“Brazil is not for beginners,” legendary bossa nova composer Tom Jobim once uttered about our country. In Brazil there can be more lies than meet the eye. It is a very violent place, and is even worse for women, queer, trans and other marginalized people.
This is all part of why television host Barbara Thomaz, with Professor Ana Sharp, lawyer Natália Veroneze, advertising pro Flávia Zaparoli and actress Maira Dvorek, decided to start the sexual education collective Caos.a (a play with the word “Causa”, Portuguese for “Cause”) in 2020. Brazil still has little sex education: it’s practically a foreign idea to ordinary citizens. As with so many countries, young people often get much of their sex information through mass media.
Caos.a began during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still ravaging Brazil: it ranks fifth in infections and second in death-rate.
“During the pandemic’s initial stage we realized that the reporting of sexual violence to the authorities had a resounding drop. [This is likely in part due to] victims being isolated with their aggressors at home or away from school,” Thomaz recalled, in an exclusive interview with Scarleteen.
Between March 2020 and December 2021 at least one rape occurred every 10 minutes and one feminicide every seven hours; and more than 100 girls and women endured sexual violence in Brazil per the Public Security Brazilian Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, FBSP). Too, every day in Brazil, 8 people under the age of 16 marry. The marriageable age in Brazil is 16 years old, even though you need to be 18 they to drink alcohol or have a driver’s license.
Former President Jair Bolsonaro and his then Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, elected as a senator last year, campaigned against sex education claiming it is a “gender ideology.” Alves also believes in the prohibition of abortion, including after rape or health is at risk, for trafficked people or when there is the suicide risk. They also support prohibiting young people’s access to hormone blockers for gender affirmation.
Thomaz revealed that the position of Bolsonaro and Alves were one point that inspired the group to form Caos.a as their collective question how sexual education is still perceived under prejudicial and ignorant eyes and mistaken as “teaching sex to children.” That is the reason that she brought a new term to the fore: ‘The Intimate Safety.’” The moniker is hoped to be a more family friendly term due to the stigma that “sex education” receives in the country.
According to the Public Security Brazilian Forum, sexual violence occurs in most to girls who are between 0 to 14 years-old. In the opinion of Thomaz, that population lacks a safety net and are prone to be neglected by family, state and other powers, all of which make them more easily targeted by and more vulnerable to abusers.Thomaz talked about how [when pregnancy occurs for these victims] these girls are often engulfed in a cycle of families being unware of the pregnancy. She also mentioned how many families lack the knowledge that abortion is legal for those under 14 years-old when they are sexual violence victims. If families had more access to sex education, they would be more likely to know facts like these and girls would be better protected from abuse.
Ordinary Brazilian citizens are often not acquainted with the laws or realities related to abortion, sex abuse and age of consent. It doesn’t help that so many are illiterate in this socially unequal country. Thomaz also mentions that some local authorities aren’t even interested in enforcing the laws in the first place. In Thomaz’s view, this scenario, “generates huge school dropouts and lack of attendance, very young children having kids, and all leads to drastically diminished chances of girls finishing their studies, going to college and having a good job,” exposing more how unequal our society is.
“During childhood, sexual education can be focused on consent, the correct name for body parts, being given permission to say ‘no’ and how to get away from [unsafe people and interactions]; how to seek the help of adults or relatives.”
Thomaz herself has dealt with predatory behavior from bosses and colleagues in television, a fight she told me about in another interview in 2018. This history and her revelation to me of her own abuse as a child helps me further comprehend and deeply respect her calling to protect children and young people from sexual predators. Thomaz was able to start processing her own childhood abuse and trauma after watching famous children’s television host Xuxa speak on domestic violence which led Thomaz to stave off an abusive relative. An elder millennial like me, a considerable portion of Thomaz’s education came through a television set.
Brazil is known for machismo and sexism which could be perceived during the 2018 electoral campaign when false news were created to tarnish left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad, who was sponsored by former and now current president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, by once again bad naming sex education.
The winner of that presidential run and former state leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has made many offensive comments against LGBTQIA+ people, women and BIPOC. His machismo behavior is present in rallying crowds and in his policy making. He is certainly influential in Brazilian households and to young boys.
As an adult, Thomaz became a mother of two boys. She says parenting boys in Brazil has, “brought shivers up to my spine as I faced the tsunami called ‘culture.’” However, intimidated she may have been, parenting sons has provided Thomaz the opportunity to pass values on to her boys that have been more inclined to her values and what she wants for all young people.
“I encourage [my two sons] to be who they want to be. I let them experiment with every color, haircuts, clothes, nail painting, earrings and dolls. I defend that they can cry, feel pain, fear, love and be sensible as also expressing their feelings. I always talk to them about racism and white privilege. I encourage them to have girls as real friends and not ‘little girlfriends’ as the latter suggests to boys that every girl must be taken and consumed.”
Caos.a and Thomaz herself are rowing against the twin tides of both machismo and a lack of sex education in Brazil.
Coming from a country which often lacks basic human rights when compared to Canada, Western Europe or the USA, Thomaz underscores how important it is to talk about intimate safety to children and teens: “That is why we came up with Caos.a: in a populace that has never had sexual education, there is no way they will know how it works. It is essential, and we must fight for it.”