Women and violence in Brazil
Women and violence in Brazil
Luciane Lauffer, in collaboration with Márcia Farias da Silva
Image credits: Dario Oliveira/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Forget about the colourful feathered costumes or the picture-perfect models that you may recall when thinking about women in Brazil. In fact, the reality for women in the country is not that happy but rather a battle for everyday existence. In a country of 212 million people, women make up about half of Brazil’s population, with a large number of them in their younger years. Made up of a mix of races and cultures, people are the beautiful result of an inevitable melting pot of Indigenous, African, European and Asian descendants.
However, the events that led to the creation of such a mix did not come without problems, many of which women were always a target. Centuries of European invasion and forced colonization have made women feel very fragile in such an environment, and this is reflected in society up until today. In Brazil, there are alarming numbers of domestic violence and gender-based abuse, which are quite widespread over online media. The most recent case that became public was one with a girl who, at the age of 11, was pregnant after five years of sexual abuse by her uncle. The case happened in the state of Espirito Santo, and tracked great media attention. Radical views have emerged from this debate: some protesters were not concerned about the 11-year-old child, or at least not as much as the high-risk pregnancy itself, and the baby she was carrying in her small body.
Although the girl was granted the right to abortion, groups self-defined as ‘pro-life’ found out her location and were able to protest outside the hospital by displaying boards calling the doctors and the girl ‘assassins’. The information was distributed by a right-wing extremist, Sara Giromini (known as Sara Winter), who is very popular in social media in Brazil. Her YouTube account was cancelled after she posted the information, but the damage was already done – the victim’s name was out there and Christian radical groups had the opportunity to reach the hospital.
This case of abuse could have been an isolated shocking event, but sadly was not the only one reported by the press in that month. Two other recent events were also shared in the newspapers, involving girls of similar ages and at least one of them in the same state. Something is very wrong in Brazil. Not only the repeated abuse of children is the focus of attention here, but also the social pressure of the protesters and the existing government to avoid the possibility of abortion – even at such a young age. Such actions reflect the role of women and girls is lessened to their mission as child-bearers, the carriers of future citizens, over their well-being.
In Brazil, the history of women’s rights is the reflection of a sexist, patriarchal culture and society, in which women remain seen as an extension of a man’s property. The long history of maintaining women as second-class human beings dates back to, at least, the time when the country was invaded by Portugal. In his book, The Brazilian People (O Povo Brasileiro, 1995) Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro recovers records from the early 1500s to recount the relationship between the Europeans and the natives.
At the beginning of colonization, the indigenous tribes that were most receptive to the white men would give their women in marriage so the colonizer could become part of their families. This practice, named ‘temericó’ in indigenous language, allowed the integration of strangers to a tribe, using the women as exchange currency. According to Ribeiro (1995), “the indigenous understanding of women was that they were merely a bag in which the men would deposit their seeds. What comes out of their bellies is the son of a father, not of a mother, as seen by the natives” (p. 97). Such a view was also shared by the European colonizers, who had seen the native women as useful objects of pleasure.
In addition, the strong presence of the Christian church diminished the women to the will of their men. They would be a copy of Eva, who was created from Adam and submitted to him, establishing a strong social norm of the female role in Brazilian culture. In the 1930s, the emergent practice of sports also represented a threat to a woman’s body. Deemed as fragile when compared to the men, medical standards coming from Europe reinforced the bid to ‘put women in their place’, which was the sanctified role of motherhood above all, but mostly for white, rich women. These norms contributed to reinforcing a woman’s noble existence as mere child-bearers.
Brazil has an intricate legal system in which court cases can take a decade to be finally ruled without the chance of a further appeal, especially since other appeals are possible in the process.
Hence, to understand the present, it is necessary to review the past. When it comes to violence against women in Brazil, there is a collective aspect that needs to be reviewed, and that refers to the legislation involved. Since the country’s independence in 1822, the legislation implemented in Brazil had followed the same standards as Portugal. In 1916, the laws limited a woman’s capacity because they would depend on their husband to sign contracts and enter formal negotiations. The right to vote was only given to women in 1932 and work rights, in 1943. It was in 1962 that specific laws – although solely for married women – guaranteed a few more rights in relation to work and in 1988 the constitution granted women equal rights to men. Once again, they worked well on paper, but the inequality remains in our everyday lives.
It was only in the twenty-first century that new changes started to take place: in 2006, Lei Maria da Penha (Maria da Penha Law) established punishment against men involved in cases of domestic violence against women. In 2013, the Criminal Law included stronger punishment against the cases of femicide. In spite of these advances, social norms and the secularization of the State remain dominant in terms of the general views of women and also the way women see themselves within the system. The religious norms of a country that is largely Christian do not contribute to change the status of women in society.
Recent research produced by the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (Brazilian Forum for Public Safety) and Datafolha exposes the alarming numbers of violence against women. More than 2,000 women over the age of 16 were interviewed from all over the country to obtain a more detailed picture of the situation. The results say that, in the year 2019, 37 per cent of them had been victims of some form of sexual harassment. Also, women between 16 and 24 years old constitute the largest number of victims, in which 66 per cent of them have suffered some form of sexual or verbal harassment by strangers in public spaces, being the most common type.
Regarding the location where women are prone to be attacked, the research establishes that most of them (42 per cent) had suffered some form of violence at home. And in terms of the identity of the aggressor, 76 per cent of the women informed that the aggressor was someone they knew and in about half of the cases, the aggressors were either their partners or ex-partners. This index was 25 per cent above the figures identified in the last research, published in 2016.
However, the most surprising data comes from their reaction after suffering violence: only 24 per cent of the interviewees contacted the police after an episode of domestic abuse, while 52 per cent did not do anything about it. This final index was the same as researched in 2016. How long until these figures can be reverted?
MASCULINE DOMINATION AND REPRODUCING THE STATUS OF WOMEN
If this was the status of women 500 years ago, why is it still occurring? The research produced by Datafolha and the Forum show that a large number of people have witnessed forms of violence towards women in different contexts: 59 per cent of the interviewees being present in a situation in which a woman was being attacked – either physically or verbally, and about 20 per cent of women and/or girls were being physically abused by a male relative.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu reviewed the existence of masculine domination in his book with the same title. His theory can be summarized in this sentence: masculine domination is so ingrained in social norms that it can be, at times, invisible to women themselves. That explains how patriarchy, deeply rooted in Brazilian society, prevent the progress of women in the country. Furthermore, sociologists Berger and Luckmann (1966) discuss what they called the institutionalization of norms: once established, the existing gender or social norms become reproduced without questioning, taken as natural by those who act them out in their everyday lives.
The case involving women such as online media extremist Sara Giromini perfectly demonstrates both aspects: not only the female carries patriarchy deeply embedded in what she does, but also she reproduces these norms in relation to other women who do not conform to these social and gender norms. She does not have the ability to question nor to adopt a different perspective to what was given to her as ‘the way things are done’, but inflicts the same pressure and blame onto those – young or not – who do not conform to the norms. It is a sad reality for a country that has so much to offer.
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Luciane Lauffer is a PhD candidate in Management at Macquarie University (AU), researching the organizational development of women’s football in Australia. She has a BA in Journalism, a Master’s in International Studies and a Master of Research degree. She has worked for over 10 years as a journalist for different media organizations in Southern Brazil and occasionally freelanced in Australia, where she moved to in 2001. Her main interests are Women Studies and Football.
Márcia Farias da Silva is a lawyer and a writer based in Southern Brazil, with a postgraduate diploma in Brazilian History.