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Domestic violence: the woman who forced Brazil to change

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Ten years ago, Brazil passed landmark legislation combating domestic violence against women. Today, the woman for whom the legislation is named – Maria da Penha – says the revolution is unfinished.

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    Brazil's former President Dilma Rousseff (in red) poses with women's rights activist Maria da Penha during the launch of the "Woman: Living without Violence" program at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia March 13, 2013.
    Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters/File
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Ten years after Brazil enacted landmark legislation combating domestic violence, activists point to the work that remains to be done. The Maria da Penha law – named for a biopharmacist who fought for justice after domestic violence left her a paraplegic – was considered an extraordinary advance for a culture of machismo. It criminalized for the first time violent behavior by men and established services to protect the victims. In an interview, Ms. da Penha reflects on the ruling that forced Brazil to change and the challenges that remain.

​​CSM: What has the Maria da Penha law accomplished over the last 10 years?

Maria da Penha: Most importantly, women now have the courage to stand up and denounce their aggressors, 98 percent of the population know the law exists to protect women and it’s credited with causing a 10 percent drop in homicides of women at home.

Every major capital in Brazil has adopted and created policies supporting the law. We have special police stations for women that are responsible for investigating and using preventative and protective measures; refuge shelters; domestic violence courts with dedicated judges; restraining orders; a 24-hour helpline; and specialized health care and social centers for supporting victims.

In March 2015, a new "femicide" law criminalizing gender-based murders set tougher penalties and greater protection against those responsible for killing a woman for being a woman.

CSM: But domestic violence statistics in Brazil still show progress is slow. Why is that?

MdP: Brazil’s strong machismo culture still pervades our society. Many of those in power are males who do not genuinely support the law, so they take their time to discuss and create, and deliberately slow matters down.

We still don’t have public policies that compel politicians in medium and small cities to adopt the legislation. So, every year more than 1 million women are victims of domestic violence. And a woman is assaulted every five minutes – with one murdered every two hours.

CSM: What needs to be done for the law to become more effective?

MdP: Right now, the Institute of Maria da Penha, which I founded, is fighting for greater investment in schools and universities so our children learn to appreciate the law and respect the struggle behind it. We’re also working to reeducate attitudes in poorer communities to challenge the tolerance of violence with training sessions.

We need to strengthen the structures we already have in place. For example, in some cities, the police station for women closes at 5 p.m. and doesn’t open on a Sunday or bank holidays.

CSM: Have allegations about sexual assaults by US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had an impact in Brazil?

MdP: It has been a talking point, but it’s largely peripheral to the political and economic problems we’re facing right now. Even so, it’s been encouraging to see the condemnation and outrage against Mr. Trump’s [alleged] behavior. It’s useful for women here to see that in countries like the USA, these attitudes still exist, and that it’s right to challenge this type of conduct and for men to know it’s unacceptable.

CSM: Are role models important in reforming social mores, or does change come through a ground-up process? 

MdP: I’d say both, as domestic violence is democratic. It exists at all levels of society. Recently a former Brazilian international model, Luîza Brunet, bravely accused her husband of abusing her. It shocked many that a woman of her standing had been attacked. But her courage spurred others to expose their aggressors. Likewise, women in poor communities have stood against the acceptance of violence and helped to change the paths of others who have witnessed their example.

CSM: Your experience as a domestic violence survivor brought about ground-breaking change. How did that happen?  

MdP: My husband attempted to kill me twice in 1983 because I wanted a separation. He shot me in the back, leaving me paralyzed from the waist down then tried to electrocute me in the shower. My fight for justice took over 19 years for him to be arrested and jailed.

My case came to the attention of the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, after they read my book about my ordeal. The OAS accused the Brazilian government of negligence in relation to domestic violence and pressured it into introducing the law in 2006.

CSM: Has the change of government with the impeachment of your first female president caused you any concerns?

MdP: Under this new government, women’s rights have taken huge steps backward. The women’s ministry has been closed. This endangers our ability to monitor and pressure cities to continue promoting the law and creating policies supporting it.

I’m deeply concerned about the slowdown in certain initiatives, in particular the innovative Casa da Mulher Brasileira (House of Brazilian Women). We have opened three of these one-stop specialized service centers, offering integrated care and support for abused women. Our plan was to spread the project across the country. Now it’s on hold.

CSM: What are your hopes for the next 10 years?

MdP: I can only think about the immediate crisis women’s rights are facing. We need the government to change its mind about marginalizing us, and reinstate the women’s ministry with all its extensive powers.

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