"Being black and female is very difficult in Brazil", says Ivone Caetano, first black judge of Rio de Janeiro

black Brazilian women
The first black judge of Rio de Janeiro, Ivone Caetano

Ivone Caetano was the first black woman to become a judge of the Court of Rio de Janeiro 18 years ago. At 68 years, married for 42 years, she is the Judge of the Jurisdiction of Childhood, Youth and the Elderly of the County of Rio de Janeiro. She is a controversial figure, fighter and innovator. Finding black or brown magistrates is even rarer. Although they represent about half of the population, the black/brown ratio among judges is 13%.
“In my profession, I have always been treated with great respect, but there are veiled manifestations of prejudice. As indicated by the (former senator) Marina Silva, ‘the worthlessness of the person brings the worthlessness of the word’: that is, to see that what you’re saying is not so taken into account, says Ivone.

With a laundress mother of 11 children “below the poverty line,” the judge studied in public school “and of particularly low quality.” Before graduating with a Law degree, at 18, she was working as a typist IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), and two other jobs, including in Ministry of Finance of the Mayor and in the Boa Vista Bank to help the family. After graduating, she tried, nine consecutive times, to get into a public course connected to her profession. As the position she sought was the same, when she was in the third phase of the test, one day one of the examiners said to her: “Girl, stop trying to get in here: you’re a woman and black. And they don’t like this here.”

Since hearing this, she felt but never expressed it, Ivone Caetano understood that it would always be necessary to have high self-esteem and to face, without fear, her life as a woman and black, in an elitist profession. She went through this in every sphere of the judiciary until reaching the position she holds today.

“I was 25 years old when I entered in law school and I only enrolled because I got married: my husband, an engineer, could afford that I could stop working and go to school. I practiced law and went to the bench in 1994, when I was 49. Someone can only manage to pass a competition at 49 and you will say that there is no inequality?,” Ivone says.

As a controversial figure, there are examples of her decisions that have irritated the retrogressive of the society and some accommodated jurists. Edgard Catoira, a reporter for Carta Capital magazine, spoke to the judge to discuss the issues that consistently make her the center of controversial proceedings.

According to her, one of the problems she is encountering is the recognition of children, primarily Africans in Rio. When she learns of some of them, wandering the downtown streets of the city, she gives them special documents, whether they are babies, children or adolescents. These African children don’t appear in Brazilian statistics for entering Brazil illegally, fleeing their homelands. She reveals how she resolves these issues: she officially recognizes the children as foreigners living in Brazil and they receive rights such as health care, education and protection of society, all based on the Constitution and the Statute of Children and Adolescents. It’s when these kids that arrive, in most cases, without parents or guardians, mainly on ships, come to exist as human beings in Brazil.

For the same reasons, that also irritate some sectors, the magistrate orders the removal of children from the street who use drugs and intern them in shelters for treatment. When they argue that she can’t decide on the right to come and go, she reminds them: the right to life of these young people is above all else.

And assumes her responsibility: “Some father who can afford hospitalization and treatment for his son would abandon him to drugs?” In the absence of parents or guardians, the state has the responsibility and the children are sent to institutions that care for addicts. She has also ordered pregnant teenagers and addicts to compulsory treatment, ensuring the sufficient training of the child.

In the area of adoption, Ivone Caetano has also caused uproar. She reminds us that when a child is up for adoption, the court makes a judgment as to whether the applicant has the financial and psychological conditions to raise a healthy child. So, the person, being more than 16 years older than the child, if he or she is married, unmarried or homosexual, does not matter to the judge. What matters is that the adult is able to provide a good upbringing to the adoptee.

By this line of unconventional thinking, and with life experience of someone who has gone professionally through the poor outskirts of Rio and given lectures abroad, Ivone Caetano has always had difficulties. Instead of having sentences appealed, she has received 19 “representations”, the legal term for an act to reprimand or punish the judge, “all have been filed and dismissed,” she recalls.

Being black and female is difficult in Brazil

Smiling, with the sweet air of one who cares for children and the elderly, she says that she has always had it hard in everything she’s done. With short hair, deep eyes of someone who knows what she’s talking about, she vents, without indignation: “being black and female is very difficult in Brazil. Everything is very subtle and whoever doesn’t have a trace of Dahomey doesn’t know what that means”, she says, joking and showing her nose that has the typical shape of the African region where many slaves came to Rio de Janeiro. With humor, she reinforces: “And I don’t even know if my ancestors are from there.”

After the conversation with Ivone, Catoira ran into a friend that both Ivone and he had in common: Marcelo Ferreira, Director of Commercial and Business Association of Cidade Nova. He mentioned to him that he had spoken with the judge about her actions.

He shared his suspicions with Ferreira: would this figure that is well-respected by an important part of society, and at the same time, rejected in part of the Judiciary, be able reach the position of federal judge, as she already has of Justice and Law, being progressive, a woman and black? Or would everything remain as it was in the competition 40 years ago? Ferreira, with his light-colored eyes, looked deep into the Catoira’s eyes, smiled quietly, and also with an interrogative and conclusive air.

“With this curiosity in the soul”, the journalist concluded, “I cast my hope in Rio having, in the short term, the first black federal judge in the Court of Justice, in this country today headed by a woman (President Dilma Rouseff) and having other women in key posts of the Republic.”

About Marques Travae 3322 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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