“We want to support fashion initiatives that are identity-affirming, and that break away from the stereotypes that feed into women's subordination. Elas na ModaandSem Violência fund projects that improve women's living conditions and that work collaboratively to make the fashion industry more just, diverse and transparent",
- Kaka Verdade, feminist activist and executive director of the Elas Fund (Fundo Elas), a Brazilian social investment fund focused on women's rights.
I was born in Santana do Livramento, a city in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, on the border with Uruguay. My parents split up when I was a little girl, and my mum and I moved to my grandmother's house in the same city. She was a self-taught seamstress, so I grew up playing under her sewing machine and she taught me how to thread a needle. I enjoyed watching her measure and cut fabrics on the kitchen table and I would stay there trying to understand the magic she was performing with those fabrics. She used patterns from the sewing magazines of the day as templates. Through my grandmother’s influence, my mum and I both learned how to sew.
A Fresh Start in Rio de Janeiro
By the of age 16, I was beginning to identify as a lesbian, but my home was not an environment that was open to diversity or discussion. So I ran away to live in Rio de Janeiro. In the 1990s, every young woman dreamed of being in Rio, because we saw it on television. It was the setting for all the soap operas back then. I was going through a difficult phase at the time, and I thought: ‘If I have to suffer anyway, it might as well be by the beach.’
I went through the same experience that so many other girls and boys have when they discover they’re gay. Families have a hard time being welcoming and accepting, and mine was no different. But I knew that I was living my life.
I was very young, and the issues were complex. I had to face the world alone, and that was a painful process. Overnight, I needed to find a job and a place to sleep. I didn't know how to protect myself from a society that was extremely sexist, and that devalued my work—a society that treated me as a sex object and that was hostile towards me for being a lesbian. By not being available to men, they assumed they were within their right to invade my privacy.
I worked as a general assistant at a restaurant, working as a cashier and stock-person, amongst other things. I didn't earn much ,and I didn't have any assigned job duties. Bullying, sexual harassment and exploitation were common in my daily life. In 2001, at age 22, I moved to Brasilia because I felt threatened by a former boss.
Finding a place within the LGBT Community
Tired of all the violence and injustice and wanting to gain some knowledge about human rights and labour rights to defend myself, I learned about an LGBT group called Estruturação. I started attending their meetings, and helping out with the cleaning. Gradually, by talking to people and getting access to information, I built a support network. I felt safe there.
One day, an activist from the group asked for my input on a project. He asked me, ‘If you could be paid for any activity, what would you do?' I replied that I would want to talk with those working in government—meaning in politics—and that I would like to learn how things worked and find out why the police were always chasing gay people. I couldn’t accept so much injustice. The world just couldn't be that awful. That conversation gave rise to a project that was approved by the Ministry of Health.
Little by little, I was growing stronger, and I felt more empowered. It was there that I became a citizen. I thought that I might be able to contribute to society and, together with some women friends, we established a lesbian feminist group called Coturno de Vênus,and I carried on with my activism.
In 2008, we were selected by the Elas Fund in its funding round focused on gender diversity. For 20 years, this organisation has been supporting the advancement of women's rights in Brazil. The support they've given to bolstering Coturno de Vênus is amazing. A little later, I was invited to join the board of the Elas Fund to expand Elas into the LGBT movement and to help choose proposals. In 2010, after returning to Rio de Janeiro, where I live now, I became the Elas Fund’s program manager, working with social movements and getting conversations started among the various organisations. After four years in that role, I then moved over to Elas’s executive coordination team, where I remain today. ,
A big part of my job is raising awareness to forge partnerships and resource mobilisation locally and internationally, for projects that invest in the prevention of violence against women , developing women’s financial independence and promoting ethnic and racial equity. For example, one of these initiatives is making young women in Bahia more knowledgeable about health issues through projects that they themselves design. In another initiative, we’re making sports accessible to girls, so that they understand the value of being part of a team and develop self-discipline and awareness of their own bodies. We also support a project for civil rights for the LGBT community.
Brazil has one of the highest rates of violence against LGBT people in the world. It’s unjust for a woman to be raped and killed just because the offender has a hatred of lesbians. And it's not just the perpetrator who harbours such prejudices. A family that turns away their gay son, a school that refuses to deal with a transgendered student, a government that doesn't solve hate crimes committed against gay, bisexual, and transgender people—they’re all helping to normalise such violence.
Last month, we partnered with C&A Foundation for the first-ever conference of Elas na Modaand Sem Violência where we brought together women who are involved in the fashion industry's supply chain: female activists, farmers, seamstresses and entrepreneurs. These women face inequality and exploitation, and they are often subjected to horrible working conditions in business processes that lack transparency. They’re all striving to make the fashion industry more equitable, sustainable and diverse. That meeting was our starting point for coming up with a call for proposals for Elas na Moda sem Violência, which is being launched in August (fundosocialelas.org/elasnamoda/).
“As a means of survival for many women, fashion can represent their struggle for equal rights, for valuing their manual labour, and for the end of the objectification of their bodies and for their dignity."
The call for proposals will focus on initiatives that work to break the stereotypes that society imposes on women. Twenty projects have been selected for roll-out across the country, with approximately 50,000 reals [about €11,875 or £10,700] earmarked for each one.
As a means of survival for many women, fashion can represent their struggle for equal rights, for valuing their manual labour, and for the end to the objectification of their bodies and for their dignity. For these women, fashion is a form of activism and resistance.
My life purpose is to keep fighting for justice to bring about an increasingly just society. August is Lesbian Visibility Month, and that inspires me to assert our existence, to show the hardships we experience and to seek solutions. It's an opportunity to spend a day, a month, a year or—who knows?—perhaps an entire lifetime free from violence.”
This article is part of a series of profiles published in the Brazilian edition of Marie Clairemagazine, in partnership with C&A Foundation. The original version can be read here.