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Femicide as a weapon of silencing: who killed Marielle Franco?

So let me be clear: for women, violence is not a rightful or inevitable cost of participation in politics. Participation in politics is the way we end violence against women.

Madeleine K. Albright

For the past centuries, feminist movements have worked tirelessly to guarantee representation in the public sphere. Yet, politics is a male-dominated ground. As the political environment reflects the flaws of our societies, gender-based violence is also present where the democratic debate should be enhanced. There are two interpretations for this phenomenon, not mutually exclusive [1]. On one side, political violence targets women based on their gender, impact women politicians because they are women [2]. On the other hand, political violence targeting women is interpreted as a disastrous side effect of increasing women's participation in politics, especially in violent contexts. From this point of view, women are not attacked because they are women, but because they are politicians [3]. Either way, gender-based violence in politics can be defined as violence targeting women that are in politics. As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, it is crucial to bring up the debate on women's safety in the public sphere.

Gender-based violence in politics takes many forms. Apart from the physical and emotional violence, including murders, aggression and death threats, there are structural and discriminatory ways to violate a woman's rights and integrity in the political arena. Patrimonial violence is already considered to be a form of gender-based violence in the private sphere in many legislations. In public life, it translates into the diversion of campaign resources from female to male candidates, for example. With unequal access to resources, their campaigns are less likely to be successful and the chances of representation are diminished. Another example of discriminatory violence is the constant interruptions women suffer when speaking. In the public sphere, it is the tool used by men to silence women and disregard their positions.

The violent actions take place gradually and can go as far as femicide. Femicide in political and public life happens when women who are public figures are murdered, often advocating to tackle gender-based violence or inequalities. On March 14th 2018, Marielle Franco, a Brazilian socialist politician and human rights activist, was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro. Her life and story were marked by strong activism, human rights defence, feminism, and involvement in Black movements.

Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy yet is a recent achievement for women in many countries around the world. In Brazil, for example, it was not until 1932 that women started to vote, a pioneer in the Latin American region. The fight for the right to citizenship was a conquer from the feminist movements for voting rights that emerged in the 19th century. However, as representation is behind the ideal, the fight for an equal congress is still on course. Even though the right to vote has completed 90 years, women are still reporting harassment and intimidation when deciding who to vote for. Nevertheless, the political context has been putting a lot of effort into keeping women away from such spaces, especially when they are Black, feminists and left-wing. Not only are our lives at stake, but our democracy.

Innumerable cases illustrate the increase and worsening of political violence in Brazil. The report Violência Política e Eleitoral no Brasil [4] (Political and Electoral Violence in Brazil) elaborated by Terra de Direitos and Justiça Global, mapped 327 cases of political violence between January 1 2016 and September 1 2020. There were 125 murders and attacks, 85 threats, 33 assaults, 59 offences, 21 invasions and four cases of arrest or attempted arrest of political agents, pre-candidates, candidates or elected officials. The update of the survey, conducted between September 2 to November 29 2020, reports 109 cases of political and electoral violence, including 14 murders 66 attacks and 29 assaults, threats and invasions.

According to the survey, there has been an increase in violence acts against life in recent years. From 19 murders and attacks mapped in 2017, it rose to 32 in 2019. In 2020, until November 29, a tragic record was recorded: 107 cases of murders and attacks against political agents, a number five times higher than in 2017. The survey shows that the highest incidence of assassinations and attacks occurred in the municipal sphere, with municipal level, with 87% of the cases.

A political party in Brazil, PSOL, mapped the violence against their candidates and provided a good scenario of how political violence has been based on gender. Of the 34 cases notified by the party, five affected men and 29 affected women, six of those being trans women [5]. The occurrences range from swearing, rape and death threats, to actual murder, as occurred in 2018 with councilwoman Marielle Franco, the case most remembered in the traumatic memory of the Brazilian recent democracy.

It is our duty to protect democracy and support equal representation. That is not possible without guaranteeing safety for activists and politicians in every space. Violent attacks are a strategy to diminish women's participation in the public sphere. From the USA to Argentina, from Iran to South Africa, women are paying with their lives and integrity to stand up for their rights. How is gender equality possible in a world where we still do not know who killed Marielle Franco?

Written by Gisela Foz, Activist, Lawyer and Thrive Law Changer in Brazil


[1] Bjarnegård, E., Håkansson, S., & Zetterberg, P. (2020). Gender and Violence against Political Candidates: Lessons from Sri Lanka. Politics & Gender, 1–29.

[2] Biroli, Flávia. 2016. “Political Violence against Women in Brazil: Expressions and Definitions.” Revista Direito e Práxis 7 (15): 557–89

[3] Piscopo, Jennifer M. 2016. “State Capacity, Criminal Justice, and Political Rights. Rethinking Violence against Women in Politics.” Política y Gobierno 23 (2): 437–58.

[4] Terra de Direitos, 2020. “Violência Política e Eleitoral no Brasil.”

[5] Brasil de Fato (2022) Mulheres na berlinda: a violência política de gênero e o alcance dos casos no Brasil do ódio.


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