NOVEMBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 11
F I G H T I N G F O R W O M E N ' S L I V E S
by Bill Hinchberger
Sao Paulo, Brazil--Though they enjoy some of the world's most advanced legislative and constitutional guarantees, poor Brazilian women are often denied jobs on the basis of their reproductive status. Feminists and union activists charge that prospective employers may choose not to hire women they suspect might become pregnant, and that many Brazilian employers fire employees that actually do become pregnant. Activists claim that this kind of employment discrimination is one reason for Brazil's high rate of sterilization--an estimated 16 percent among women of child-bearing age (15-49), compared to 8 percent in neighboring Peru.
In some cases, women are asked to present certification of tubal ligation as a prerequisite to employment. More commonly, pregnancy tests are included in the routine medical exams required for prospective employees under Brazilian law. These tests are done on urine or blood samples, and women are often not informed about what they are being tested for.
Union leaders add that, as part of the hiring process, women are often required to sign prepared letters of resignation that are filed for later use if a worker becomes pregnant. Some activists also claim that certain companies monitor the menstrual cycles of their female employees to ensure they are not hiding a pregnancy.
Most activists believe that companies shy away from hiring pregnant or fertile women to avoid granting them the liberal 120- day paid maternity leave mandated by the 1988 constitution. Traditional ingrained sexism undoubtedly plays a role as well. "Businessmen will always opt for a masculine labor force," says Luiz Roberto Tenorio, director of the Rio de Janeiro State Doctors Union. "Since they can't make this explicit, they let the entrance physical examination make this political decision [for them]."
Sterilization and fear
Union locals and official agencies like the Sao Paulo State Council on the Condition of Women (CF) have recorded dozens of accusations of forced sterilization, some involving multinational companies. They claim, however, that they are unable to investigate these accusations thoroughly or bring formal charges against the companies because women make the denunciations anonymously or decline to cooperate if they are to be identified. Most victims, they say, fear being blacklisted by other employers if they speak publicly or take legal action against a company.
Activists add that sterilization certification requests are generally made verbally. "We had accusations that a firm was requiring proof of sterilization in March 1990," recalls Tenorio. "We went there, but we couldn't prove anything. It ends up being the employee's word against the company's."
Another widespread problem is that women are often unaware of their rights. "The majority think it is natural" that they are asked to certify that they are sterilized", notes Sandra Cabral, president of the Unified Workers Central (CUT) in Goias state.
Companies customarily deny the charges, but activists steadfastly assert that the practice is on the rise. They say more firms have begun to request proof of sterilization since ie 1988 Brazilian constitution increased paid maternity leave to 120 days.
At least two such cases of discrimination have entered the legal arena. In 1990, more than two dozen female farm workers in rural Sao Paulo state made formal complaints against an agricultural establishment in Boa Esperanca do Sul, alleging that they were asked to either provide proof of sterilization or submit to pregnancy tests. One woman claims that she underwent surgery to obtain the required documentation. The Labor Ministry dropped the case for lack of evidence, but a local prosecutor is preparing to bring charges, according to Marisa Fernandes of the Sao Paulo CF. Fernandes adds that the firm is not currently asking for pregnancy tests or proof that women have had their fallopian tubes tied.
Fernandes maintains that discriminatory practices are particularly acute among agricultural enterprises that employ temporary workers. During the harvest period, extra hands are hired by contractors who round up job seekers at fixed gathering points. Fernandes says that the contractors often ask prospective temporary workers to show sterilization certificates.
Another case, involving Lizete de Oliveira Depieri, a former employee at Philco Radio e Televisao S.A., a subsidiary of Philco, the U.S. appliance maker which is now itself a subsidiary of the Dutch giant Philips, is awaiting a decision by the Regional Medical Council in Sao Paulo, the medical profession's self-regulating board of ethics. After the decision is rendered, Depieri intends to press her case in the judicial system. According to Dagmar Ramos, a doctor and former regional director of the Southeastern Region of the Sao Paulo Municipal Health Department, Depieri was pregnant when she was fired in 1987. She applied for reinstatement based on laws prohibiting the firing of pregnant women, and was sent to a company-approved clinic for a physical examination required of new and re-hired employees. During that examination, she alleges, her uterus was perforated and she was forced to accept an abortion for medical reasons. So far, charges have been brought only against the doctors involved, but Ramos says that Depieri's lawyers are also considering a suit against Philco. Repeated attempts to obtain comments from the company through its press relations firm, Destaque de Communicacao, were unsuccessful.
Unions, feminists and reporters have uncovered other cases of alleged abuse:
Breaking the culture of sterilization
Legal action is rare, but state agencies, unions and women's groups have often been successful in pressuring some employers to end discriminatory practices. The Santo Andre Metalworkers Union negotiated a clause in its collective bargaining contract prohibiting the use of pregnancy tests in dismissal cases. Ramos says a campaign by another CUT affiliate, the Plastic Workers Union, prompted a Sao Paulo factory to stop requiring proof of sterilization.
Tenorio, whose doctors union is also affiliated with the CUT, has had similar success in convincing employers to stop including pregnancy tests in routine physicals for prospective new hires. Tenorio says the practice was common even with "enlightened" employers like the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), where he is director of the occupational health department of the medical school. When confronted with the evidence that such requirements were being placed on employees, he says, university administrators agreed to stop requiring pregnancy tests except in cases where the health of the fetus might be endangered, such as laboratory jobs that involve proximity to nuclear material. Even then, he says, a pregnant woman is not denied employment but reassigned to another department until after she delivers her child. He notes similar success in eliminating discriminatory hiring practices among leading Brazilian firms in the construction, computer and telecommunications industries.
Most importantly, Tenorio says, several health clinics that perform routine physicals for companies on prospective employees agreed to eliminate pregnancy tests from their standard battery of exams. He acknowledges, however, that they do perform such tests if their client, the employer, specifically requests it.
The Rio doctors' union has also prodded the state legislature to prevent companies from demanding proof of sterilization. In April 1991, the union newspaper reported that the Rio state government was administering a questionnaire to job applicants that included questions about women's fertility, including sterilization. Subsequently, the state legislature passed a bill prohibiting state agencies from collecting such information.
Though certifiable evidence of companies requesting proof of sterilization may be scant, the Sao Paulo City Council considered the problem serious enough to pass an ordinance banning the practice earlier this year. A similar bill has been offered at the national level in the Senate.
In a strict sense, such legislation is unnecessary and redundant. Partly due to the political clout of the Catholic Church, sterilization--like abortion--is prohibited in Brazil. Tubal ligations can only be performed legally for medical reasons, after an arduous approval process.
Yet these laws, like many others in Brazil, are not enforced. Tubal ligation is readily available to women throughout Brazil. Many such operations are even performed in public institutions, according to both national statistics and an investigation by the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly.
In fact, tubal ligation is the country's most popular method of birth control. According to official data gathered in 1986 by the Brazilian Statistical and Geographical Institute (IBGE), of the 71 percent of women of childbearing age who were in a stable relationship and used birth control, 45 percent had opted for sterilization. Oral contraceptives took second place, as the chosen method for 41 percent.
If studies like this one are accurate, it would mean that an estimated seven million women (in a country of 150 million people) have been sterilized. In March 1991, Health Minister Laeeni Guerra suggested that the number may actually be three times that.
Federal Deputy Benedita da Silva of the leftist Workers Party (PT) is proposing a congressional investigation on the national level, along the lines of the one completed by the Rio state legislature.
The data uncovered so far has raised the ire of many Brazilians. According to 1987 United Nations figures, of the 51 percent of women in a stable relationship who use birth control in Latin America, 13 percent opt for sterilization; in Brazil, however, 71 percent of the women in a stable relationship use some form of birth control--and 43 percent of them take the sterilization route.
Some nationalists and feminists attribute the high rate of sterilization in Brazil to foreign foundations, and use terms like "genocide" when describing the assistance foreign foundations provide to local family planning agencies, which allegedly encourage and help fund sterilization. These charges were fuelled by formerly classified documents prepared in 1974 by the U.S. National Security Council and recently made public in Brazil. The documents list Brazil among 13 countries deserving special attention for family planning assistance. But while they do reflect a paternalistic attitude toward Third World countries, the documents are not the stuff of genocidal conspiracy. Their secrecy is probably more a reflection of the paranoia of the Nixon-Kissinger White House than of their actual importance for U.S. policy.
The dominant Brazilian family planning organization, the privately operated Civil Association for Family Well Being (BEMFAM), receives funding from the International Planned Parenthood Federation in addition to Brazilian public monies and grants from a myriad of other foreign foundations. BEMFAM runs some 2,500 family planning posts around the country that disseminate information about family planning, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. It also provides birth-control pills and other contraceptives at no or low cost. BEMFAM does not hide its willingness to refer women--when they ask for such information- -to clinics that perform tubal ligations. Many of these clinics are linked to the Brazilian Association of Family Planning Institutions, which, according to a study by the Sao Paulo State Council on the Condition of Women, also accepts foreign foundation funding.
However, the 1986 Brazilian government study found that few sterilizations--less than 1 percent--were performed in family planning clinics. The study determined that about two-thirds of sterilizations were performed in private hospitals or clinics and nearly 30 percent were carried out in public institutions, with the rest taking place in philanthropic hospitals.
The real causes of Brazilian women's high sterilization rate lie much more within the country's social fabric. As CUT leader Cabral notes, even when women are not coerced by their employers, they are often forced to choose between work and motherhood--or at least to opt for fewer children--due to social factors like poverty and prohibitively expensive or non-existent child-care facilities.
It does appear, however, that employer coercion is a significant contributing factor to Brazil's high sterilization rate. State Assemblywoman Lucia Souto of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), a leader of the Rio de Janeiro legislature's investigation, says that this sexist expression of corporate power is an extreme form of discrimination: "It means that to be a producing working person, you have to cease being a woman."
Bill Hinchberger is a journalist living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is associate editor of the reference book Third World Guide: 1991-1992, published in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Fund for Investigative Journalism provided funding support for this article.