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Eighth Anniversary of Brazil’s Law to Protect Women from Domestic Violence

For the original by Deborah Athila in Portuguese, published in Viva Favela, click here.

Eight years ago, the fight against domestic violence gained a new ally: the Maria da Penha law. The law was seen as a milestone in the campaign for gender equality, but it still faces obstacles such as a prevailing sexist culture and the social oppression of women who report violence. The law sets out situations in which domestic violence occurs and ensures that these cases are referred to the Public Prosecutor’s office. According to specialists in the field of domestic violence, the law enables progress to be made in a country where five women are attacked every two minutes, as was shown by Perseu Abramo Foundation research conducted in 2011.

In the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, 60% of incidents reported to the 11th Police Precinct are related to the Maria da Penha law. According to data collected by SINAN (the Federal Health Ministry’s Information System for Notifiable Grievances), 89% of rape victims are female with low levels of education.

According to social worker Laís Araújo, coordinator of the division against domestic violence at Viva Rio, violence against women takes place both in favelas and the rest of the city.

“The difference is that women in favelas, due to social problems, feel weaker and more vulnerable,” she  says. She believes that the Maria da Penha law was a step forward but points out the need for changes to be made, such as capacity-building for professionals involved in the process.

This is the aim of the booklet Building Together, produced by Viva Rio, which instructs health officers to identify and support victims of domestic violence.

“Due to a lack of knowledge of how to handle the issue, health officers used to underreport cases of domestic violence, treating the problem observed as an isolated case. Now, we work in a network, as health officers cannot deal with the problem alone,” explains Laís.

Erika Fernanda de Carvalho, coordinator of the Women’s Reference Center in Complexo da Maré, agrees that the phenomenon of domestic violence is ‘democratic’ in terms of who it affects. For her, the difference is in the social protection available to the victim.

“A woman who reports a case of violence to the police who has children needs to be able to support herself, but there’s no full-time daycare available through which to leave her children. She lacks training in order to access the labor market. When the State weakens their policies, this harms our work too,” she says.

The enemy is in the home

Notable cases such as the rape and murder of nine-year-old Rebeca de Carvalho in October 2013 and of Francisca Gleiciane, 18, in March of this year, shocked Rocinha. And yet, according to Gabriel Ferrando, chief police officer of the 11th Police Department in Rocinha, cases of rape where the attacker is not known to the victim are rare among incidences of violence against women in the favela.

“The majority of rapes take place inside the home, by a known perpetrator,” he says, adding that the majority of crimes that come under the remit of the Maria da Penha law are those of threats and physical injuries.

However, research by the Institute of Applied Economics Research shows that the lack of reporting of cases of violence is still a large obstacle. Of the 527,000 people raped annually in Brazil, only 10% report the crime. Another study, this time by Data Popular and the Patrícia Galvão Institute, showed in 2013 that 85% of interviewees think women who report violence committed by their partners are in greater danger of being murdered.

According to Ferrando, victims are prevented from reporting their attackers by factors such as economic dependency and fear of public exposure. Paula Trakiridis, Civil Police inspector and member of the division for women at the police department, also points out that the affection held by the victim for her aggressor could outweigh her desire to leave him.

“It’s very common for them to come back after awhile to withdraw the accusation, because they have got back together with their partner, or because he has begged for forgiveness. This is a phase that we know well and that is part of the aggressor’s attitude, an aggressor who, in the majority of cases, commits violence again,” she says.

Despite these obstacles, Ferrando is optimistic.

“I think the increase in reported cases is linked to increased access to information, and the favela pacification project helped with this. The demand was always there, but the information and rights were less available before,” he says, adding that the Maria da Penha law revolutionized the legal field by making cautionary measures that aim to protect the victim’s property, as well as their physical and psychological health.

‘I learned to defend myself’

The Maria da Penha law ensures victims of violence are directed towards programs and services that provide protection and social assistance. Since 2004, the women’s center in Complexo da Maré has received support and investment from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Research Nucleus on Public Policies in Human Rights (NEPP-DH). The team, coordinated by Erika de Carvalho, is comprised of social workers, psychologists, lawyers and a child specialist.

‘We don’t just help with cases of domestic violence, but also with any other matters relating to women. We hold craft workshops and offer courses on human rights, as well as training for health officers,” says Erika, who advocates for school education that doesn’t reinforce gender stereotypes and perpetuate violence against women.

Housewife Vera Lúcia Jorge, 56, from Vila do João in Complexo da Maré, says that by visiting the center she learned to free herself from the violence she was a victim of.

“I attended the human rights course and had support from psychologists. After learning about my rights, I also learned to defend myself. I thought I had to stay at home all the time, washing, ironing and tidying. Now I come here every day and I feel great, doing the workshops and sharing experiences with other women. I can even generate my own income. Before, I was scared of my husband, who used to attack me all the time. Now I assert myself and he no longer hits me,” she says.

An ongoing problem

Laís Araújo insists that domestic violence is directly related to a culture of sexism.

“We aim to deconstruct old assumptions such as ones which advise people not to get involved in fights between husbands and wives. We think that intervention is necessary,” she says.

Gender inequality can also be seen in research data. The study entitled ‘Men’s Perceptions of Domestic Violence against Women’ carried out by Avon and Data Popular in 2013 showed that 89% of men considered it unacceptable for a woman not to keep the house in order and 37% thought that the Maria da Penha law meant women disrespected them more. 56% of those interviewed admitted to having cursed, pushed, verbally insulted, punched or slapped a woman, prevented a woman from leaving the house or forced a woman to have sex.