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“Most People Have No Knowledge About Their Rights”: Seminar Promotes Legal Education among Community Leaders on Housing Rights and Police Brutality

On March 28 the University of Rio de Janeiro State (UERJ) hosted the First FAFERJ Community Education Seminar, organized by the Federation of Favelas’ Associations of Rio de Janeiro State (FAFERJ) in partnership with the Lawyers’ Collective (CDA). The community education course was designed to teach favela residents, leaders and community activists about politics and citizenship.

While FAFERJ has worked with favelas for 50 years, the CDA was born during the Brazilian protests of June 2013. Comprised of almost fifty volunteers—including lawyers, law students and collaborators from different fields—the collective’s main objective is to defend human rights. The partnership between FAFERJ and CDA combines deep knowledge of the demands in Rio’s favelas with legal expertise on the context of human rights violations in low-income territories.

Observing current trends, the groups’ conclusion is that the Marvelous City, as Rio de Janeiro is known on the global stage, is facing an alarming process of urban and social exclusion which threatens the rights of vulnerable citizens. T.H. Marshall, whose work has long influenced debates about social citizenship, defined citizenship as a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed.The daily struggle of favela residents to be fully recognized as citizens by the State—a struggle that has been sustained since favelas were first formed—is symbolic of injustice in modern Rio de Janeiro.

The community course promoted by FAFERJ and CDA aimed to offer practical and useful information to residents so they can overcome the injustices that limit their daily lives. According to Rossino Castro Diniz, president of FAFERJ, “The idea of the course emerged from our daily experience in the favelas. We know the problems that each community faces. The need for technical information has been a long-term demand from community leaders. The latter, many times have good capacity to involve and mobilize people, but do not have knowledge of the law, the technical learning necessary to support the community in the resolution of its problems.”

The course took place over two days. It offered some theoretical knowledge, with discussion about social rights in Brazil’s low-income communities. The CDA also provided practical information regarding citizens’ rights. Two key topics on the agenda were housing rights and police brutality, two pervasive problems in favelas.

The CDA giving information about housing rights and stop and frisk

According to Rossino, “[Housing rights] have represented a complex problem within favelas since their origin. [Residents] want to maintain the condition of their homes, they want to pay for water and electricity, they want to have access to public services. For people who can’t have a title for their home, they become subjects who are discriminated by society, in the labor market in particular. Due to the lack of a residential certification, the State does not recognize favela residents as citizens.”

Felipe, FAFERJ secretary and resident of Santo Amaro, said: “Police violence is another huge problem in favelas, for black youth in particular. Today we are living a dramatic situation due to arbitrary violence exercised by Military Police against residents. They frisk people—under suspicion of collaborating with drug gangs—without permission. They search your pockets, they force you to stand with your hands on the wall and touch you, including your genitalia. They intimidate people instead of protecting them. When you are young, you react to these situations with anger. However, unfortunately that is not a clever thing to do, considering the existing disproportion of power between residents and police. The pacified favelas are involved in a war residents are not responsible for. The Military Police works in the context of war, so how do you think they see us? As enemies. We have to protect ourselves in a better way, starting with spreading information and educating people.”

The course is an initiative to counter the social exclusion that affects people more severely when they do not know what their rights are. “A majority of people have no knowledge about their citizens’ rights because, in Brazil, education is only available to a limited part of population. For this reason, we organized the seminar in order to give people the potential to find solutions to their problems through public offices and to defend their own rights,” explained Rossino.

Below is some of the information taught in the course:

Housing Rights

As established both by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Brazil (1988):

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”

To hold the right to housing, do you need to be a home owner?
No, you do not. In accordance with the Brazilian Constitution, everyone holds the right to housing, even if:

  1. You are not the owner of a registered property;
  2. You are living in an irregular house;
  3. You are renting a house.

What is Land Tenure Regulation?

It is the conversion of housing status from informally attained to a legally recognized status, through the house registration in the real estate notary’s office. The house has to meet specific standards such that its residents can live with dignity. It must have running water and drainage, access to paved streets, electricity and meet a certain level of cleanliness. Moreover, the location of the house must guarantee its residents access to schools, hospitals, public spaces and other public services.

Land Tenure Regulation can protect the owner against threats of eviction.

Once the house is registered, residents hold the right to an address, facilitating the integration of their neighborhood within the formal city. Land tenure also ensures the local community the right to complain about or demand public investments.

Picture showing the city and its divisions: formal and informal city,

There are various ways to acquire land tenure. Many states and municipalities possess regulation programs with the task of managing infrastructure improvements and the registration of streets, squares and land parcels in the real estate notary’s office.

There are circumstances in which the housing regulation process can be supported by legal assistance. That assistance can cover or complement the duties of the public authorities in case they do not possess the legal power to conclude the process.

Growth Acceleration Program (PAC)

According to the Brazilian Constitution, the State is committed to reducing the housing deficit, guaranteeing decent housing to its people, offering government grants to low-income families, and implementing the urbanization of precarious settlements.

How can a community’s Residents’ Association help people in the housing regulation process?

  • Organizing community meetings to inform residents about the documents needed to request land tenure;
  • Demanding information and participation rights on the most important decisions made by public authorities;
  • Participating in the dialogue and/or negotiation between residents and the various actors involved in the regulation process (notary’s office, Magistrate, Public Ministry, federal and state organisms);
  • Fostering public campaigns aimed at clarifying citizens’ rights and the procedure to contract with the “land owner” in order to avoid deceit and intimidation;
  • Claiming the right to free technical and legal assistance;
  • In accordance with the benefits of free legal assistance, claiming the reimbursement both of the procedural fees and of the house registration in the notary’s office;
  • Representing the community in meetings with the City, universities, NGOs, the local Brazil Bar Association (OAB), etc.

Police Check

A police check describes a situation in which the police stop and frisk people. This action is based on a suspicion of the person or the situation in which the person could be involved. In theory, it requires the existence of evidence that justifies the police check. 

People should be aware:

  • The searched person is not obliged to possess personal documents. However, everyone has to identify themselves when asked by authorities, also answering questions about the identity of their parents and their birth date. Beyond that, nothing is mandatory: if you are stopped by police, you are not obliged to supply information about where you are from, where you are going, if you have criminal records, or if you know a certain person.
  • The police officer conducting a search cannot embarrass the citizen. For instance, it’s forbidden for a police officer to ask someone to remove their clothes in the street, to yell, to swear or to disrespect the suspect.

If a police officer does something illegal during a police check, the violation should be reported. To threaten or to beat someone up to obtain information is considered torture.

  • The police check of women must be done by female police officers.
  • During the police check, the police officer cannot touch a suspect’s genitalia. It is considered an abuse of authority. 

Advice for what to do during a police check:

  • Do not try to escape, do not resist the police officer.
  • Try to keep calm and be respectful.
  • Do not be aggressive in your replies; give the information required calmly. In the case you think some information is not useful for the search’s objective, respectfully decline to answer.
  • Do not make abrupt movements. They can be interpreted as an attempted escape or aggression.
  • Keep your hands visible.
  • Do no touch the police officer or resist him or her.
  • Do not scream or offend the police officer. Do not say that you will report him or her.
  • Identify yourself if required. If you do not possess some identifying documents inform the police officer about any personal number you know, such as your CPF number or ID.

If you refuse to identify yourself, the police officer can bring you to the police station to proceed with the identification process.

  • You hold the right to be accompanied at the police station by a known person (a family member or a friend). In this case, request the name of the destination police station.

You can only be brought to the police station for something you did or said.

  • Remember to take note of both the identification number of the police officer and the police car number. This information could be useful in case of abusive police behavior.
  • If there are witnesses to the police check, try to identify them and get their contact information.
  • If you are a victim of violence by the police officer during the police check, get a medical examination immediately and ask for a written and articulate description of bodily injury. Also remember to take a photo.

“The social exclusion affecting favela residents is a really complex condition,” summarized Rossino. “With this kind of course we hope to provide them the necessary information so as not to lose courage to change their life in a radical way.”