Women’s Rights in Portugal

Written By Lara Silva

Women’s rights were two words never truly uttered prior to the Carnation Revolution of 1974. The aftermath of the 25 of April and the end of the fascist regime Estado Novo meant the creation of the constitution of 1976 where women in Portugal received full legal equality with Portuguese men. Women were allowed to vote for the first time on equal terms as men, but it took until the 1990s to see real progress such as women becoming equally accepted in the labor force. However, only in the 2000s did abortion become legal, and domestic violence legislation improved. Let’s take a look at the progress of women’s rights across the decades in Portugal, from the Estado Novo until today.

Women’s Rights During the Estado Novo

During the Estado Novo regime between 1933 and 1974, women’s rights were heavily restricted. Under this fascist authoritarian regime, women were perceived as instrumental figures to the Estado Novo, forced to perpetuate social norms of “feminity” to maintain “family life”. Article number 5 of the Constitution of 1933 stated that citizens were equal, “except for the woman, the differences resulting from her nature and the good of the family”. According to Cova and Pinto, Salazarism “used female “nature” to deny women complete equality”.

The country was predominantly roman catholic under dictator Salazar and his ideology surrounding women’s “nature” was rooted in messages repeated by the Catholic Church. Women’s “nature” meant that women were expected to stay at home, take care of children, and unfortunately, keep their mouths shut. The only role of a woman was to be a dedicated wife and loving mother, a role that her family trained her to do since childhood.  Salazar spread conservative propaganda that cemented the “state’s main duty to defend the family as an institution”, according to Cova and Pinto.

Financial abuse against women was institutionalized. The law actually allowed a husband to prohibit a wife from working outside the home, as well as allowed husbands to prohibit wives from exercising any lucrative activities. Women were not allowed to access certain professions (diplomat, military, etc), and certain professions (like nursing) limited rights, such as the right to marry. Until 1969, a wife needed the consent of her husband to travel to another country. Contraceptives were only allowed for health reasons and even so, the husband needed to give consent. Abortion was illegal in all cases, with a prison sentence of up to 8 years.

Women did not have universal suffrage during the Estado Novo, despite claims. Although women were technically allowed to vote in the 1933 constitutional referendum for the first time, they were not allowed to do so on the same terms as men. Men only needed to know how to read and write to vote, while women needed secondary education which was uncommon.

In 1960, illiteracy was also high, at 36.7% for women and 24.9% for men. Despite this and the belief that women should stay at home, many went off to work, receiving less than their male counterparts. However, as the 60s progressed, upper and middle-class women faced reduced professional discrimination as they had higher literacy rates and financial privilege.

Moreover, at this time, the Portuguese Colonial War was underway and African women were regularly raped. Many academics now situate these acts “at the core of Portuguese colonial violence”, such as Garraio. The Portuguese Colonial war only ended due to the Carnation Revolution in 1974, having lasted over 13 years and killed thousands.

Women’s Rights in Post-Dictatorship Portugal

Women only received full legal equality with men with the 1976 constitution, after the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, which ended the Estado Novo after over 40 years of oppression. In the last 48 years of democracy, much progress has been done to improve the lives and rights of women in Portugal. After the dictatorship, women had easier access to professions that were before excluded from women, as well as labor rights such as maternal (and paternal) leave, the abolishment of the right of husbands to open their wives’ mail, and universal suffrage.

But perhaps the largest change in the law to emancipate women came only over 30 years after the revolution. During the Estado Novo, there were over 100,000 illegal abortions a year estimated, the third largest cause of maternal death. On April 10, 2007 abortion was finally legalized after the Portuguese abortion referendum with 59% of votes in support. Prior to 2007, those undergoing abortions faced up to three years in prison, except in cases of rape and danger to health. However, abortions can only be performed if the pregnancy has not exceeded 10 weeks. Abortions at later stages are only allowed for particular reasons such as rape. Eight years later, in 2015, Portugal tightened its abortion laws after religious groups led to changes in the law. A mandatory three-day waiting period is now enforced called a “reflection period”. Psychological counseling before ending a pregnancy became recommended.

Women’s Rights in Portugal Today

According to UN Women, 91.7% of legal frameworks that promote, enforce, and monitor gender equality under the SDG indicator are in place. Around 40% of seats in parliament are held by women and for the first time ever, the majority of ministers in the government are women.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve gender equality in Portugal. Portugal ranks 16th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index with 61.3 out of 100 points. The index found that women continued to earn less than men in 2020. Among people with low, medium, and high levels of education, women earn 28%, 30%, and 25% less than men, respectively. However, in 2019 a pay equity law passed that reinforces equal payment across gender for equal work, making it easier for employees and unions to request help for gender-based wage discrimination.

Domestic violence is the second-most registered crime in Portugal, after theft, with over 26,000 cases reported in 2018 and over 29,000 in 2019. Of the latter, 84% of victims were female and in 23% of cases, there were previous incidents of violence. In Portugal, domestic violence is a public crime, meaning anyone can report it without the victim’s consent. Moreover, domestic abuse encompasses any behavior that inflicts suffering, with or without intent, such as physical, sexual, emotional, financial, verbal abuse, as well as social isolation. If you are at risk of domestic abuse contact the Portuguese Victim Support APAV at +351 116 006 for legal advice, as well as psychological support. For emergencies, call 112.

To many, the domestic violence we still see today in Portugal stems from the Estado Novo. Antonio Ventinhas says that “domestic violence results in many cases from a mentality present in the Estado Novo where the man is the head of the household and held the authority at home”.

Additionally, women and girls aged 15 and up spend over 17% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to around 10% of men, according to UN Women. The EU Gender Equality Index 2020 confirms this, with the care gender gap in Portugal being among the widest in the EU. There are currently no measures to address the feminization of unpaid care work.

However, in March of 2021, the Supreme Court of Justice in Portugal made an ex-partner of a woman pay almost €61,000 in compensation for the domestic work performed during the 30 years of a non-marital partnership. The woman had taken care of the home and the children, leading to her impoverishment and the enrichment of her partner, according to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also said that “domestic work, although it remains strangely invisible to many, obviously has an economic value and translates into enrichment in savings of expenses”.

While progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to be done. It is clear that the impact of over 40 years of fascism does not vanish overnight.

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