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Catarina Martins, the Woman Shaking up Portugal’s Political Scene

The leader of Portugal’s left-wing Left Bloc party, Catarina Martins, talks about how female politicians are fighting to promote gender equality in her country.

Written by Marina Watson Peláez Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Catarina Martins, the leader of Portugal’s Left Bloc party, at her office in parliament. Marina Watson Peláez

In Portugal, where the majority of the population is Catholic, abortion didn’t become legal until 2007. In the decade since, female politicians have fought hard to preserve abortion rights and to promote greater gender equality. Among these politicians is Catarina Martins, the leader of the Left Bloc, who helped her left-wing party gain an unprecedented 10 percent of the vote in Portugal’s October 2015 election.

Since then, the former theater actress has successfully pushed to reverse the previous government’s steps to tighten abortion laws, which included obliging women to pay for their abortions and attend mandatory psychological counseling.

Martins also serves as a member of parliament alongside other prominent female MPs from her party, such as sisters Joana and Mariana Mortagua.

Women are underrepresented as MPs across the European Union, with only 29 percent of women in national parliaments. In Portugal, the figure is a bit higher, with 34 percent of women holding seats in parliament.

Women & Girls met with Martins at her office in the Portuguese parliament to find out how she is tackling traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

Women & Girls: What is it like to be a female leader in Portugal?

Catarina Martins: You continually have to prove yourself. Traditionally, men have always been given leadership roles, so people tend to believe that what a man is saying is true but question what a female leader says. So it is difficult, because people also confuse criticizing women’s political positions with criticizing women themselves – from criticizing their tone of voice and the way they dress, to making assumptions about their sexual orientation.

But [being a female leader] also brings a lot of good things. It means that more women are likely to have the courage to share what they think and feel, and believe that what they have to say is politically relevant. During campaigns and on the street, women often come up to me and share their concerns.

Women & Girls: Did taking your party to the third place in the elections in October 2015 help change how people view female leaders?

Martins: I think it forced many people to revisit their own prejudices. There is a paternalistic attitude toward women, just like there is a kind of paternalistic attitude toward the [parties on the] left, as if everything proposed by the left is irrational and impractical.

But we feel, from a popular point of view, very much cherished by people. And I believe that today it is much easier than it used to be [to be a female leader]. The problem, though, is that having a female leader does not resolve the inequality problem as a whole. While people have become more used to the idea of having a female leader, women are not present in all the spheres of decision-making, or in middle-management positions, in the same proportion as men.

Women & Girls: What have the country’s main victories been in terms of gender equality?

Martins: Portugal, from a legislative point of view, has advanced a lot. Abortion and its decriminalization were achieved through a referendum 10 years ago, which was an important achievement for the reproductive and sexual rights of women.

Then there was a series of achievements that also concern men, namely adoption by same-sex couples and the alteration of laws for medically assisted reproduction. Up until [last year], only women married to men could access medically assisted reproduction, whereas now, single women or women married to women can also have that right.

We have quotas for candidates to political power. [Editor’s note: Portugal’s parity law ensures that each electoral list is made up of no more than two-thirds of either gender.] And now we are opening a new debate at parliament about quotas for women within the state administration.

We have good legislation – for example, domestic violence is a public crime, violence in relationships is a public crime, and we have also managed to make rape a public crime. [Editor’s note: In Portugal, “public crimes” are crimes for which prosecution is not dependent on the victim filing a complaint.]

Women & Girls: What main challenges do you see for gender equality?

Martins: We continue to see a woman a week killed due to domestic violence in Portugal. Women also earn less money than men, and the higher their qualifications, the bigger the wage gap between women and men.

There is a lack of training, namely by courts and [police officers] on the ground, to protect victims and not to victimize them twice. Courts continue to have a very retrograde, violent and patriarchal vision of these issues.

Therefore, our greatest challenge in terms of gender equality is to introduce legislation which is progressive for a society that is culturally very unequal. Women are still asked if they are considering having children at job interviews, even though it is illegal.

Women & Girls: What are the solutions?

Martins: Portugal has advanced a lot in terms of protecting the victim after domestic violence has happened, but we need to invest in education, starting in kindergarten, in order to break generational cycles.

We also need to go forward in terms of legislation. Our focus is on combatting precarious working conditions. And while combatting precarity is important for both men and women, it is more important for women because they are more often victims of workplace harassment.

We also want to see equal parental rights. We have both maternity and paternity leave. But although theoretically both men and women are allowed to take time off work to deal with family issues, culturally that doesn’t happen. So we want to have very specific labor legislation on parenthood to ensure the equal division of leave when it comes to taking care of family responsibilities.

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