In the first days of the coronavirus outbreak, anonymous notices were left in the lifts of residential buildings in Brazil, offering help and shelter to women who were entering lockdown with their abusers. Some also included warnings targeting abusers. “You can’t hide behind COVID-19! We are watching and we will call the police,” said one such message.
In Rio de Janeiro’s most deprived neighbourhoods, grassroots activists are also using WhatsApp to spread vital information about the pandemic’s evolution and about hygiene measures to avoid infection. Via text messages, voice memos, catchy memes and infographics, they’re sharing tips on how to access financial aid – and how to get help in case of domestic abuse.
“As children we learn to help each other, to be community-minded, understanding that the survival of another woman is our own survival,” says Aline Maia Nascimento from the Observatório de Favelas, the grassroots group in Rio de Janeiro coordinating these WhatsApp messages.
Brazil is now the COVID-19 epicentre in South America, and while no one was prepared for the pandemic, their years of activism helped them spring into action. Nascimento told us that their campaign is “turning out to be successful, with many women contacting us for help even from areas we hadn’t targeted directly, which shows our information is being shared widely”. But these activists are also feeling the weight on their shoulders.
“Right now, we are taking palliative action because the state is not showing up,” says Nascimento. Since Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government took power after closely contested 2018 elections, critical social policies have been undermined and budgets to respond to violence against women have been cut. Activists are doing the work of failed or dismantled institutions.
"We understand that the survival of another woman is our own survival"
Along with public information campaigns, grassroots groups are also distributing food and other basic items to households without incomes during the pandemic. Helena Silvestre, an activist with the Escola Feminista Abya Yala, an umbrella organisation for black women in São Paulo, describes how during such food deliveries they’ve also identified women at risk of abuse.
“We find all kinds of situations: women who need help themselves or who know of other women in danger. Through this first contact and the bond we establish, we can tailor our response,” Silvestre says, explaining that this can include simple agreements to stay in touch for moral support, or the creation of code words that women can use if they are threatened and need help.
Code words can help women reach out to activists even if their mobile phones are being monitored by their abusers. Thanks to these tactics, Silvestre said her group recently helped a woman and her young son to leave a situation of domestic abuse. Through their network, they quickly found a family willing to shelter them and also collected donations of food and a bed.
“For some women, knowing they can contact someone is already a great relief, while others need more specialised psychological support,” Silvestre says. This is why her organisation has also mobilised a number of volunteer psychologists who are using various online platforms to connect with the women most in need and help them through the days of lockdown.
A black woman and an activist herself since the age of thirteen, with many struggles under her belt, Silvestre admits to feeling particularly challenged by the COVID-19 crisis and what is yet to come. What gives her hope, is “to see so many women, often vulnerable themselves, working to help others”.
A global ‘shadow pandemic’
Internationally, violence against women and girls is rising as the coronavirus pandemic has forced unprecedented numbers of people into lockdown. Helplines across the world have logged record numbers of calls and the United Nations has warned of a growing “shadow pandemic”, urging governments to do more to protect women during the crisis.
Since lockdown restrictions were imposed by some state and municipal authorities across Brazil in mid-March, judges who specialise in gender-based violence estimate that such cases have doubled. But women’s rights activists believe these alarming figures are only a fraction of the actual number, given the numerous obstacles facing women who need help.
“Many cannot make phone calls, leave their homes or take public transport to reach a help centre, simply because they don’t have the money,” says Nascimento, at the Observatorio de Favelas group in Rio de Janeiro. “And this is especially true for women living in the favelas, who mostly happen to be lack and who rely on small daily wages that they no longer have.”
Coronavirus infections are spreading quickly in Brazil’s favelas. Around 13 million people live in these overcrowded shanty towns, with poor sanitation and limited access to government social services, including law and order. “As racialised places, the favelas are stigmatised as violent and insecure,” Nascimento says, denouncing the lack of state support for women at risk.
Before the pandemic, police stayed away from these neighbourhoods except to undertake violent incursions, which, Nascimento says, have scared women and deterred them from seeking government help when they are assaulted. “The current pandemic is shedding light on a chronic crisis that already existed,” she says, echoing similar warnings from rights activists worldwide.
Even in ‘normal’ times, Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world for women. And in 2018 alone, almost 70% of the women killed in the country were black, according to state data. Nascimento blames structural racism and gendered racial stereotypes for exacerbating such violence, along with poverty and discrimination that also disproportionately impact black women.
"COVID-19 is shedding light on a chronic crisis that already existed"
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President Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic is also causing a political storm in Brazil. He has been accused of spreading misleading information about the virus; sabotaging preparedness efforts; and relaxing lockdown measures too early, even as the death toll is growing.
Pushing back on women’s rights has been a hallmark of Bolsonaro’s presidency, and he has also exploited the current emergency to boost his anti-gender and sexist rhetoric. To convince Brazilians to go back to work, he has made statements such as: "Women are being beaten at home. Why? In a house that lacks bread, everyone fights, and nobody is right."
Women’s rights activists worry that such inflammatory rhetoric, which is familiar in a deeply patriarchal and racist society, not only normalises the spike of violence against women, but put Brazil’s women at even greater risk.
To counter this, Odara – Instituto da Mulher Negra, a grassroots group in Salvador, capital of Brazil’s north-eastern Bahia state, is doubling down on efforts to shift sexist perspectives. Valdecir Nascimento [no relation] from Odara says: “We need to target men with bold messages and urge them to act in solidarity with women, which above all means treating them with respect.”
Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the world’s post-coronavirus future, this much is clear: this crisis is already deepening pre-existing inequalities, and women – in Brazil and across the world – are bearing much of the brunt.
Ahead of the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro to power, 2.5 million women mobilised online in only a few days to campaign against him. The coronavirus outbreak has also triggered an immediate response from activists aware of the risks of isolation measures to people facing domestic violence.
Grassroots responses have been rapid, and creative. But for how long can women’s protection hinge on the strength and power of women themselves?
Aline Maia Nascimento in Rio de Janeiro insists that, ultimately, “to address the chronic and deep-rooted problems that black women face, bold action will be needed, not only from civil society but also from the state.”