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Brazil: searching for a violence-free life

Meeting women's rights activists in Salvador, Brazil, Jane Gabriel finds there can be no talk of empowerment without first tackling endemic violence.

Jane Gabriel
24 June 2008
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In the twenty years since the Brazilian Constitution established for the first time that women and men are equal before the law, there have been a number of legislative changes in support of women's rights and removal of references to "virgin" and "honest" women from the Penal Code. Against this backdrop, a team at the Nucleus for Interdisciplinary Women's Studies (NEIM) at the Federal University of Bahia, in Salvador, is running two research projects examining the issue of women's empowerment.  ‘Changing Times Changing Lives' is based on the experiences of three generations of women in a suburb of Salvador and the ‘Maria da Penha Observatory' is working with the local women's police station to monitor the impact of radical domestic violence legislation passed in 2006. In spite of the progress on paper, the research team are finding that it's impossible to talk about empowerment without addressing the violence that is affecting them all.

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Jane Gabriel has been in Salvador with the team, led by Cecilia Sardenberg.

On August 7th 2006, the Brazilian National Congress unanimously passed the Maria da Penha Law classifying violence against women as a human rights violation and ending impunity for men. The law is named after Maria da Penha, who was first electrocuted and then shot five times by her husband. Now paralyzed, she fought her case for twenty years. Nilcea Freire, Minister of the Special Secretariat for Women's Policies, greeted the new law with the declaration that "Every woman has the right to a violence-free life. This is our wish and must become our commitment".

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Until 2006, violence against women was classed as a minor crime with a small fine as the penalty. The new law provides unprecedented measures to protect women in violent situations. It is now possible to arrest an aggressor either in the act of violence or preventively, pecuniary sentences have been abolished, jail time increased and women are offered protection through the use of restraining orders. Special courts of domestic and family violence against women are slowly being established. 

Public opinion in Brazil appears to support the new law, with 82% of Brazilians saying that "no situation justifies aggression by a man towards a woman" and 86% saying that a "woman should not put up with it". But the gulf between public opinion and the level of violence against women remains, and the World Bank estimates that one fifth of all days taken off work by women in Brazil are as a result of domestic violence.  

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Women's police stations Delegacias da Mulher dealing with violence against women, were set up in Brazil in 1985 and the day after the first one opened in Sao Paulo more than 500 women queued to get in. With the Maria da Penha law now in force, the stations have become the single most important means by which violence against women is being criminalized. Word is beginning to spread and in Salvador it's not just women who are coming in to the station in increasing numbers, men too have been arriving and according to the NEIM team they've been asking whether it's true that it is now illegal to beat their wives and, if so "how are they supposed to manage their marriages now ?"    

Images: 1) Florentina Maria dos Santos, 2) Debora da Silva Oliveira, 3) Nadja Pinheiro and Fernanda Capibaribe

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