Mobilising Support Course: the fight against property speculation and for adequate services for female evangelical victims of gender violence

More than 180 thousand people live in the 10 Special Zones of Social Interest (Zonas Especiais de Interesse Social: ZEIS) that are considered priority areas in Fortaleza.  Among other things, this priority level means that a ZEIS can elect a Management Board and draft its own Integrated Land Regularization Plan. In all, the city has 45 ZEIS.  In other words, a further 35 of these zones don’t have the slightest notion of when regulation will take place and remain subject to a number of threats, as is the case with Cais do Porto.

The Cais do Porto ZEIS is located on the coast of the capital of Ceará, in an area under constant harassment from property speculation.  One of the projects that threatens residents of the region is Aldeia da Praia, designed by the municipal authorities.  Progress with this project involves the removal of people who have lived there for decades, in order to enable, among other things, the installation of a “large square for entrepreneurs” in the location.

Kátia Lima, member of the Front for the Fight for Decent Housing (Frente de Luta por Moradia Digna), is one of these people.  She has been a resident of Cais do Porto for all of her 45 years and is one of the three members of the front participating in the Mobilising Support Course of the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria de Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE), which concluded on 30th August.  As an outcome of the course, the group plans to run a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of the ZEIS and to ensure that Cais do Porto is classed as a priority in Fortaleza’s Master Plan.

Kátia describes how members of the municipal authorities have entered her home without any authorization or legal orders in an attempt to proceed with the removal of residents from the region. “They came into our homes saying that they weren’t worth anything, that the most valuable thing was the walls and they were easy to knock down.  I made them all leave! I built my house from nothing, without help from any municipality!”

Nevertheless, the municipal government is trying to push these people into residences elsewhere.  “Only those who don’t have their own homes want to go. I was born and brought up in Cais do Porto.  There are people who’ve lived here for even longer.  They have an entire life history” she noted.  According to Kátia, going to this residence won’t happen without a cost: whoever goes to live there, will be in debt for the next 10 years.

Kátia also noted that Cais do Porto and Serviluz used to constitute one neighbourhood, but they were separated because of property speculation.  Today, both are ZEIS, but only Serviluz is classed as priority.

ZEIS are generally areas underserved by the public authorities.  The 45 in Fortaleza include at least 63 insecure settlements.  They contain small houses and irregular settlements from both an urban and land tenure point of view.  The fact that an area is considered a ZEIS is progress, because it involves official recognition that the community requires special attention.

However, although it is progress, recognition only came about in 2009, while 10 of the 45 ZEIS were only classed as priority in 2018, almost 10 years after the first victory.  These are victories for the struggles waged by urban movements and the decades-long fight for housing. The Integrated Land Regularization Plan will only be drafted after prioritization; this is a fundamental part of this struggle and also provides residents with greater legal security.

The plan is drafted in partnership with universities and contains features such as a diagnosis of the local context, an urbanization plan, land regulation, income and work generation, community participation and social development.  Everything is planned so that the public authorities make improvements within the communities.  That’s why it’s important to argue for the prioritization of the Cais do Porto ZEIS.

Francisco Fernando Martins, another member of the Front for the Fight for Decent Housing, has been in this struggle for decades.  He arrived in the Pici neighbourhood in 1994, 15 years before it was considered a ZEIS.  Today, it is one of the 10 classed as a priority and much of this is due to the struggles of Fransciso, who is also Vice President of its Management Board. He makes it clear that regularizing a ZEIS is not just about giving someone a deed to their home.

“It involves a whole series of public policies: in the area of income generation, in urbanization, in social participation.  It’s not only about gaining the papers for a home.  Is there a health centre in this ZEIS? A school? What’s the transport like?  Does the waste truck pass through?  What’s employment like?  Is there a lot of informal work?” he asked.


The diversity of struggles and plans for mobilising support

During the course, each participating organization constructed a plan to mobilise support and act in a case they identified.  The class was made up of twelve urban organizations from nine different states. Another plan came from the women of the Marias Voices Collective (Coletivo Vozes Marias), a feminist collective that aims to discuss the rights of women in the Christian community and in society as a whole, and to resist all types of gender-based violence.

In the same way as in other arenas in our patriarchal and sexist society, evangelical environments are also subject to incidences and the perpetuation of gender-based violence, as Bárbara Aguiar, a member of Marias Voices, explained. “This occurs, for example, when a woman suffers domestic violence and is not taken in by the Church.  When the Church doesn’t fulfil its prophetic function to denounce injustice.”

Bárbara also points to situations in which spirituality is mistakenly applied.  “When they say: ‘you need to pray to God to transform your husband’s heart’ or ‘a wise woman builds her house, but a foolish one tears it down’ there is a re-victimization of women who have already suffered violence.” She also cites cases of sexual violence that have occurred within the churches, perpetuated by pastors.

The Marias Voices Collective addresses this violence, and works with public bodies that are part of the network of services for female victims of violence.  According to the collective, these bodies are not trained to provide adequate services to female victims of gender-based violence within evangelical arenas.

“What we see in the reference centres in Recife is that the teams are better prepared to deal with case of domestic violence but not to understand the various faces of gender-based violence and how it impacts on the lives of these women”.  One of the representative cases Bárbara cited concerned sexual violence perpetrated against eleven women by the same pastor.  For this and other reasons, she does not consider it possible to treat this as domestic violence.

“I can’t ignore the fact that this involves the same perpetrator.  I need to work to strengthen these eleven women, because the legal denunciation process could become something collective.  I re-victimize these women when I make them repeat their statements on different days, in different offices and to different professionals; when I make it clear that they don’t have exclusive rights to psychologists, social workers, lawyers,” she pointed out.

The mobilising support plan of the Marias Voices Collective therefore seeks to conduct activities to raise awareness about the women’s protection network. “Come and find out about our situation, our lives, own them and let’s walk together so that when we need to access this network we will be fully served, according to our specific needs,” Bárbara asserted.

The plan proposes an intervention to train public agents who work in support services for female victims of violence. “For these women it’s about the dimension of faith; the importance it holds, even if it has become a place of violence.  The team that receives them will need to address this, because it’s something that is part of them and, sometimes, it’s the most precious thing they have.”


The Mobilising Support Course

The course is part of the Change the Game Academy, a programme that involves 12 countries and is aimed at strengthening organizations to mobilise local fundraising and support through online and in-person courses.  The course lasted 30 days and was run virtually by CESE in partnership with the Association of Lawyers for Rural Workers (Associação de Advogados/as de Trabalhadores/as Rurais: AATR)  (in Portuguese) with support from Misereror and was centred around the theme of the right to the city.

Various themes regarding collective struggles and social movements were addressed during the course, ranging from the rights of incarcerated women; religious racism; indigenous organizations in urban contexts; housing, and others.

For Francisco, the course tools are essential for a better understanding of the problem, identifying solutions and action strategies.  “It’s possible to understand who’s helping the struggle and who’s against it.  It’s important to identify who’s on our side.  There are people within the community who are against it, who try to garner votes from this struggle,” he declared.

Bárbara classified it as a unique opportunity. “The course provided very important content.  The methodology was amazing.  It outlined concrete pathways about how to advocate politically in our operational groups, with practical and didactic examples.  It shows us the building brick to achieving results in our advocacy, as well as listening to the experiences of other groups.”