Sunday, April 21, 2024

Zilda Arns: Curing Social Ills

A Brazilian paediatrician and humanitarian, Zilda Arns life’s work left an indelible mark on public health and social welfare in Brazil and beyond. Learn how her dedication helped improve the lives of children and families, particularly those living in poverty or affected by social injustices. 

Following its original publication in Passions, Vol. 56, this article has now been revamped for online readers – exclusively on VOICE OF ASIA.

Just before she passed away, Dr Zilda Arns spoke about the history of the organisation Pastoral da Criança, which translates as ¨pastoral care for children¨. The numbers were impressive. In January 2010, there had been 1,985,347 children, 108,342 pregnant women and 1,553,717 families attended to by the Programme. By then, the Pastoral da Criança was present in more than 42,000 communities, 7,000 parishes and in all the 272 Catholic dioceses in Brazil. The network comprised 260,000 volunteers, of which 141,000 were leaders in poor communities, and 92% of them women who dedicated 24 hours a month, at least, to the mission of educating mothers and poor families and generating knowledge for social transformation.

It all began in 1982, when her brother, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, former Archbishop of São Paulo, asked her to help him propagate the use of the oral rehydration solution (ORS) in children with diarrhea, one of the main causes of infant mortality in Brazil and in the world. Zilda Arns had the necessary qualifications: she was a paediatrician specialising in public health. She also had the will and the heart, and above all, she had competence. She developed a pilot programme in the town of Florestópolis, where infant mortality had reached 127 deaths per 1,000 live births. In less than a year, this index dropped to 28 deaths. From this, Zilda became the founder coordinator of Pastoral da Criança, the most successful programme for social action by the National Conference of Bishops in Brazil.

In my country today, the President of the Republic is a woman. Dilma Rousseff is a graduated economist who has been struggling against adverse economic international conditions, historical infrastructure deficits, a stubborn inflation, an extremely critical social media, rising salaries and equally rising popular demands. To the massive protests last year, she responded stating that she was listening to the people, an ability that, as a woman, she most certainly has. Despite the challenges, if elections were held today, she would be elected.

Though Brazil is still a highly patriarchal society – or perhaps because of that — there are many women who excel, both in our history and even today, and in all fields of activities. During slavery (abolished in 1888), there were many black women leaders of runaway slaves, who organised themselves in quilombos (cimarrons), former free states within the country. Aqualtune, who governed Mocambo de Aqualtune, a township named after her, in the Quilombo dos Palmares, gained the respect of her subjects for her capacity for organisation. Teresa do Quariterê, who was Queen of the Quilombo do Quariterê for two decades, created a parliament and a system of defence in her state, besides being able to develop cotton and food crops with such a high productivity that her quilombo became famous for its lucrative commerce with the outside world.

More recently, Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes, a pharmacist, was the victim of a double homicide attempt by her then husband and the father of her three daughters. In her long fight for justice she managed not only to convince the Parliament to approve a law that defines and severely punishes domestic violence against women, but also made the Brazilian State acknowledge, in front of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, its responsibility vis-à-vis the violence that occurred. The national legislation, one of the most advanced in the world, informally bears her name: ‘Maria da Penha Law’.

In a country abounding with female workers, many of whom are single mothers striving every day to reach the top in their professional careers or simply to make ends meet, married women have also been able to show their fortitude and endurance. Anita Garibaldi is venerated in Brazil as much as in Italy for the support she gave to her husband, Giuseppe Garibaldi, by fighting at his side for the independence of Rio Grande do Sul and the unification of Italy. Professor Dr. Ruth Cardoso, an anthropologist and wife of our former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was as highly regarded as her husband in the academic world. As First Lady of the country, she had the opportunity to put some of her theories to practice, by stressing the role of non-governmental organisations in state-society partnerships.

It is extremely difficult for me to single out a Brazilian woman in the arts, because there occurs to me, as first examples, Chiquinha Gonzaga in music, Raquel de Queiroz in literature, Tarsila do Amaral in painting, Fernanda Montenegro in acting, Lygia Fagundes Telles in poetry and countless others. The same goes for sciences, sports, modelling, business or social activism. Among so many successful, talented and influential women in my country, I have chosen Zilda Arns as the most inspiring, because she was the embodiment of compassion, a very feminine trait that meant, originally in Latin, the capacity to ‘suffer with’ others. Moreover, in the Portuguese language, the word compaixão is formed by the preposition ‘with’ followed by the noun ‘passion’, which was precisely the way Zilda dedicated herself to her cause: with passion.

And that is how she died when the earthquake devastated Haiti on that fateful 12th of January 2010. She never finished the speech she was giving for the Cuban Delegation in Port-au-Prince. According to survivors, everyone could see the compassion – and passion – in her eyes as she spoke about the Pastoral da Criança. In life, she received many prizes for her work, but she did not live long enough to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize she was nominated for. At the time of her death, the Pastoral da Criança had already been established in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Republic of Guinea, Mozambique, and also in the Philippines and Timor Leste.

Contributor Profile

HE Maria Auxiliadora Figueiredo
Former Ambassador of Brazil to Malaysia

Born in exotic Brazil was not enough to quell HE Maria’s aspirations to see the world, and represent her nation in foreign lands. With an academic background in Language and Literature, from the Faculty of Philosophy, Science and Language at the University of Sao Paulo, she ascended the ranks at the Brazilian Foreign Service – holding positions as Third, Second and First Secretary, Counselor, Minister (First and Second Class) before eventually becoming Ambassador.

The assortment of responsible roles has taken her far and wide; from the Embassies in Madrid, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal, Quito in Ecuador, Lagos, Nigeria, Abuja in the Ivory Coast and finally to Kuala Lumpur, where she has been the Ambassador of Brazil to Malaysia since July 2012. Among her prestigious honours are the Odre National Ivoirien, Commander as an acknowledgement of her contribution while stationed in the Ivory Coast, and the Ordem do Rio Branco, Grand Cross from her native Brazil, given for distinguished meritorious service.

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