Written exclusively for Brasil Wire by Marie Declercq.
The experience of being a woman in Brasil often seems to be limited to a part in the cliche that it is the country of beautiful beaches, football and women. Although this is often used as a form of praise, it also restricts woman’s role to the condition of an exotic natural resource available for anyone to exploit.
This cliche is not only used by the foreigners who travel to my country. It has also been promoted for decades by the Brazilian government, especially by its tourism departments. One example of this disastrous image construction is the troubling video of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger spending carnaval in Rio, more interested in passing his hand on the rear ends of black women and sticking carrots in models’ mouths under the pretext of trying to learn Portuguese than visiting Rio’s beaches. It is sexual tourism in its worst form, disguised as a party with caipirinhas and naturalised as something acceptable in Brasil.
The perception of the Brazilian woman as sex object was born during the Catholic-Portuguese colonisation, pioneer on the continent. The traditional in-law based Brazilian political alliances during São Paulo’s colonisation produced, through polygamy, a patriarchal, mestizo population. In the areas where Africans were trafficked for sugar production (and afterward, mining), the custom was to bring one black girl to serve as a “lover” for the slave driver for every 4 or 5 male slaves that were worked to death on the plantations. The fetish for the “mulata” says a lot about the results and objectification inherent in this process. This “race” that was born through white mens’ sexual violence against black slaves takes its name from the world mula, or mule – a term used to describe the hybrid result of breeding a horse with a donkey.
500 years have passed but there is still a lot that needs to be changed regarding the role of women in Brazilian society – especially since most of the significant changes only started during the past 25 years. Catholic by nature, Brasil prohibited divorce until the late 1970s and abortion is still widely prohibited with only a few exceptions allowed in extreme cases. It was still possible for a man to beat a murder rap for killing an adulterous woman by alleging “defence of honour” until the 1970s.
One thing we can say about violence against women is that it managed to structure itself in the most democratic manner possible. It does not discriminate against colour, belief, sexual condition or orientation – violence will manifest itself one way or another in the life of the average woman. We can see this in the street heckling, the jealous murders and in the refusal of parents to talk about the right to abortion with their children.
The recent news that Ireland approved gay marriage but still prohibits women from aborting a fetus reminds me of the way that Brazilian society and law controls women’s bodies and decisions. While advanced countries move forward more and more with dialogue on the possibility of legalising drugs, we are still very far from having a healthy conversation about abortion in a place where many women among us have interrupted their pregnancies in clandestine situations.
95% of the abortions performed in Latin America are insecure. This is almost the opposite of the European Union, where 90% of the abortions are performed legally. An estimated 1 million Brazilian women have had clandestine abortions. This is obviously a public health problem because it is also the 5th largest cause of maternal deaths. The statistics are imprecise because abortion is a crime. The only time a woman can abort legally is in case of rape, encephalitis or risk to death of the mother. In these cases our public health system performs abortions for free.
There is hope that the recent legalisation of abortion in our majority Catholic neighbour Uruguay can establish a precedent for discussion in Brasil. For now, however, there are still local politicians who argue over the validity of situations that should lead to legal abortions.
Legal abortions are permitted in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape but the fundamentalist Christian congressional caucus (composed mainly of men) is trying to pass the so-called Birth Statute, a bill that aims to protect the fetus from conception forwards. If passed, this law will prohibit abortion in sexual violence cases and require rapists to assume paternity and pay a monthly pension to the victims.
The indifference towards rape in Brasil is exemplified by the popular saying “rape but don’t kill” (attributed to Paulo Maluf, the notorious former São Paulo mayor and politician known for his corruption crimes). It illustrates the way society treats sexual violence as something that only happens in dark alleys caused by anonymous men, ignoring the fact that the majority of rapes in Brasil are practiced by people within the victims’ social circles. I believe it is easier for people to accept rape as a crime that happens in the dark of the night on a deserted street where a woman walks alone and is attacked by a stranger. It is more comfortable to accept the idea that providing better lighting on public streets or advising women not to walk alone will solve the rape problem. It’s hard for them to believe that 70% of the rapes are committed by people within the victims’ social circles and that the number of rapes in 2012 was higher than the number of homicides.
The disdain with which male politicians treat sexual crimes is merely a reflection of a culture of tolerance that pretends that rape isn’t society’s responsibility. According to an IPEA study on rape, 58.5% of Brazilians believe that if women knew how to behave, there wouldn’t be any rapes.
As part of a Brazilian penal code reform in 2009 rape stopped being categorised as a crime “against customs”, a term that summarised a woman’s bodies as a juridic good owned by the parents or husband. At this point it became legally considered a “crime against sexual freedom”. The legal text also stopped considering rape exclusively as a penis penetrating a vagina and began to encompass all types of non-consensual libidinous acts. Before 2009 if a woman was forced to perform oral or anal sex the rapist received a sentence for lesser crimes. Today he is judged as a rapist.
The State has implemented some policies for women’s protection, mainly starting with the return to democracy. The constant pressure from the feminist movement against the military dictatorship’s use of sexual crimes as torture weapons resulted in the first women’s police station in São Paulo, where female police and civil servants respond to gender related crimes. Today there are 393 womens’ police stations, although this only represents 7% of the 5000 Brasilian counties. The Maria da Penha Law, passed during president Lula’s first term in 2006, is considered to be one of the best laws of its kind for protection against domestic violence.
The Maria da Penha law is named after a woman who was continually beaten by her husband until he shot and paralyzed her. It has proven to be very effective for transforming domestic violence into something that is truly capable of being punished. Before it was passed marital fights were treated as family problems. In 2013, the Patricia Galvão Agency showed that the 98% of the public now understands the law. This shows a concrete advance over the old social perception that nobody should get involved in a fight between husband and wife.
Another type of crime that constantly appears in the Brazilian media is the murder of women and girls out of jealousy or other gender-related factors. According to IPEA around 50,000 women were murdered between 2001 and 2011. The same study shows that 40% of the perpetrators were boyfriends or husbands.
In an attempt to address this problem after a series of protests by feminists, President Dilma Rousseff approved the Femicide Law in 2014 which finally provides for additional punishment in cases of gender-related homicide. This, together with the Maria da Penha Law, represents a progressive move forward on the legal front, but unfortunately not much has advanced in social terms.
I spoke with a lawyer recently who told me about the typical way the military police act in cases of violence against women. Her client was a 59 year old working class woman. After receiving death threats and a serious attempt at strangling she got a restraining order against her ex-husband who was angry about their divorce. Even though the courts favoured the woman the ex-husband returned to his former house and tried to break through the door to attack her. When the police arrived they didn’t do anything except calm him down and send him home. The lawyer angrily told me that establishing so many legal mechanisms for womens’ protection doesn’t help at all if the police and members of society don’t do a thing when confronted with these situations.
The many small victories, laws and state mechanisms against gender related violence are the result of constant pressure by the Brazilian feminist movement. While the number of women holding public office is still low, female empowerment is visibly growing due to the establishment of policies like public preschools, womens’ police stations, governmental financial assistance (especially through the Bolsa Familia program) and support centers for vulnerable women.
I would like to believe that Brasil is a country of opportunity and growth but I don’t see this going forward much until the day when women are finally considered legitimate citizens.
As Brazilian feminist Rose Marie Muraro said, “as long as the female half of society doesn’t develop, nothing does“.