RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – After years of dealing with poor conditions and lack of resources, students in Brazil’s state secondary schools had had enough. Inspired by teachers’ strikes, students themselves began to go on strike in 2015 and took over school buildings in cities across Brazil to demand quality education.
Brazil’s public education system has been a shambles for decades. Middle-class and rich families never use public schools; they educate their children exclusively in private primary and secondary institutions. A private-school education is the only way to learn enough to pass entrance exams to free public universities, which, ironically, are the best in the country. Students who attend state schools have little chance of getting the education they need.
Official statistics on the number of schools “occupied” across Brazil are hard to come by, but students have taken over more than 300 schools nationwide so far. Students in Sao Paulo, the country’s commercial heart, launched the movement in 2015 and have announced the occupation of 94 schools to date. On March 21, occupations began in Rio de Janeiro state, where students occupied 73 schools – with female students among the movement’s key leaders.
The girls driving the movement in Rio say that a growth in feminism in Brazil has made it possible for them to take a leading role in the protests. “There’s no such thing as a patriarchal revolution – values have to change,” said Isabela Queiroz, 17, president of the Municipal Association of Secondary Students (AME) in Rio de Janeiro and a key Occupy leader at her school, Escola Tecnica Estadual Adolpho Bloch. “If there’s going to be a 21st-century revolution, it can’t happen without being empowered by and led by women.”
“Girls have always been interested in being leaders, in my opinion – it’s just that they didn’t feel they could do it,” Queiroz continued. “This is a new thing women are learning, to represent ourselves politically. I myself always thought student movements were pretty cool, but I never thought it could be me up there, high-fiving a guy, speaking into the microphone.”
“We are taking the lead, showing the strength we have,” added Lorenna Souza, 15, who has been part of leading Rio’s most iconic and active occupation at Colegio Estadual Visconde de Cairu.
Queiroz said that debates about feminism are common in her school – which has both feminist and LGBT clubs – but this is not the reality at most schools. One of the movement’s demands is that all state schools incorporate feminism and women’s rights in the school curriculum.
Despite their leadership, girls have found it harder to engage in the movement than boys, due to the history of machismo and violence against women in Brazil. “My mother did not let me sleep overnight in school during the occupation; I didn’t even ask if I could, because I knew she wouldn’t allow it,” Souza said.
“It’s always more difficult for women to be let out of the house, because if the boys decided to rape me, society would see me as the one at fault,” said Queiroz. “But parents don’t realize that the more girls who are part of the occupations, the more secure I will be.”
Within the schools, these young women leaders have faced difficult moments, such as when their male colleagues in the Occupy movement refused to follow their orders. “There has to be more room in our society to listen to women’s voices,” said Milena Martins, 17, student council president at Instituto de Aplicacao Fernando Rodrigues da Silveira, another occupied school in Rio de Janeiro.
“But I believe in preparing for life in the patriarchy, because there will always be men who think they know more and can do more,” she said. “Sometimes some of them say, ‘You are a woman, look at your size, I’m not going to be sent [on orders] by a woman.’ But then we take a deep breath and chuckle and deconstruct it.”
In some schools, students have won specific demands from their institutions. But the occupations’ strength was shaken by a “De-occupy” movement – Desocupa, in Portuguese – formed by dissatisfied students who, according to some, had been encouraged by the state government and department of education to confront the occupations.
On May 16, almost two months after being taken over, students released Rio’s Colegio Estadual Mendes de Moraes, the first school in the movement, from its occupation. This came after a confrontation with Desocupa protestors, who threw stones, bottles and other objects, causing injuries. Five days later, students occupied Rio’s state department of education building. Riot police brutally squashed the protest.
On June 2, a Rio state court ordered classes to resume. Students are allowed to keep occupying common areas of the buildings, but they must allow free entry into and movement within schools, and leave rooms free for classes. If there is resistance, the military police will be called.
Major challenges remain for Rio’s students, but the young women who led the Occupy High School movement say their confidence has grown.
“After Occupy, I now see so many beautiful, empowered women representing themselves,” Quieroz said.
“I like being a woman who knows that even though things aren’t easy, we can do it,” Martins said. “It’s not easy to go through what we’ve gone through, and still be able to say, ‘Yes I can,’ and no man will tell me I can’t.”