From the south end of São Paulo to the halls of the National Congress: Meet one of Brazil's youngest elected officials

(Courtesy of Huffington Post)

(Courtesy of Huffington Post)

One of Brazil’s youngest elected officials has a message for girls: “these places are for us, too.”

Tabata Claudia Amaral de Pontes grew up in Vila Missionária, a low-income neighbourhood on the outskirts of São Paulo. Her father was a bus fare collector and her mother was a house cleaner. As a girl, Tabata didn’t imagine a political career for herself. “No one in my family went to high school. I was raised doing embroidery and thought that’s what I would always do — like anyone else around me,” she explains.

That trajectory changed when Tabata competed in a middle school math olympiad at the encouragement of her teacher. She was awarded a life-changing scholarship and went on to become the first in her family to graduate high school and one of few women in her community to attend college (to study astrophysics and government at that).

(Courtesy of Marcelo Brandt)

(Courtesy of Marcelo Brandt)

Last October, the constituents of São Paulo elected Tabata to National Congress as a Deputada Federal (Federal Deputy). At just 24 years old, she received the sixth most votes in the state. Today, Tabata campaigns tirelessly for education reform, investment in teachers and representation of women and girls in politics. As founder of the Movimento Mapa Educação movement, Tabata works to engage youth in the fight for quality education for all Brazilians.  

I spoke to Tabata about her journey into politics, her experience being a young female leader and the importance of representation and mentorship for girls.

Bhumika Regmi (BR): Let’s start with talking about how it feels to be a 25-year-old woman in National Congress.

Tabata Amaral de Pontes (TAP): I have advocated for education for 10 years — after a while you realize nothing will change if politics doesn’t change or if politicians don’t change. So even though this is the hardest thing I have done so far, I know my voice will have a much bigger impact.

BR: What are some difficult aspects of the job?

TAP: My age and the fact that I am a woman plays a much bigger role than I’m used to. Before, what I wore or said didn’t matter as much. Now I have to be much more cautious.

BR: Tell me about your background, where you’re from, what your upbringing was like.

TAP: In a poor São Paulo neighborhood, my life was like anyone else’s around me — until I had one big opportunity to attend a math olympiad. One teacher believed in me, pushed me and helped me compete. Because of that, I got a scholarship to a private school and everything changed. This was the first time someone asked me what I was going to do in the future, what my profession was going to be. Being in school helped me see a future for myself when no one had seen it for me before.

BR: Why is it important for girls to see people who look like them in leadership roles?

TAP: Many of our politicians think it’s OK if our whole cabinet, ministers, secretaries are the same. When I was in public school, it was very hard to see myself in a position of power. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough, it was because I had never seen someone like me in those positions. So you just assume that those positions are not for you. That’s why representation matters so much. When one girl occupies a space that is usually not for us, we’re saying to other girls that it might be harder for us, but these places are for us too.

BR: You attended Harvard University on a full scholarship. What did that mean for you and your community?

TAP: At the beginning they didn’t really understand because people in my community don’t know what Harvard is — it is so far from our reality. At college, I got educational opportunities that most people I grew up with would never have. I could literally choose my future.

BR: You ran for elections two years after you graduated college. Tell me about the transition from being a physics student to political figure.

TAP: When I got to Harvard, I worried that someone would figure out I shouldn’t be there, that I wasn’t good enough, that it had been a mistake. But finally when I made friends and I started to tell my story — about how I lost my father to drug addiction, how hard it had been to pay for my meals, how all my life I had been told I wasn’t good enough — I stopped being ashamed and I was proud instead. It was around that time that I switched my major to government. I thought maybe I should be telling other girls my story, telling them they can be astrophysicists and politicians too and whoever they want to be.

BR: Has your age and gender been a barrier in office?

TAP: At the beginning people wouldn’t believe I was a candidate. They would ask me for some sort of certificate to prove that I am eligible [to run], even though no such certificate exists. I’m always either told I’m too sensitive or too aggressive and people interrupt me a lot more than others. There are many members of parliament who call me “little deputy” or “small deputy” in Portuguese. They try to say it like it’s cute but you feel very diminished. I am one of the most voted representatives here, why am I not treated the same as male representatives? Why am I “little”?

BR: In general, what is it like for women and girls in Brazil?

TAP: It’s very hard to start a conversation about unequal pay, inequality in education, violence, because people don’t believe these problems exist in Brazil. Girls grow up seeing this inequality and believing that’s all they deserve. When I was younger, many people thought I was a boy disguised as a girl and that’s why I was so good at math. One boy told me I would never get married or have children because I was too boyish — just because I was the only girl in a chemistry class.

BR: Why are you campaigning for education reform?

TAP: Quality of education is very poor in Brazil. Out of 100 children who leave high school, only seven can do basic math and 30 can read and write. We have one of Latin America’s highest rates of young pregnancy. Girls drop out and stay home. They end up having low self-esteem and they don’t dream about having a good job or going to college. But even the children that stay in school don’t learn anything — no skills, nothing about their rights. That’s why I’m asking for investment in teachers. This is what we need if we want to improve public schools in Brazil.

BR: As Federal Deputy, what changes do you want to bring to government?

TAP: I have started a mentorship program that helps young women who want to enter politics. I am not proud of being the only woman my age in National Congress. I will feel proud when I can lift up many others like me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It is also available in Portuguese.

The views and opinions expressed by individual authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Malala Fund.

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About the author

Bhumika Regmi is social media associate at Malala Fund. She loves dogs and plans on naming her future puppy Mochi, after the Japanese treat.