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Indigenous women elected in Sao Paulo are hoping to improve representation

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, a Sao Paolo city councilman is incorrectly identified as Andre Kuchar. The councilman is actually Fabio Riva.]


Brazilians head to the polls on Sunday to pick a new president in what has become a very contentious race. The election pits the far-right incumbent against a former leftist president, and polls show the final count will be close. With the race so tight, both men will need votes from women to win. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, both parties struggle to appeal to women, especially female lawmakers.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Juliana Cardoso is a Sao Paulo city councilwoman and a force to be reckoned with.


JULIANA CARDOSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: Fellow city councilman Andre Kuchar got a taste of that at a meeting this week in council chambers. She's wearing a bright pink t-shirt that, in Portuguese, reads fight like a woman, and she wasn't having any of his repeated interruptions during a debate about public aid to kids who've lost their mothers through violence.


KAHN: Cardoso, who identifies as Indigenous, demands respect and eventually wrestles back the mic.


CARDOSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: Politics is difficult for women in Brazil. Current President Jair Bolsonaro has alienated many female politicians and women voters, too, with his misogynistic comments. He once told a lawmaker he wouldn't rape her because she didn't deserve it. He initially vetoed a bill to provide menstruation products to low-income women, yet later funded Viagra and penile implants to the military. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has a slim lead in the polls against the incumbent, is more inclusive, but hasn't made promises about women representation in his government - only to say they will play a significant role.


CARDOSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: Cardoso, who is a member of da Silva's Workers' Party, is undeterred. After the blowup with the councilman, she tells those in the council chambers that she's passionate. Women's issues hit close to home.


CARDOSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "My dad was killed when I was 5, and I will always fight against violence."

Her father came from Terena ancestors in the neighboring state, and her mother is Black. Cardoso, who's 43, was just elected to Brazil's lower house of Congress, one of five Indigenous women who won a seat in the elections held on October 2. While that gain is significant, in all, only 14 more women were elected to the lower House this year. They now make up only 17% of the total body.

JENNIFER PISCOPO: Brazil always enters as a case that does very poorly for electing women to office.

KAHN: Jennifer Piscopo, a political scientist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says there are laws on the books to fund and promote women candidates. Brazil's laws mandate that parties set aside 30% of their slots for women and that 30% of a public fund goes to those campaigns. But Piscopo says men find ways to get around those quotas and leave it up to women to lodge complaints.

PISCOPO: So it really puts women in a very tough position because they have to denounce their own party for treating them badly, and that's consequential for their political futures.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Portuguese).

KAHN: Back at Sao Paulo City Hall, staffers are surprising councilwoman and newly elected Congresswoman Juliana Cardoso with a birthday cake and treats. She says she is not going to Brasilia, the country's capital, alone.


CARDOSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "I have a big group there, and we will fight together to preserve Indigenous lands, women's rights and human rights." And, she adds, "I am ready." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.