Nena: “We live in an absurdly unequal society”

Despite being guaranteed in the constitution, Brazil has one of the worst educational systems in the world (according to UN rankings and the evaluations of other international entities). Now, with fiscal responsibility as justification, a constitutional amendment has been proposed (PEC 241) to further limit resources allocated to education, especially higher education. Federal Congressman Marquezelli summarized the logic of a portion of the Brazilian population when he said, “And who can afford (university), you have to pay. My children will pay…who doesn’t have (money), won’t go (to university).”

Several of the women who have been interviewed on the blog were able to free themselves from abusive situations, extreme poverty and precarious work conditions through a university education. (Mari, Beatriz, Sheila, Renata). Nena, a fifty-two year old Mineira (from Minas Gerais), currently working to complete her second bachelor’s degree, is another example of the transformative power of education—a potential that goes beyond personal transformation and has positive consequences for Brazilian society and the domestic labor market.

The UN, in a study published in 2014, highlighted the importance of higher education.

“Increasing the level of education of the emerging workforce in developing economies will not in itself ensure an easy absorption of the higher skilled labour into non-vulnerable jobs.

Yet it is clear that continuing to push forth undereducated, underskilled youth into the labour market is a no win situation, both for the young person who remains destined for a hand to mouth existence based on vulnerable employment and for the economy which gains little in terms of boosting its labour productivity potential.”[1]

The implication of Congressman Marquezelli’s statement is that whoever can pay for it deserves a higher education, and those who do not have the money shouldn’t have the same expectations as those who have the financial means. This discourse denies the capacity of people regardless of wealth, the value of each human and the sacrifice that many families make to improve their lives. Nena explains that “when (I was) a child, my father was incarcerated for a few years and I grew up without him. Who took care of us (four girls and 2 two boys) was my mother. She took on both the male and female roles in the house. It was through her efforts that she built the character that we have today. There was never conflict about our responsibilities, because my siblings always worked and participated in household chores. This wasn’t something (my mom) imposed, but was done through free will. Nonetheless, I realized that among our neighbors, my mother was the only one to work outside of the home. Among our acquaintances and friends, the mothers always stayed and worked at home.”

Nena has spent almost her entire life working, but like many Brazilians, will never have the same financial conditions as Congressman Marquezelli, whose gross monthly salary is nearly R$34,000.00. Despite the inequalities in Brazilian society, Nena never gave up dreaming about the possibilities. She worked as a maid from eighteen to twenty-three, in Belo Horizonte, and studied at night. She says, “I went into house cleaning to have the time and freedom to study. And it was working as a maid that I learned about the Catholic Youth Worker (JOC) and from there my horizons were expanded and I began questioning society, (within the context of the) Catholic religion and in a group of young people.”

It was this experience that she identifies as one of the greatest success in her life. “I went to live in other countries. I worked with the (grass-roots) organization of young workers. I lived for four years in Ecuador. (I) traveled to other countries like Honduras and Costa Rica, which were references in the movement of working with youth.”

She understands education as a way to fight the injustices in society. “Today we live in an absurdly unequal society: socially, economically, politically. We suffer humiliations constantly, whether (because we are) black or (because we are) poor. My work, my studies, are to fight for a society without inequality. Because to live in a capitalist society, especially in São Paulo, is very hard. Everyday we face cruelties.”

For Nena, the cruelties in her life were more related to race and class, and had less to do with gender. She cites an example from childhood that has stayed with her physically and in her memory. “In my school there was a white girl. I always liked to study, always managed to get excellent grades. She never accepted that my grades were equal or better than hers. One day I was attacked by her (for getting a better grade) and I have the scar to this day. The school never addressed the fact.

Brazil is a country with a long legacy of racism and classism, where a white deputy, who a few years ago fought for a 60% increase in congressional salaries, believes that only those who can afford to study should be able to. Fortunately, many, like Nena, do not accept this kind of attitude and continue forward, despite many barriers.

Nena wants to use her life experience and academic knowledge to contribute for a better society—for all people. “I want to complete my law degree and make use of my knowledge in all these causes, always seeking improvement. I want to make available on the streets this knowledge that I already put into practice, in a way, but (do it) in a more structured way.