Jessica Rodrigues opened the door of her small brick house in Sapiranga, a city in southern Brazil, to discover her cousin’s three young daughters huddled in the rain. Rodrigues’ cousin had just been sent to jail on drug-related charges and she had named Rodrigues as the children’s new caretaker. “They looked lost and confused,” recalled Rodrigues, 26. She didn’t think twice about taking in the girls, whose ages ranged from 3 to 8. But seven months later, she wonders why she is also paying for her cousin’s crime.

Rodrigues’s cousin, Jocasta dos Santos, 24, is awaiting trial for association with a criminal organization. According to her lawyer, she was arrested for exchanging WhatsApp messages and appearing in Facebook pictures with members of a drug cartel. Dos Santos admits that her husband had been dealing drugs from an improvised bar set up behind their house, but swore that she had no involvement in her husband’s business.

Before her cousin’s children joined her household in September 2016, Rodrigues, her husband, and her teenage stepson lived a simple but stable life on her husband’s retirement pension. Caring for the three girls quickly doubled Rodrigues expenses, to $260 a month. Even with an additional $60 in monthly welfare assistance — $20 per child — it became impossible to make ends meet and Rodrigues was forced to take a job assembling metal buckles for shoes. The work allowed her to stay home and care for the kids, but it paid only $1.25 for every 1,000 buckles and often meant she had to do housework until 2 a.m. “Everyone would go to sleep, and I would turn on the TV and clean,” she said, pointing to the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.

Judges were quick to use their additional power, especially in regards to marijuana possession, and prisons filled with poor and black women.

Rodrigues is part of a fast-expanding, invisible, unpaid workforce in Brazil that is a consequence of an unprecedented spike in female incarceration. Between 2000 and 2016, the population of women in prison rose 698 percent to 44,721 total inmates, according to Brazil’s Justice Department. The increase is much higher than the average rate in the Americas, which was 51.6 percent over a similar period, according to recent figures from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

The rise has been attributed to a 2006 federal drug law that gave judges more freedom to legally determine who is a drug dealer and who is a drug user. Judges were quick to use their additional power, especially in regards to marijuana possession, and prisons filled with poor and black women, many of whom were swept up in the dragnet because of their husbands and boyfriends. Brazilian government data shows that approximately 68 percent of these women are incarcerated due to small-time drug dealing, such as transporting, safekeeping or dealing small amounts of illegal substances.

Absent fathers

Among these inmates, 81.2 percent are mothers and 56.2 percent lived with their children at the time of their arrest, a survey conducted in the city of São Paulo by the non-profit Pastoral Carcerária found. The responsibility of caring for these children falls on other women — mostly family members, neighbors and friends. “The fathers are often absent, in prison themselves, or not willing to take on the job,” says Surrailly Youssef, a researcher for the Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania (Institute of Earth, Labor and Citizenship). According to Youssef, female inmates prefer to personally select caretakers in order to avoid sending their children to much-feared foster care centers. The situation is even more dire for pregnant inmates. As of the end of last year, there were 622 women in Brazilian prisons who were pregnant or breastfeeding, according to a report by the National Council of Justice; by law, they can stay with their children for up to one year if the prison has a special section for families. Another option is for a judge to grant them house arrest, but this right is seldom given to poor inmates.

“The fathers are often absent, in prison themselves, or not willing to take on the job.”

The trend of passing on unpaid care work to other women — and not men — reflects the enormous gender disparity in Latin America’s largest country. Women represent 60 percent of the paid workforce, but dedicate an additional 26 hours per week to domestic tasks, more than double their male counterparts, according to a national census published last year. “If this housework was considered a part of the national economy, it would elevate Brazil’s GDP by 12 percent,” says gender economist Hildete Pereira de Melo, a professor at Fluminense Federal University. Her method of calculating this unseen work, which has become known as the “GDP of the broom,” would elevate Brazil’s GDP by $220 billion.

The unequal distribution of unpaid care work in Brazil is not unlike the rest of Latin America. A report published recently by UN Women showed that women work longer hours than men when paid and unpaid work are combined. Latin American nations has taken steps to improve this balance — a quarter of the countries in the region now offer 14 weeks of paid maternity leave — but progress has stalled. Paternity leave, for instance, is very limited, with most countries offering only a few days of leave, often unpaid.

Unequal rights and benefits

Although Brazil has approved legislation that allows incarcerated women to stay with their children, the benefits are seldom granted to inmates. The country is a signatory to the United Nations’ Bangkok Rules, a set of guidelines that pushes for alternative criminal sentencing for women globally. In Brazil, among other policies, a 1941 law permits house arrest for incarcerated women awaiting trial who have children under 12 years of age. Ultimately, however, the laws leave room for interpretation, and the rights of mothers are granted at judges’ discretion – with rich mothers often enjoying more lenient rulings.

In prison, Pinho shows a picture of her son.

Photo: Carla Ruas

The case of the former first lady of the state of Rio de Janeiro Adriana Ancelmo illustrates this inequality. Ancelmo was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being found guilty on two charges involving money laundering and organized crime. In December 2016, she was sent to the maximum-security prison Bangu to await trial. But a little over a year later, Ancelmo was granted the right to serve out the sentence at home because she has two children, ages 11 and 14, and the children’s father, former Rio governor Sérgio Cabral, was also in prison. In its ruling, the Supreme Federal Court justified the decision by saying that someone’s “privileged financial condition cannot be used to their disadvantage.”

At the time, Brazil’s Minister of Human Rights, Luislinda Valois, asked the court to extend the benefit to all mothers who are in the same situation as Ancelmo, but the request was not granted – in part because there is no official record of how many inmates are mothers. Nonetheless, on February 20 of this year, the high court finally authorized judges to replace prison sentences with house arrests for all inmates who are mothers of children up to 12 years old. The decision is supposed to be enforced by federal and state courts by April.


Sitting within the gray walls of the Guaíba State Penitentiary for Women, Natacha Albino Pinho wondered why she wasn’t given the same benefits as Rio’s former first lady. In August 2015, the 21-year-old was arrested in Charqueadas, in southern Brazil, while holding her 5-month-old baby. The police had been investigating Pinho’s boyfriend for drug trafficking and found a small amount of marijuana, 1.7 ounces, in their shared home. In spite of her boyfriend’s admission of guilt, Pinho was detained preventively for four months and later sentenced to eight years in prison for drug trafficking and involvement in organized crime.

Her baby was placed in the care of a paternal great-grandmother, Elvira da Silva Machado, a strong woman of 64 who nonetheless struggles to provide for a family of four on only $580 from monthly pensions that she and her daughter receive. The baby alone drinks the equivalent of $23 in milk each month. Another family member spends $80 a month on toys and clothes for the child. The boy’s father – who ended up doing a mere two-month stint at a juvenile detention center – does not contribute to the household.


Pinho’s son with his caretakers.

Photo: Carla Ruas

During an interview in his office, the prosecutor of Pinho’s case, Rodolfo Grezzana, justified not recommending house arrest while she awaited trial by reading out loud the 1941 law on the issue. He emphasized the parts of the legislation that stated that the benefit should be given only when proven that the mother is “indispensable” to the care of her child – the same argument used to benefit Ancelmo. Pinho’s boyfriend was an absent father and she was breastfeeding at the time, but the judge did not see those facts as fundamental proof of need. In justifying his decision, he also emphasized that 1.7 ounces of marijuana was enough for a drug trafficking charge.

Following Pinho’s trial, the word “indispensable” was scrapped from the law in cases where mothers are awaiting sentencing, as part of a new statute aimed at protecting young children. But a year after the law’s implementation, only 72 inmates had benefited from the change, according to Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice. Heidi Ann Cerneka, an American activist who has worked with imprisoned women in Brazil for 20 years and was involved in the creation of the Bangkok Rules, believes part of the problem is judicial bias. “In Brazil, judges are very conservative and tend to condemn women not only for their crimes, but for being what they consider to be ‘unfeminine’ and bad mothers,” she explains.

On January 16, 2018, the president of Brazil’s Superior Justice Court Minister Laurita Vaz denied house arrest as an option for a mother of a newborn who was awaiting trial after she was caught with less than 6 grams of marijuana while trying to enter a male prison. Vaz’s argument was that the mother hadn’t been able to prove that she was “indispensable” to the child’s care at home, even though the law had supposedly already changed for those awaiting their day in court.

Back home

Around midnight, Rodrigues heard a commotion in front of her door that briefly reminded her of the day she found her nieces in the rain. But this time, it was her cousin, dos Santos, who surprised her by arriving unannounced. After spending seven months in Madre Pelletier prison awaiting trial without ever seeing her three daughters, dos Santos had finally been sent home to await sentencing.


The Rodrigues family reunited after the mother came back from prison.

Photo: Carla Ruas

According to her public defender Loraina Scottá, dos Santos benefited from the public pressure that followed the first lady of Rio’s case. The scandal brought to light the judicial discrepancy between the rich and the poor in Brazil and even led the Brazilian government to issue a “Mother’s Day” decree encouraging reduced sentences and full pardons for 13,000 inmates who are mothers and grandmothers, although human rights experts say that the measure is already stumbling on excessive bureaucracy, limited access to legal aid and the fact that judges have the final say on sentencing.

When dos Santos arrived home, Rodrigues rushed to wake up the kids. The family, reunited, hugged for several minutes and cried tears of joy and relief. However, the women know that the struggle will continue. Dos Santos is now under house arrest, unemployed and has to start from scratch, since her house was ransacked while she was in prison. Her husband is still in jail and she has been denied visitation rights due to her own legal issues. The cousins plan on raising the girls together until dos Santos returns to court to face charges of drug trafficking and involvement in organized crime. She could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.


This story was produced as part of the Global Gender Parity Initiative journalism project at New America, which seeks to elevate stories about under-reported gender equality issues, and is supported by the Hewlett Foundation.

Top photo: Inmates pray inside a cell in the women’s section of the Anisio Jobim penitentiary complex on February 17, 2016 in Manaus, Brazil.