Government, NGOs Uproot Culture of Domestic Violence in Brazil


Article Highlights

RECIFE, BRAZIL – Monica, 22, who requested her name be changed for safety reasons, lives in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, a state in northeastern Brazil. She got married at age 21, but says she recently divorced because her husband was verbally abusive and controlling after just a few months of marriage.

“Our marriage lasted six months, but it feels like it has been 10 times longer,” she says.

Monica says her ex-husband insulted her daily. The insults ranged from calling her “dirty” to an “idiot” and were triggered by any reason, however insignificant. She says he frequently accused her of doing things for him the wrong way and forced her to ask for his forgiveness, although she didn’t see any reason behind his complaints.

She says that one time he accused her of having an affair because she spent too long at the grocery store. From then on, he refused to let her leave the house. But she says the control didn’t end there.

“As if it was not enough, he used to order me to keep smiling, saying I did not have anything to be angry about and that I should not be ungrateful for everything that he did for me,” she says.

Monica says she soon realized she could not keep pretending she was happy in the marriage.

“It felt more like a prison,” she says.

When he threatened to kill her, she finally decided to leave him. With her family’s help, she left the house one day when her husband wasn’t home so that he wouldn’t stop her.

Since leaving him she says she has regained control of her life, thanks to the support of her family and the Public Ministry, the institution responsible for ensuring citizens’ rights and constitutional rules here. Police accompanied her when returning to her marital home to obtain her belongings, and the ministry assisted her in pressing charges against her ex-husband for the death threat.

Now she is a trainee at a local company and says she wants to go back to school.

But she says that the pain of this short yet intense period hasn’t been easy to overcome. She says she is undergoing psychological treatment and regularly visits the municipal assistance center for women who have been victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is prevalent in Brazil and manifests itself in many forms. Experts attribute the abuse to a deep-rooted culture of violence in which men are socialized to believe they can control women and women have little independence. A law has strengthened penalties for domestic violence in recent years, but experts say it’s not enough. The state government in Pernambuco has implemented other initiatives, while nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, seek to involve women, men and youth to curb domestic abuse.

Domestic violence incidences may have decreased slightly during the past decade – a Brazilian woman is battered about every 24 seconds now instead of every 15 seconds as in 2001 – but are still frequent, according to a 2010 report by the Perseu Abramo Foundation, a political think tank in Brazil. With the exception of sexual violence and harassment, in which strangers, employers and relatives, such as uncles and stepfathers, contributed as perpetrators, husbands and boyfriends were responsible for more than 80 percent of reported domestic violence cases.

Although less than 10 percent of men said they had hit a wife or girlfriend, 25 percent said they knew a close relative and nearly half said they knew a friend or acquaintance who had, according to the report. Although just one in five women said they had been victims of domestic violence, this number doubled when the women were made aware of the 20 different types of abuses that constitute violence.

Domestic violence is defined as any physical, sexual or psychological violence that occurs in the family, according to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the United Nations in 2003. It also includes the threats of such acts, coercion and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

“Amor Imperfeito,” or “Imperfect Love,” was the name of a segment in a news program in 2006 that presented stories of Brazilian women who suffered domestic violence. One of these women was Carmem Lúcia, who lived in permanent fear within the place that should be the safest of all: the home.

Constantly frightened by the threats and beatings of her husband, Lúcia lived a drama that unfortunately is not exclusive to the world of television. This drama is lived daily by thousands of Brazilian women suffering a range of forms of abuse. 

Anne Marrye de Deus, a psychologist who used to work for a reference center for women victims of violence in Olinda, a Pernambuco municipality, stresses the wide spectrum of violence.

“The violence took various shapes,” she says. “It could be physical, psychological, sexual, moral, patrimonial. But it was always permeated by pain – pain in the body and in the soul. The women we assisted brought with them the guilt, the fear and the shame of being victimized.”

She says this pain made it difficult for the victims to report the violence and seek help.

“They always felt very exposed in bringing to the public sphere the problems that they wanted to have solved within the walls of their homes,” she says.

Bystanders – including neighbors, the community and the government – have long considered domestic violence a private matter, according to the United Nations.

Victims and aggressors cited fidelity as the main reason for domestic violence against women in Brazil, according to the 2010 Perseu Abramo Foundation report. Other women said their partners didn’t receive their requests for autonomy well or had aggressive predispositions, usually triggered by alcoholism or drug addictions.

Although these factors might answer the question partially, others say the reasons behind domestic violence also have a much deeper and more complex dimension, tied into the country’s history and culture.

“There is a very expressive culture of violence against women in Brazil,” says Marilia Montenegro, a criminal law professor and domestic violence researcher. “The role of the woman has always been very domestic, very restricted to the privacy of households, strongly permeated by patriarchalism.”

Criminal prosecutor Sineide Maria de Barros says that most men here are socialized to believe that their will should be above the woman’s. She also says that many women still depend on their partners financially, which leads to feminine submission and a lack of self-esteem and, therefore, a higher tolerance of gender-based violence.

In 2006, the same year the “Imperfect Love” TV program aired, the Brazilian Parliament promulgated a law to address domestic violence more incisively. This law is popularly known as the Maria da Penha Law, a tribute to Maria da Penha, who has become a nationwide symbol for the fight against domestic violence.

Da Penha’s former husband tried to murder her twice because of jealousy. First, he tried to kill her with a gun. She survived, but was left paraplegic. Next, he tried to electrocute and drown her in a bathtub. She finally reported him to the police, but he wasn’t punished until 19 years later. After a long trial, he received just two years in prison.

Such disproportional punishment provoked serious inquiry among politicians and civil society regarding the appropriateness of the legal mechanisms available to combat domestic violence in Brazil. This inquiry led to the Maria da Penha Law.

The law defined domestic violence clearly for the first time in the country’s history and tripled the severity of sentences for offenders, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organization that promotes policies to improve economic and social well-being around the globe.

“The Maria da Penha Law established many changes, both in the definition of crimes and in judicial procedures,” de Deus says. “However, just like all changes, time and will are needed in order to deconstruct something old and rooted in society and to allow something new to take its place.”

Montenegro says the law has many positive aspects, such as the dispositions regarding public policy implementation and the creation of courts specifically for women.

But she says the law also has some debatable points, mainly in the area of criminal and procedural law.

“Criminal law, in general, creates a false expectation to society,” Montenegro says. “It sometimes works as a ‘makeup’ for certain situations that demand a much more comprehensive approach, including, for instance, economic and educational investments.”

De Barros takes a more critical position toward the law. She says that, despite the good intentions behind this relatively new piece of legislation, it has made it harder to punish the aggressors. She says that whereas around 4,000 complaints were filed annually in the region where she works before the law, this number decreased to around 2,000 complaints per year after the law.

She says this reduction is not because of a decrease in offenses. Rather, she says many women are now more afraid of denouncing their aggressors because they realize the punishment is much more severe. Therefore, for many reasons, such as lack of financial autonomy, love or fear of raising the children alone, women now denounce their partners only when it’s their last resort.

The state government and civil society here in Pernambuco are undertaking various other initiatives to complement the federal law.

Cristina Buarque, Pernambuco’s state secretary for women’s policies, leads various programs aimed at solving the gender-based violence problem – including domestic violence – in the state.

Buarque says that it’s necessary to face the issue from three main fronts of action: health, to treat the effects that violence has on women; law, to prevent violence against women by adopting repressive mechanisms; and education, to prevent the reproduction of the sexist mentality that leads to gender-based violence in future generations.

Various civil society organizations in Pernambuco also focus on women’s rights and reducing domestic violence, mainly through awareness-raising campaigns.

One such NGO, Curumim Group, promotes educational programs to enhance girls’ potential to participate actively in democratic spaces. Paula Viana, coordinator of the group, says that women’s political participation is key to promoting gender equality and eradicating domestic violence against women.

SOS Corpo, another Pernambuco NGO working against domestic violence, is a feminist organization that advocates for women’s rights and promotes research on gender equality.

The Papai Institute, on the other hand, aims to involve men in the construction of a society with more gender equality. This institute works off the perception that women alone can’t combat sexism, but that its end requires men’s help, too.

Italo Ribeiro, a university student, says youth are essential in this fight as well. Ribeiro leads React and Change, a youth organization that highlights the presence of gender-based violence in households and on dates. He says that young people are the main perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence so more youth involvement is needed to eradicate this problem in future generations.

De Deus says everyone has a role in building a just world that is safe for women.

“Each citizen has the duty to zeal for the commitment that all women have the right to a life free of violence,” de Deus says. “It is necessary that women and men join their efforts for a reorganization of the principles that structure society. This way, violence will not be anymore a resort for the maintenance of unequal power relations.”