Brazil’s graffiti queen tags a new generation with hope

Panmela and the Rede Nami team. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

Panmela and the Rede Nami team. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

Panmela Castro and her organisation Rede Nami use graffiti to help girls address racism, sexism and gender-based violence.

Panmela Castro knows how it feels to be voiceless. She was the victim of domestic abuse as a young woman. But when she reported it to the police in Rio de Janeiro, they told her the attack was perfectly legal. Refusing to be silenced, Panmela began expressing her anger with the most powerful tool at her disposal: a spray can.

Around Rio, the graffiti artist created murals that challenged machismo culture and gender-based violence. Her work often depicts female faces in rich, vibrant colors with interwoven hair and flowers to symbolise sisterhood. By celebrating the power of women, Panmela worked to reclaim the streets as a place for both genders. Nicknamed “Brazil’s graffiti queen,” Panmela realised that since graffiti helped her to find her voice, maybe it could help other Brazilian girls and women find theirs too.

In 2010, she founded Rede Nami to educate and empower girls and women through graffiti. They hold discussion groups in Rio on the issues affecting the female population, including domestic violence, racism and sexism. Rede Nami educates the participants on their rights and the resources that can support them, and then holds workshops to express these themes through graffiti.

“In schools, they don’t teach girls everything they need to know,” Panmela explains. Through Rede Nami’s workshops, girls are “learning about their rights in a cool way.” Panmela finds that graffiti helps to initiate dialogue — it encourages girls to open up about their lives in a way they wouldn’t normally. Rede Nami holds workshops in schools, shelters for domestic abuse victims and at its headquarters in Rio.

Yasmin posing in front of her art. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

Yasmin posing in front of her art. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

“They face all kinds of problems because they’re women and girls,” Panmela says of the Rede Nami students. Gender-based violence continues to be an epidemic in Brazil — a 2017 nationwide survey showed that almost one-third of Brazilian girls and women had suffered violence in the previous year.

While the 2006 Maria de Penha law (which increased punishments for abuse against women) resulted in a reduction in violence against white women, the number of murdered black Brazilian women steadily increased. On average, Afro-Brazilian women earn almost 40% less than white women. And Afro-Brazilian children are much more likely to be forced out of school.

These statistics illustrate a reality that Panmela knows all too well. From her work, she has found that discrimination is a universal experience among Brazilian girls and women: “When I get to know the younger girls, I see we are the same. We come from the same places, we have the same experiences of sexism and racism.”

Yasmin is one of Panmela’s younger students. Attending the Rede Nami workshops helped her to break out of her shell and meet other Afro-Brazilian women. She is proud to see that her work — which often depicts Afro-Brazilian women — is now empowering other girls in her community: “When girls see art in the street done by black women, they will see we are making it a place for them too.”

J.Lo explaining a Redi Nami mural. (Courtsey of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

J.Lo explaining a Redi Nami mural. (Courtsey of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

J.Lo is another graduate of Rede Nami who credits the organisation with changing her life. As a gay black woman, J.Lo experienced professional discrimination. She began attending Rede Nami’s workshops for Afro-Brazilian women and found a community. In Rede Nami’s #AfroGrafiteiras workshops for Afro-Brazilian girls and women, they talk about prejudice, domestic violence, sexual rights and rights in the workplace. These conversations make J.Lo feel “much more secure and helps us know we are not alone.”

As conservatism rises in Brazil, Rede Nami faces underfunding and hostility to their feminist message. This is forcing the organisation to cut back on their programmes in schools. But Panmela is undeterred: she is determined to keep arming Brazilian girls and women with knowledge, confidence and spray cans.

This article is available in Portuguese

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Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.