Health Education Policies and Poor
Women in Brazil: Identifying Myths
That Undermine Empowerment
Isabela Cabral Félix de Sousa
Health education for poor women sits at the intersection of several themes in the discourse on women's empowerment.1 Education itself is strongly tied to notions of empowerment, on both commonsensical and empirical grounds (Conway & Bourque, 1995). The right of women to control their own bodies is a feminist principle that encompasses women's sexual and reproductive autonomy as well as their integrity as physical persons (Dixon-Mueller, 1993). As a kind of nonformal education, health education can empower women if it modifies awareness, values, and individual and collective behaviors (Darcy de Oliveira & Harper, 1985) and contributes to greater physical autonomy. The promise and potential for health education to contribute to the empowerment of poor women in Brazil led to the study that informs this chapter. Brazil may be a particularly revealing case because Paulo Freire's pedagogy for liberation is expected to be practiced by many nonformal educators in his native land. In addition, policies and programs concerning reproduction and contraception in Brazil have been influenced by the feminist movement and by other forms of activism aimed at empowering the poor. As the study reported here shows, however, the potential for empowerment of poor women in Brazil through health education has been compromised by both structural and ideological factors. Looking closely at the interaction between health educators and their clients, and probing through interviews and conversations into the thinking behind some of the observed behaviors, it is argued that health education in Brazil is mediated by myths that undermine its emancipatory potential.