Brazil’s government was once internationally recognized as a leader in terms of supporting model HIV prevention programs and defending sexual rights. However, the events of the past week provide yet another example that the situation in this country has drastically changed.
On June 4th, Brazil’s Minister of Health, Alexandre Padilha, ordered that a poster reading, “I’m happy being a prostitute,” be removed from the Department of STD/AIDS’s website. The poster was one element of a larger campaign entitled Without Shame to Use Condoms launched on International Prostitutes Day (June 2nd). All of the campaign materials were developed by sex workers during a participatory workshop in March of 2013 that was organized and sponsored by the Ministry of Health. Minister Padilha alleged that he had not approved the material stating that as long as he is Minister that “this type” of material would not be produced by the government.
After the Minister’s initial decision to remove the poster, “I´m happy being a prostitute”, conservative Evangelical groups in Congress mobilized and questioned the campaign, making discriminatory and stigmatory comments and demanding an explanation from the government. By the end of the day, the head of Brazil’s Department of STD/AIDS, Dirceu Grecco, had been removed from his position, and the Minister had requested that the ENTIRE campaign be taken offline. The decision negates the rights of prostitutes to be proud of their work, to speak for themselves and to have access to the kind of health information based on citizenship principles that the Brazilian government itself has championed in the past.
The Minister’s decision to bow to political pressure is indicative of a politics of fear that is becoming pervasive in Brazil. The current government is afraid of losing votes from some radical evangelical groups which have gained significant political influence. The most egregious example of this trend is the ascendancy of Pastor Marco Feliciano who was appointed in March 2013 to the Congressional Human Rights Commission. Feliciano led the charge to condemn the Without Shame to Use Condoms campaign, and, shared via Twitter that the Minister had even called him to apologize for the events.
Padilha’s decision to cancel the Without Shame to Use Condoms campaign is the third time that the government has censored vital health information materials. In early 2012, Padilha censored a campaign designed for Carnaval that featured gay youth –one of the groups where HIV/AIDS has most increased in Brazil–and in March of 2013, the government cancelled the distribution of an AIDS prevention kit for adolescents that mentioned homosexuality, drugs, and pregnancy.
Unfortunately international coverage has trivialized what should have been portrayed as an important story about political trends and much reportage has repeated the hype about feared “increases” in prostitution and “sexual exploitation” at the upcoming 2014 World Cup. Rather than focusing on the human rights violations that this censorship represents, and its connection to previous censorship and the conservative turn in Brazilian politics that is silencing the voices of prostitutes, much of the international media has fallen back on tropes based on moral panics about large sports events and “sex tourism” .
In protest of the recent events, we are sharing the entire campaign here as a way to fight censorship, celebrate International Prostitutes Day and affirm that prostitution is a respectable profession and sexual right in which women have the right to be happy and deserve the full rights as citizens as any other. The campaign draws on visual elements–such as the anime figure “Maria Sem Vergonha” (Maria Without Shame)–created for an earlier campaign also developed by the Ministry of Health in partnership with the Brazilian Prostitutes Network. The original Maria Without Shame campaign was also relaunched on June 2nd (the adhesives are below) and is symbolic of the government’s previously celebrated solidarity and human rights based approach to HIV and STI prevention with sex workers.