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A Tribute to Paula Rego, the woman who painted women

EWL mourns the passing of the Portuguese painter, deceased on June 8th 2022


Paula Rego was born in Lisbon on the 26th of January 1935. We lost her on the 8th of June, 87 years later. She was honored by the Portuguese Government and by Queen Elizabeth II of England, the country where she lived most of her life. Paula’s artistic contribution is priceless and absolute. But she is more than a painter, and the pain of having lost her extends beyond the artistic circle she presided over in life: she is one of us, a woman among women, painting women, highlighting women, conceiving and shaping depictions of our violated, contorted, dark, ugly and tired bodies.

A commited anti-fascist all her life, Paula Rego closely followed the establishment of democracy in Portugal, with high expectations for what it would represent for the liberation of women. In 1998, after the defeat of the first attempt, via referendum, to decriminalize abortion in Portugal, Paula conceived a series of eight oil paintings called “Aborto” (Abortion). Paula Rego’s illustrations reignited public discussion about the access to voluntary termination of a pregnancy, about the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, and about the atrocious violence of clandestine abortions.

When, years later, Kate Kallaway, a journalist for the Guardian, asked her about the centrality of women in her work, namely women who so often look “violated”, Paula replied: “I paint the women I know. I paint what I see. I make women the protagonists because I am one. It is more interesting to paint women as they are”.

Almost 10 years later, a second referendum took place, and finally, the law was amended, ending the persecution of women and granting access to legal and safe abortion. Paula Rego’s public, civic, militant and artistic influence in this process is undeniable.

Women’s organizations, the ranks of young activists, and common women celebrate Paula Rego, a companion in struggle and in life, an unshakable force for change and one of the greatest Portuguese contemporary artists. We lost her, but we underline our commitment to frequently revisit her, her work and her political legacy.

June 8th was thus a day of mourning and struggle: women’s rights are human rights, and human rights include women’s rights to control and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to our sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free from coercion, discrimination and violence. These rights are not negotiable.

We require commitments towards comprehensive sexuality education, contraception, safe abortion and a society free from male violence against women and girls, sustained by proper investment and actions..

Two years ago, the European Women’s Lobby proposed a feminist sexuality education that deconstructs unequal power relations and is based on 5 pillars:

1. Providing holistic sexual and reproductive health and rights education;
2. Bringing a lens on violence prevention;
3. Encouraging critical thinking;
4. Promoting healthy, non-coercive behaviors and interactions;
5. Helping personal development and healthy attitudes towards oneself.

Sexuality education cannot exist in isolation. It must be part of an education system which contributes to the elimination of the structurally harmful patriarchal system.

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EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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