In Old Age

By: Susanne S. Paul
June 1997

Lilia Lemos, a Brazilian Methodist woman with a round face and ready smile, retired after 45 years of teaching elementary school with a modest but liveable pension.

But when Ms. Lemos looks around Barra do Pirai the city west of Rio de Janeiro where she lives she is worried about her neighbors. Brazil's stringent economic measures, designed to curb inflation and repay foreign debt, mean expanding unemployment and shrinking government support for social and economic programs.

Many of the residents of Barra do Pirai used to work at the huge Souza Cruz factory producing cigarette wrappers. Recently, the factory has laid off hundreds of workers. Unemployment has hit women especially hard as married women were often the first to be dismissed.

Used to independence and a minimum of financial security, the unemployed women now face poverty and increased dependence on husbands and sons. Many women have tried to find new jobs, but few employers are hiring. Some of the older women have retired early. They must try to get by on $112-per-month pensions provided by the government - barely enough to stay alive.

To get a little extra income, many women turn to handicrafts crocheting is a favorite. Often, they still don't make enough to stave off hunger.

Government Policies

July 1, 1995, Brazil's then Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso imposed a harsh economic plan for the South American nation. The government cut spending, froze salaries, and rolled out a new currency, called the "real," pegged to the U.S. dollar. Monthly inflation dropped from 50 percent in June to 6.1 percent in July. Mr. Cardoso ran for president and won, with 54 percent of the vote in the October 1995 elections.

But a year and a half later, Brazil's troubles continue. The new policies have slowed inflation, but deepened poverty and social inequality. Ordinary people's purchasing power has shrunk because of rising food prices and new fees for schools and health care.

The government has cut back on social and economic programs as part of a package imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Methodist women in Brazil are responding to the situation. Ms. Lemos reported the women's organization at her local church helps some of the poorest in the community by providing food and clothing. Cleide, a mother of four, is an example of those helped. Her husband works in Rio and often must stay in the city for two or three months, leaving his family to survive on its own.

Joselanda Santos, President of Methodist Women of Brazil, shares Ms. Lemos' concerns.

A working woman, she is employed as a manager in the municipal water-treatment agency in Volta Redonda, an industrial city 65 miles west of Rio.

Volta Redonda, a city of 200,000, is built around a huge steel complex, which sprawls three miles along the Paraiba do Sul River. Other factories make cement, bricks and steel-related products. The city is choked with pollution and has a reputation as a dangerous place, where youth gangs roam and drugs are common.

In the early 1990s, the steelworkers held a militant protest strike against privatization and downsizing. The government brought in the army to break the strike, and three workers were killed.

Ms. Santos is concerned about employment issues in her city, particularly discrimination. Throughout the public system, women workers receive less pay than men. Age discrimination also has become a plague. Recently, managers have forced some of her co-workers to "retire" at age 40 or 45. Shocked, depressed and humili- ated, with little hope of finding de- cent jobs again, many have been plunged into economic difficulties.

Ms. Lemos also sees employment difficulties for women. For ex- ample, she believes women's lack of access to birth control is a fundamental barrier to their advancement. The government provides no public birth-control information or family-planning support. Abortions are illegal and contraceptives ex- pensive. Poor women cannot have few choices about reproduction.

Increasingly, Brazil's women have found ways to circumvent the system. Some request Cae- sarean deliveries at the govern- ment health clinics, giving doctors signals to perform tubal legations to prevent future pregnancies. Women want the personal free- dom and economic security that a small family affords.

Ms. Santos said many women clean houses to earn livings. They spend their meager wages for their immediate needs and don't contribute to retirement plans. The Union of Cleaning Women launched a large national organizing drive to establish basic rights, fixed minimum wages and better wages; to standardize hours; and to set up a' modest pension plan.

Ms. Santos worries about Brazil's older women. With little or no personal income and small government pensions, many depend on their children for food and shelter. A majority of widows live with their children, she said. Those that live in poor families - the great majority - can find themselves competing with grandchildren for scarce family resources. Family tensions make life miserable.

Desperate families sometimes abandon these grandmothers, leaving them by the wayside with nowhere to go and no money on which to live. The Methodist Women of Brazil have set up several modest shelters for the abandoned, but they fall far short of the need, Ms. Santos said.

Within five or six years, Ms. Santos will reach retirement age. Her government pension will be inadequate for her needs, so she hopes to design dresses or enter the business world. Her entrepreneurial spirit is strong, but her outlook is clouded as long as the Brazilian economy is so troubled. Even prosperous Ms. Santos may be pushed toward an insecure old age.

Global Action on Aging
PO Box 20022, New York, NY 10025
Phone: +1 (212) 557-3163 - Fax: +1 (212) 557-3164

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