A fighting woman

Maria Regina Lessa and her story of overcoming adversity to inspire  workers to fight for their rights 

I didn’t have a childhood. By the age of 12, I was already working on a farm, on  a cashew nut plantation in Pacajus, in the metropolitan region of Fortaleza, Brazil. I was one of 10 children, and almost our entire family spent from 5:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m. harvesting and separating cashew nuts. We’d leave home by tractor when it was still dark, wearing head scarves and carrying a lunch pail. Our work was compensated with housing and a monthly income that was less than the minimum wage. 

That hard life robbed me of my right to study. I was enrolled in night school; but after spending all day on the farm, I wasn't able to do anything but sleep. Later, we exchanged the field for the factory, where we worked selecting and cutting the cashews. The pace was still excruciating and left me exhausted.  By age 17, I still hadn’t finished my basic education. It was during thisat time that I met the future father of my children, and we left to live in São Paulo. There, I worked as a cleaning assistant and returned to my studies. I was able to complete my General Certificate of Secondary Education, which is one of the most important things I've done in my life. 

I lived for eight years in the capital of São Paulo, which is where two of my three children were born: Sheila, who’s now 28; and Charlinton, who’s 24. My children rekindled my hope and gave meaning to my life. We lived there until my children’s father became abusive and tried on multiple occasions to hurt me. Finally, I decided to take control of my life and I separated from him. 

Alone, I continued struggling to survive and to raise my kids, acting as both a mother and a father to them. I never lost hope for a better life, no matter how difficult it was. I always fought and struggled for my dreams, and for the dreams of my children.  In 1997, I returned to Pacajus and started to work in a shoe factory worker. At this point, a new chapter began to open for us. One of my greatest achievements was being able to buy a car and get my license. It was during this period that I was inspired to fight to improve the conditions of those who were working in shoe factories—a group that today numbers eight thousand workers. Later, I began to attend meetings of the Ceará State Footwear Industry Workers Union, and now I am one of its leaders. Since then, I've participated in all of the elections for union officers and I’ve never stopped fighting. 

Currently, I’m treasurer for the management—and unofficially, I’m their driver. I drive the union car everywhere. 

Without question, women workers suffer much more than the men—mainly because they must put in a double shift, having to take care of the children after work. Most men are not expected to take care of their children.  But in the union, I try to make people more aware of the rights that women workers have. There is still a lot of work to be done, I’ve visited places that don't even provide workers with drinking water.  But I know that if we fight, things will get better over time. For nearly 10 years now, we’ve been making important gains, such as getting transportation for the employees. In addition, one collective bargaining agreement has given breastfeeding mothers the right to take time off during the day to feed their babies. For me, these are unforgettable wins that keep me from losing hope. After all that I’ve been through, my life is now about doing everything possible to ensure that workers are also fighting for their rights. 

“I never lost hope for a better life, no matter how hard it was. might be. I always fought and struggled for my dreams, and for the dreams of my children." 

Ceará, Brazil