Women of the drought, a study of employment, mobilization and change in northeastern Brazil
Branco, Adelia de Melo
Women's role and potential in popular or community-based drought mitigation measures in northeastern Brazil have been underestimated. This study attempts to demystify the idea that women are passive beings in drought by showing women's attempts to mitigate drought through rural-urban migration and mobilization in rural action groups. Fieldwork was undertaken in both rural and urban settings. Data were collected from fifty women, from men, and from members of grassroots organizations. Several theoretical themes are amalgamated and applied to women's agency and gender relations: dependency models, a political economy paradigm of disaster, Freire's problem-formulating method of conscientization, and Foucault's analysis of knowledge and power. Attention is centred on women who migrate intra-regionally to the city of Petrolina. This place of migrant destination benefits from large-scheme irrigated agriculture mostly devoted to export. The study also includes women from a rural drought-prone village who never migrated and return migrants who have mobilized in a rural action group. Analysis of different life conditions women face in their attempt to mitigate effects of drought leads to a focus on conscientization (conscientizacao). Employment in the city and action group mobilization in the rural areas are responsible for changes which expose women to a process of transformation. The transformation women go through is closely related to exposure to conscientizacao and is associated with exposure to new knowledge and to implicit power becoming explicit. New life conditions and experiences allow women to break out of domestic sphere confinement and to enter the public sphere, the traditional territory of men. The transformation is a limited one; women's actions are constrained by the character of capitalist relations of production and the globalization of the local economy. Despite the limited benefits women derive from this transformation, women's agency is clearly visible in the context of a disaster situation. Inclusion of women is crucial for the understanding of disaster phenomena. The process of conscientizacao offers powerful insight into research focussing on popular mitigation measures.