Violation of rights suffered by women affected by dams and the struggle for life

For more than 26 years, the population affected by dams in Brazil has been organizing itself in the the Movement of the People Affected by dams – MAB, a social movement organized at national level, to fight the contradictions of the model implemented for the electric energy production, which has historically denied rights to the affected men and women.

Photo of MAB woman's march

When we deep into the analysis, we understand that the actual model tirelessly seeks to take over the resources of the Brazilian people (water, energy, fuel), thanks to the association of both financial and productive capital, in order to deliver these resources to large and international private companies with a clear objective to make profit.

As a consequence, energy became a commodity, which provides huge profits for the companies, thanks to the high bills imposed on the society. Therefore denying rights to the families who were affected, is another way to gain profits. By studying this sector, we proved that women are the main victims of this model.

The affected women need to face, in addition to the patriarchal society and the social inequalities, the impacts of this energetic model on their territories – before, during and after the construction.

Photo of women affected at march

Photo: Maxwell Vilela/Jornalistas Livres

The report of the Special Commission “Victims of the dams”, of the Council for the Protection of Human Rights, published in 2010, shows that, during the whole process of the construction of dams, 16 human rights are generally violated. These violations affect even more women as they “find greater obstacles for the recomposition of their social environment and life conditions; (…) and are not considered in their specificities and peculiar difficulties”.

The experience gained over the years can lead us to say that the consequences manifest themselves in different spheres of women's lives, such as :

. work place: linked to the invisibility of women's work, to the loss of the activity providing an income, and their difficulties of adaptation to the work conditions in an urban setting;

One of the factor of the violation of affected women's rights is directly linked to the non-recognition of their work. For example, in the case of the construction of the Itá dam (Rio Grande do Sul) in 1987, when was calculated the compensation that will receive women affected by the dam, their workforce has been considered as 20% inferior than the one of the men. This gets worse for the oldest women, their workforce is then considered only 75% in comparison to the men's force.

Nowadays, the situation is so characteristic and deeply rooted, as worsened, that the discussion on the workforce of men and of women has been put aside.

Another situation experienced frequently by women is the loss of their work, their only source of income.

. Political participation: disqualification of women as holders of rights, non-recognition of their voice in the deliberative spaces (negotiation meetings), absence of the services that allow women to access public space such as childcare spaces and transports;

Women's participation in the negotiation's processes around the dam's construction is low. This can be explained by the patriarchy that defines this space as a masculine one, but also by the sexist attitude of the companies, deciding that men are more legitimate to represent the communities.

. Biased Relationship with the constructing companies : lack of recognition of the women as interlocutors; the companies are using a patrimonial and patriarchal concept to characterize those affected by the dam

The constructing companies reproduce in a brutal manner the patriarchy and gender violence by refusing to listen the women, by taking advantage of social vulnerability in order to establish blackmail and pressure mechanisms, and by not acknowledging their women's rights.

The use of coercion mechanisms is very common: they make women responsible for the good progress of the negotiations and pressure them to convince all the family members in accepting the stand-by letter of credit as the best and quickest alternative when facing a construction threat.

They argue that these issues have to be solved in a quick and individual manner and that a collective discussion would not lead to anything.

. Loss of the communities ties, which leads for example to the destruction of the solidarity network that used to care for the children and for the old people, among others.

The social and family disruption caused by dams penalizes even more women, as they are historically responsible for the well-being of the family. This sums-up with the loss of the links with the community, a fact that affects an entire network of solidarity and trust that the community had been built.

Very often the women do not like the new housing location because they were not consulted. The size of the house, the internal divisions are imposed by the company; there is no garden or any appropriate space for urban work. As a consequence, there is no feeling of belonging to this new environment and to the other spaces of living.

. Rise of the conflicts and violence against women : sexual exploitation of women and children, increase of human traffic and prostitution market;

It has been historically proven that the construction of a dam is generally accompanied by a prostitution industry: In Campos Novos (Santa Catarina), Fumaça (Minas Gerais), Cana Brava (Goiás), Estreito (Tocatins), and in the Rondônia's hydro-plants, among others. In 2011, the Dhesca Brasil Platform denounced the existence of a “loyalty card” in the Jirau hydro-eletrical plant, on which the company would monthly give an amount in average of 160 dollars for those “employees that do not miss work, do not get sick, do not take holidays and do not visit their families”. This card was largely used in the prostitution's clubs of the area.

The same situation was observed in Altamira, in the Pará state, affected by the Belo Monte dam. Between 2012 and 2014, a study “Confronting the sexual violence against children and teenagers in the municipality of Altamira”, was made under the supervision of the Human Rights Secretary of the Republic Presidency in partnership with the Federal University of Pará. It was pointed out there that the human traffickers who were exploiting women, teenagers, transsexuals, and indigenous people, were accepting Belo Monte's company food vouchers (is part of the payment of employees) as a payment method for the sexual services.

. Access to public policies: the huge population increase caused by the dam in a region, worsens the access to public services (health care, education, transport, security), which is already insecure in normal periods.

In Brazil, there is a structural difficulty to gain access to public policies, and this gets worse during a dam construction, because there is no clear agreement on the respective roles of the private companies and of the State. In many cases, what can be observed is a worsening of the living conditions of the local population. Women, while having this “duty care”, need to spend whole nights in waiting lines to guarantee a spot, which are in most of the cases very limited given the demand. In many of the resettlement areas organized by the consortium, spaces of collective life, schools, health-care centers are not provided, a fact that affects negatively women's life especially as they need to go to the centers of the closest cities to get access to these services.

Many families who had a direct access to river water, testify of being relocated to regions in which they now struggle to access water.

MAB Women's Collective

To face this reality, MAB has been making a great effort in the organization and affirmation of the Gender Collective, in order to enhance women' organization, at a national level with the participation of women that take action within the movement's national coordination through studies and planning, within the states' level through the multiplication of the debates involving women from the states coordination and the women who are part of the local groups. At the same time, expanding the connection between women and proposing struggles specific to women, aiming at allowing the realization of public policies, together with other sector of the society, thus building experiences of women's emancipation and empowering the organization of affected populations as a whole.

Photo MAB march women protesting with flags

Photo: Lucas Bois/Jornalistas Livres

Along with all this, the movement has also been developing childcare spaces, as educational spaces, in order to allow women to participate freely to any space or meeting organized by the MAB.

The Arpilleras

Taking the decision to give intentionality to the work of the organization and to the study process of women, we have adopted since 2013 the methodology of the Arpilleras. It is an embroidery method used by women from Chile as a tool to denounce the military dictatorship [1973-1990]. Gathering in the outskirts of Santiago, capital of Chile, these women have created narratives on pieces of jute using the clothes of their husbands and sons, who had gone missing, in order to denounce the arbitrary actions of the dictatorial regime led by Augusto Pinochet.

Following this same political objective, we have rescued this technique, so that, us, the women affected by dams, could express using needle, thread and patches, the violations of our rights, suffered during the process of the construction of a dam.

Photo of women posing with one arpillera

The arpilleras are made in a collective manner during meetings and gather-ups of women in each region of the country; it promotes women to join the movement and towards the political training. In total, 150 meetings were organized, with the participation of more of than 1,000 women who have produced close to 200 arpilleras.

In 2015, we set up an exhibition with 25 pieces in the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo. Then, in 2016, we organized an exhibition in Belém with 17 pieces during 45 days, that portrayed the reality of the situation in the Amazon Region. This year, were are organizing another Arpilleras exhibition in Rio de Janeiro around the actual situation that have impacted mostly women's life.

This denunciation and women's empowerment tool has been used as a narrative thread for the production of a documentary: “Arpilleras: women affected by dams, sewing the resistance”, in which 10 women out of 5 regions in Brazil, symbolically represent each woman affected by a dam, starting from their history, which is singular and also collective, all that forming a complex mosaic of testimonies of pain and resilience caused by the construction of dams in the country.

To see the video teaser:


Finally, through this process of construction we identified multiples challenges that we have to face, even more when looking at the present situation, worsened by the withdraw of rights that we are experiencing due to the coupist government. Therefore, we would like to point out these needs :

. The affected women need to appropriate, lead the analysis and debate on the energy problem, pointing out to the energy popular project as an alternative model.

. To deepen the studies about the situation of the affected women, of the society model, of the patriarchy and necessity to build an alternative project rooted in new gender relationships.

. Construction and definition of the agenda in order to achieve programs and public policies aimed at creating work and income for women.

. Strengthen the articulation process of the affected women with women of other organization and with the Labor and Peasant Energy Platform.

As women affected by dams, we know that the actual situation of democratic backlash that we are experiencing in Brazil, will for sure violate even more the rights of the affected populations, and mostly ours, as women. Indeed, it is to fear that the prices of electric energy, fuel and gas will go up, increasing the cost of life and the work overload, while also worsening the criminalization of the ones who fight and resist.

Our duty is to organize the whole population affected by dams in Brazil while exposing the contradictions of this society. If from one side, the companies and the governments choose to follow a principle of commodification of water, energy, and people's lives, the affected women choose to follow the principle of life, of common good: water and energy are not commodities, they are part of the sovereignty, the creation of wealth and redistribution should therefore be under popular control.

Support the work of the MAB to guarantee the rights and empower women affected by dams. You can donate by credit card using paypal:

Or transfer directly to the APEMA's bank account (Organization for the Protection of the Environment)

Banco do Brasil


Ag: 2883-5

Cc.: 29.908-1