Brazil: Men govern in a country with a female majority

December 15, 2014


Winners of the Hackathon will receive prizes in March 2015


Mariana Kaipper Ceratti/World Bank

Running for a congressional seat in Brazil is easy, in theory at least. A 1997 law mandates that all political groups must ensure that 30% of their candidates are women, and a Senate bill is proposing to increase that quota to 50%. But it is already hard enough to fulfill those percentages, and even harder for women to get elected.

In a country where women make up 51 percent of the population and where the female president has recently been re-elected, just one of every 10 Congressional seats – both at the federal and state levels – are held by women.

Considering only the Congress, the country has one of the lowest female/male ratios in the world and the fourth lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

In an event promoted by Congress and sponsored by the World Bank, dozens of hackers met for a week in Brasilia to search data and develop websites and apps to help women participate more actively in politics and in society.

At the hackers’ meeting –-whose official name is the Gender and Citizenship Hackathon–- 47 participants from around the country presented 22 projects. Participants also discussed the development of a platform where unknown candidates could publicize their proposals and obtain direct financing from network users.

The tool that won the Hackathon bears the very appropriate name Doña María, a nickname used to refer to a woman with little money and education, who works as a housekeeper or has another informal, low-paid job.

"Women’s representation in the legislative branch is minimal and it is also still restricted to families with money or political contacts,” says programmer Yves Bouckaert, one of the platform’s developers.

This year, half of congressional seats went to candidates who were already representatives. Additionally, just six of the federal representatives receiving the most votes in the 26 states and the Federal District are women, including three former first ladies of their respective states.


Representative Manuela D'Ávila, one of the youngest members of Congress (2007-2014), participated in the opening ceremony of the Gender and Citizenship Hackathon. She was accompanied by the World Bank’s operations advisor in Brazil, Boris Utria (left), Senator Benedita da Silva and Representative Jean Wyllys.

Mariana Kaipper Ceratti/World Bank

" Women’s representation in the legislative branch is minimal and it is also still restricted to families with money or political contacts "

Yves Bouckaert

programmer and one of the developers of the Doña María platform, Hackathon winner


Software engineer Kellyton Brito is one of the young Brazilians who uses technology to understand and bridge the gender gap in politics

Mariana Kaipper Ceratti/World Bank

Education is less important than money

"I conducted a statistical analysis and found that campaign donations are the most important factor for politicians to get elected. That counts more than (the level of) schooling,” says software engineer Kellyton Brito, creator of the My National Congress site, one of several initiatives of young Brazilians who have been using technology to understand and change gender prejudices in politics.

In Brazil, the funds for parties or individual candidates come mainly from large firms (construction and manufacturing companies and banks), although politicians may also receive donations from individuals.

"If women do not receive outside resources, it would be a good idea to determine whether they are financing their own campaigns or whether they are recruited only to help meet party quotas,” said  Kellyton, who hopes that the issue will be further explored in the press, academia and political parties themselves.

Limited transparency

Many citizens wonder whether female members of Congress propose legislation that addresses women’s needs. This concern led to the creation of the website Participatory Dynamics of Women in Congress, whose original objective was to analyze how women vote in Congress. The site has now shifted its focus to the initial phase of legislative bill development.

"When bills are presented in the plenary session for voting, they already have a party slant and thus it is not possible to know the personal opinions of the legislators,” said Fernanda Becker, one of the group’s members. She added that in the committees (where bills are first negotiated), voting is secret. “Thus, there is little transparency. The only way to know which member of Congress voted is to be present when that (first) voting occurs,” she said.

Congressman Jean Wyllys, however, offers a different point of view. He says that it is not always the female members of Congress who defend pro-women bills. For example, “most female members of Congress are against legalizing abortion,” said Wyllys, who drafted the bill that regulates prostitution in Brazil.

The promoters of the Hackathon in Brasilia hope that these technological initiatives will help resolve these issues. Specifically, they want to ensure that the political participation of Brazilian women reflects the fact that women are the majority of the population.

The winners of the Hackathon –where technological solutions to problems associated with gender violence were also presented– will receive their prizes on International Women’s Day in March 2015.