São Paulo, BrazilAs Paula Nunes steps carefully through the narrow passageways between makeshift homes in the Buracanã settlement, residents call out to her by name.
This improvised community, sandwiched between the São Remo favela and the University Hospital of São Paulo, is a place of last resort. Most of the 400 families who live here lost their livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their ability to pay rent.
Nunes is their city council representative—or rather one of five women who share a single council seat since they were elected in 2020 as part of a political collective called Bancada Feminista. Though not formally recognized by the government, power-sharing political seats are part of a growing trend to broaden the scope of representation and increase the number of female and minority office holders.
Gaining political representation is a challenge faced around the world by women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and other minorities. But only in Brazil have so many grassroots activists—like the members of Bancada Feminista, which means Feminist Bench—set about unofficially sharing elected seats as a way to amplify marginalized people’s power.
The way it works is straightforward: The political collective puts one member’s name on the ballot but campaigns as a group. The person on the ballot serves as the group’s spokesperson and, as the only officially elected representative, is the one who speaks at city council or legislative assembly meetings and casts votes. The other members serve constituents or provide expertise in specific areas; decisions on how to vote are made as a group.
While her colleagues in the collective focus on other issues facing the people of this city of more than 12 million, Nunes has been able to spend time with those living in Buracanã. She wants to help the settlement’s residents get what they need most: food, work, and affordable housing.
“If it were just one person holding this seat, so many people in our community would be left behind,” says Nunes, an attorney. “That one person would be stuck in council meetings, casting votes on issues affecting people they didn’t even have the time to meet.”
‘It’s what people want.’
In Alto Paraíso de Goiás, a small town on the edge of Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in central Brazil, a political collective won a seat on the city council in 2020 with 280 votes, the highest number ever cast for a candidate in the community’s history. The four members of Mandato Coletivo Permacultural—two women and two men—are environmental educators who want the municipality to better integrate nature and environmental issues into its policies.
Everything the collective does is divided equally. While Henny Freitas is their spokesperson at the city council, during meetings she continuously chats with the other members on WhatsApp to make sure it’s not just her voice that’s heard.
“This might not be legally recognized yet, but it’s legitimate, because it’s what people want,” she says.
Adds fellow member Christiane Catalão: “It’s a way of detaching from the traditional role of an elected official. The idea of political collectives came as an organic response from the part of the community that isn’t traditionally involved in politics and that want to see themselves represented.”
Political collectives first appeared on Brazil’s ballots in 1994, when elections were still relatively new after more than two decades of military dictatorship. Durval Ângelo, a Workers’ Party candidate for state representative in Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil, pioneered the idea by regularly inviting the public to participate in evaluating his plans and proposals and to work with him to decide what to do next. He served six consecutive terms.
Gradually the idea evolved into sharing seats. From 1994 to 2018, 94 political collective candidates participated in the country’s elections in 110 campaigns. But in the 2020 municipal elections alone, 313 collectives ran—and 22 of them won.
Among them were Bancada Feminista and Quilombo Periférico, a Black group with male, female, and LGBTQIA+ representatives in São Paulo. In Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará, there is Nossa Cara, made up of three women from the city’s periphery, and in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, also in the northeast, three Black women are part of a collective known as Pretas por Salvador.
“Political collectives are a creative way to construct representation,” says Debora Rezende de Almeida, a political scientist at the University of Brasília—especially when official attempts have failed.
Brazil incorporated gender quotas into its federal electoral law 20 years ago. In countries such as Rwanda, Nepal, Italy, and Costa Rica, such quotas have been effective in increasing the number of female office holders. But not in Brazil, according to experts. As of March 2022, Brazil came in 145th of 192 countries on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of women in national parliaments. (The United States ties with the Dominican Republic for 72nd place.)
The main problem: Political parties recruit women to run for office to meet the quota yet fund their campaigns at far lower rates than they do men running for the same positions. With little financial backing, women’s chances of winning are slim.
The results speak for themselves: With a population of 212.6 million people, only 15 percent of Brazil’s federal representatives and 12.4 percent of the country’s senators are women. Nine hundred of the country’s 5,568 cities didn’t elect a single woman to city council in 2020. By comparison, women in the United States—with a population of 329.5 million—hold 27 percent of the seats in Congress. That’s a 50 percent increase from a decade ago, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
In Brazil, women achieve much higher representation in political collectives, according to a study of the 2020 municipal elections co-authored by Almeida. White women account for 36 percent of elected members of political collectives, compared to less than 10 percent of all elected city councilors. For Black women, the difference is even more stark: 27 percent representation versus barely one percent.
Usually, Nunes would make her way to Buracanã alone, but on this visit, she is joined by two other Bancada Feminista members: Silvia Ferraro, a history teacher and the group’s spokesperson, and Natália Chaves, an activist in the Black and environmental movements. (The other two members are Carolina Iara, who focuses on health and the LGBTQIA+ and Black communities; and Dafne Sena, a lawyer focusing on labor rights and environmental activism.)
As the three women arrive at the community’s shared kitchen for lunch, Ferraro stops to speak with Fabiana Batista da Silva, a resident who is worried that one of her children hasn’t received the tablet he needed for remote learning during the pandemic. As a public-school teacher, Ferraro knows how to navigate the education system and get the boy the resources he needs.
Silva says she only found out about the Bancada Feminista after the election, but as a single mother heading a household with seven children, she wishes she had voted for them.
“It’s the first time I’ve felt supported,” she says. “They have empathy, they’re humane. They make you feel important. That’s all we’ve ever wanted here.”
For experts watching the rise of political collectives in Brazil, it’s that ability to connect with voters, especially those who are often forgotten or marginalized, that’s led to their success.
“For some time now, political parties have had little connection with the population,” says Soraia Marcelino Vieira, a political scientist at the Federal Fluminense University. “Citizens are generally unhappy, they’re disheartened, they don’t believe in the political system, especially when it comes to political parties.
“With these political collectives there’s a new sense of mobilization. People feel like they have a chance, like they finally have options in politics aside from the usual individual candidates.”
But these collectives do come with some potentially crippling complications. They aren’t legally recognized nor are they regulated (a bill to rectify this problem has been on hold since 2017). If the spokesperson decides to step down, the entire collective loses its place in government, which happened to one group in the city of Belo Horizonte just three months after being elected in 2020.
And if the spokesperson or the rest of the group decides to expel a member—as happened with a São Paulo collective of state representatives—that person has no recourse, and neither do those who voted for the entire group.
The members of Bancada Feminista say disagreements and internal conflicts haven’t been an issue for them because they weren’t put together by their party, the left-wing Liberty and Socialism Party, but have known each other for years. They don’t always agree, they say, but they know how to come to a decision that best represents them all and, most importantly, their constituents.
At the very least, collective membership can be fluid. When one of the members of Mandato Coletivo Permacultural decided to take another post at city hall, the other three opened the fourth position to the public, interviewing those interested and rotating the seat among them every three months. When the original member returned, they adapted again, opening a fifth chair, which rotates among people who have a special interest or expertise in the collective’s area of focus during that quarter.
Bancada Feminista has had to be flexible, too. Nunes and Iara both recently left to join two other Black women to run as the state version of the collective in this year’s October elections. Because neither was the municipal collective’s spokesperson, it has kept its seat at city hall.
Nevertheless, the collective has kept up its mission of serving the underserved. Recently, a bill Bancada Feminista wrote to create a municipal program to combat obstetric violence—the mistreatment of people in labor or while giving birth—passed its first vote. As it moves toward the second one, the collective is creating a dossier to present to the Municipal Secretariat of Health that will include stories from constituents who have been victims of obstetric violence in the city.
After lunch in Buracanã’s shared kitchen, some of the women stay, gathering around to hear their co-councilwomen speak. Ferraro talks about the importance of women in communities like theirs, where women make up the majority of the residents and are the ones who organize the communal living.
Chaves picks up the thread next, comparing the collective nature of what Bancada Feminista does to how Buracanã works, with residents looking after each other’s children, making sure there is enough food for everyone, and helping newcomers build homes out of scrap wood and plastic tarps.
“We’re not superheroes,” she says. “But we know we can get things done if we work together.”
Gabriela Portilho is a Brazilian documentary photographer and journalist currently based between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. See more of her work on her website or by following her on Instagram.