said
Jacqueline Pitanguy, a sociologist and prominent women's rights advocate here. "But
we also have to ask: What took so long?"
The new legislation replaces a 1916 statute that formally enshrined the hierarchical,
patriarchal view of family and sexual relations that prevailed here and elsewhere in Latin
America at the time. Brazil's current Constitution, ratified in 1988, guarantees sexual
equality for women, but many judges have continued to make rulings based on the outdated
civil code because Congress was unable, ever since one was first introduced in 1975, to
pass a revised statute.
"The old code reflected an agrarian, 19th-century society," said Ricardo
Fi˙˙za, a legislator from a conservative rural state who was the chief sponsor of the
measure. "This one now reflects modern society and values."
As part of the effort to eliminate bias on the basis of sex, which includes
substituting human being or person for the word man, the code also promises some new
protections for men.
The legislation, which has more than 2,000 articles, is not expected to go into effect
fully until 2003, because laws to carry out the provisions still must be written or
revised. "A hundred years would not be enough to discuss so many themes," said
"This new civil code is a blow to machismo and a victory for women, but you don't
bury machismo so easily, with just some changes in the law. Machismo is a way of looking
at the world that is deeply embedded in the hearts of both men and women, and that is much
more difficult to change." said Ms. Pitanguy.