Trading votes for sterilizations, a common political tool in northeast Brazil

SALVADOR, BRAZIL — Election signs are up everywhere, some picturing two men and a woman, hands tightly clasped and raised in the air, with words claiming this team will be the one to make things better for Bahia. Other candidates have their names painted onto walls in red, blue and white and sometimes green. I know someone who helped a friend commissioned to do a live painting as part of a campaign for a candidate. Morning, noon and night, a car drives around blasting music as part of the campaign for one politician. All the candidates promise that Bahia will continue to improve if they are elected.

Student Journal: Summer dispatches from the field
Each year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Three current Human Rights Fellows including Ugo Edu — a graduate student enrolled in the UCB-UCSF Joint Medical Program — have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter. This is Edu’s final post of the summer.

Ugo EduUgo Edu on reproductive choice in Brazil

  1. Watching girl-watchers in a Brazilian airport
  2. An arduous journey and some food for thought
  3. Trading votes for sterilizations, a common political tool in northeast Brazil
  4. Technology troubles, informal conversations, and a curious fact
  5. From false leads to street thugs, field research has its challenges along with its joys
Also reporting:

I keep wondering how many women are receiving or being offered sterilizations in return for votes at election time.

One person I interviewed pointed out that things had improved a bit in Bahia, particularly in the capital city of Salvador, and thus people had a little more disposable income at their hands. How would that impact the practice of trading votes for sterilizations, a common political tool in the northeast of Brazil? Would that practice still seem relevant and useful? The only trace of increased disposable income I can see amongst some of Bahia’s poor hang unflatteringly from their waistlines, thighs and buttocks. Policies which legalized sterilizations – though it’s doubtful everyone knew they were illegal until a 1997 change in the law that actually restricted access – include guidelines which some women find hard to accept.

As the politicians campaign, the people joke about promised public improvement projects, that years later, still remain under construction and suspect corruption. I wonder whether it also considered corruption if a politician promises a woman a sterilization procedure for her vote, and she becomes pregnant after the politician takes office? A mother of one of my informant’s tied her tubes only to get pregnant again, which left her with a total of four children. What can be said about reproductive rights here, where a woman chooses sterilization, and the method fails? Is this a window into the link between politicians and the phenomenon of mass sterilizations? Furthermore, do the women asking for these sterilizations really see them as necessary, or are the doctors and politicians creating this need? Perhaps it’s both.

One doctor’s name has come up twice in one day. I’d never heard of him before and the two people that mentioned him seemed rather surprised given my field research. He is a white doctor who has a clinic where he is said to have performed many sterilizations, especially among black women. From what my informants told me, this doctor has linked poverty to the number of children one has, and believes sterilization to be a way to combat poverty. He reportedly has done other work on stopping menstruation altogether, and is rumored to have sterilized many women without their knowledge while doing experimental work in Brazil. Yet I was told that getting an interview with him would be rather easy. I hope so – I would like to speak to him about his views on reproductive rights, sterilization and the links to poverty and race. Considering the reported importance of this man’s role in the Bahia sterlization phenomenon, he now moves to the top of my list of people to contact and interview.

Additional information:

A 1998 story about a sterilization scandal in Brazil

About Ugo Edu

Ugo Edu

Ugo Edu was born and raised in southern California, the oldest daughter of Nigerian immigrants. After receiving her B.S. in physiological sciences at UCLA, her interest in medicine led her to earn a master’s of public health at Morehouse School of Medicine.

Edu wasn’t satisfied, however, with a strictly public-health approach to questions of sickness, healing, and prevention. Instead, personal experiences — and those of African Americans and of fellow children of African immigrants living in the U.S. — nurtured her interest in a medical anthropological approach to such issues. She is currently entering her third year as a medical anthropology PhD student enrolled in the UCB-UCSF Joint Medical Program.

Edu, 29, has a particular interest in Brazil, in part due to its international geopolitical and economic position; her summer research focuses on Brazilian women’s reproductive choices. She trains in Capoeira Angola, the traditional style of the art form.