The city is ours: Occupy it!

Thursday, May 14, 2015 - 13:22

Reclaiming their right to the city is something social movements in Brazil know well. After only 12 hours in the city of Recife, I was already hearing of the latest occupation by the social movement, “Ocupe Estelita”. The group has been challenging a gentrification project for a so-called New Recife since 2012, one that would include the demolition of a historical building to make way for 12 high-rise buildings, including residences, hotels and other businesses.

Besides the fact that the building approval never went through the proper channels, hundreds of Brazilian citizens gathered again this week in opposition to what such urban “development” would do to their city: more cars, more consumption and stealing what some described as the last of the views left in the city of Recife. Not to mention pushing poor people out of gentrified cities. On my first night in Recife, 3000 people gathered outside of the mayor’s house in protest.

The threats to the right to the city are well-known to ActionAid Brazil. I spent my second night in Recife with community members from Passarinho. Last year, 25,000 poor men, women and children from this community were facing eviction, despite having lived there for years and, with just 30 days’ notice. Together with the community, we fought and survived this threat but are now waiting for the Government of Pernambuco to pay the owners of the land their due compensation to allow the community members to stay. If not, we risk the threat of eviction returning.

But of course there is hope and perhaps in Brazil more so than anywhere else. My first meeting on day 1 in Recife was at the offices of the State Council on the Rights of women in Pernambuco, a building which sits next to a women-only police station. The existence of such structures – although never perfect – speaks a thousand words.

I sat at a roundtable discussion organised by ActionAid Brazil – the first of its kind in Brazil –as representatives of the Women’s Secretariats from across the state of Pernambuco shared what they are doing to make their streets and public spaces safe for women. The representatives spoke of LED lighting and better paving in Garanhuns, recounting how “police can get there on time” means “everything”. They are also the second city in the Northeast to have guaranteed public transport after 9pm. They spoke of day care centres in Serra Talhada and Ipojuca; mobile services to reach isolated communities in Jaboatão; challenging racial violence and violence against lesbian and transgender women in Caruaru; working to end poor treatment of women in health centres or by police in Recife; and creating a women’s centre in Afogados. In turn everyone benefits. There was a common consensus that “When a city is safe for women, it is safe for everyone”.

ActionAid Brazil and our partners – Centro das Mulheres do Cabo, Casa da Mulher do Nordeste, Casa da Mulher do Nordeste and ETAPAS - are seeing the fruits of 5 years of work, increasing accountability from governments for providing services that women in cities are demanding.

This morning I had the opportunity to speak on Radio Cabo on a programme focused on women (Radio Mullheres). We invest a lot of our time speaking with governments, calling for the types of gender-responsive public services that we are starting to see in the State of Pernambuco.

But this time, my final words were to the women of Cabo. At the end of the day, it is about women feeling free, feeling safe. It is about women claiming back their cities, claim their right to live free of violence and enjoy what cities have to offer. Reclaim, reclaim, reclaim!