RIO DE JANEIRO — Manuela D'Avila hopes she and women like her will change the face of government in Brazil, a country where the female presence in politics has lagged behind neighbors despite the election of Dilma Rousseff as the nation's first female president.
D'Avila, a two-time state legislator who is leading the mayoral race in Porto Alegre, Brazil's tenth largest city, is among of an unprecedented number of women running for municipal offices in 2012 elections.
Forty-seven other women are candidates to run the capitals of Brazil's 26 states. The field of contenders is still shifting, but it's a large increase from the last elections, when only 28 women ran for mayor of state capitals.
Experts say this surge in female candidates signals a new eagerness by political parties to capitalize on the popularity of Rousseff. During her tenure, six ministers tarred by accusations of corruption were pushed out of office, earning Rousseff a reputation for being strong, capable and willing to get tough on dirty politicians.
"She has a different attitude, she's showing that she has guts," said political scientist Maria do Socorro Sousa Braga, of the Federal University of Sao Carlos in Sao Paulo state. "This is going to help women go after what they want, become autonomous, take on more, join the fight."
At the end of her first year in office, Rousseff has a 72 percent approval rating, and nine women in her 24-member Cabinet, compared to three under her predecessor.
"With Dilma's election, we saw the voters trust women," said D'Avila. "With Dilma's decision to bring so many women into her government, she's showing again that women have a high capacity for governance."
Rousseff's gender was not an issue during the elections. The debates centered on policies, and much of her support came from voters who wanted a continuation of priorities set by her popular Workers' Party mentor, outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Nevertheless, the image of Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel turned career technocrat, receiving the presidential sash in the company of her daughter was powerful.
As president, she lacks Silva's charisma, but Brazilian voters are reading her no-nonsense demeanor as a sign of efficiency and focus on the work to be done, and they want to see more of that. This popular support might help female candidates such as D'Avila narrow the political gender gap, Braga said. "There is great incentive among the parties participating in Dilma's government to get women to run," said Braga.
In Rousseff's home state of Minas Gerais, the number of women running in the municipal elections in her Workers' Party went from about 10 percent in 2008 to about 30 percent in 2012, said Congressman Reginaldo Lopes, a local party leader.
"Dilma has shown that women have strength and can govern as well or better than men," he said. "She's doing away with the 'machismo' that men and even some women had."
According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap 2011, Brazilian women have reached parity or exceeded men in three of the four key areas examined: access to health, participation in the labor market and educational attainment. Brazilian women now make up 60 percent of college graduates, but the gender gap in politics remains wide.
The number of female mayors in Brazil went from 317 in 2000 to 405 in 2004 to 504 in 2008, but that's only 9 percent of the total.
In federal politics, Brazil lags far behind its neighbors.
Last year, only 8.6 percent of House members and 16 percent of senators were female, according to the Interparliamentary Union. The world average is 19.4 percent of women in both houses, and the average for the Americas is 21.5 percent.
Globally, Brazil in near the bottom of the list, ranking 109 out of 136 countries.
In her inaugural address, Rousseff promised to work on behalf of Brazilian women. Indeed, some of her policies will allow girls to spend more time in the classroom, and women to devote more time to their careers.
She inaugurated 1,500 new daycare centers in 2011 and plans 14,500 more over the next three years. Another program reaches into rural areas to give official documents to women who have never had an ID or a birth certificate so they can receive benefits. A health program targets women before, during and after childbirth.
"Many of the things that you're seeing put in place now are opening up the work force for women," said Susan Segal, president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. "She's driving these issues not because she's a woman, but because these are the right issues. Diversity, education, equal opportunity: this is what will change Brazil."
The president also expanded a network of social welfare programs created by former president Silva that have helped lift almost 30 million Brazilians out of poverty in the last decade. A transfer-of-wealth program that rewards poor families if they keep their children in school now reaches about a quarter of Brazil's 190 million people.
The program, Bolsa Familia, is also increasing the influence of women at home and in the economy. Funds are handed to the woman in the family in 93 percent of cases, by government policy. This means women in Brazil are in charge of an additional $645 million per month.
Viviane Ribeiro, 26, uses her $71 to buy food, school supplies and clothing for her two children. She spends what's left on a one-year course to become a clinical pathology technician. The new job will bring her more income and fewer hours than what she puts in as a mini-mart cashier, so she'll be able to spend more time with her children, she said.
"Women just know how to administer income better for the family," she said. "Women know when the kitchen is running out of fruits, vegetables, when the children need something. They don't go out to buy cigarettes, to drink, when there's something lacking at home."
The impact of programs like Bolsa Familia and other women-focused policies are measurable. According to the 2010 Brazil Census, 38.7 percent of women say they're the head of the household; another 29.6 percent said the responsibility is shared with their partners.
Women still face discrimination, and crimes such as domestic violence are still common. According to a survey published this year by a Brazilian think tank, the Perseu Abramo Foundation, an average of five women are beaten by their partners every two minutes in the country. Just in the first semester of 2010, women in Brazil calling a domestic violence hotline denounced 70,000 threats or assaults by their partners. This is an improvement over 10 years ago, when there was no hotline, and the think-tank survey said eight women were assaulted on average every two minutes.
Having more female faces in politics will, over time, lessen the discrimination, D'Avila said.
"If a woman is young and in power, it's because she's pretty; if it's a man, it's because he's brilliant. If a woman is forceful, she's very amusing; if it's a man, he's strong and has conviction," she said. "Dilma is helping a lot, but the path is still very long."