Confronting femicide in Brazil
Tauane Morais, 23 years old, was stabbed to death on June 6 this year, murdered by an ex-husband who said he was “unhappy with their breakup.” The crime happened in Samambaia, a town in Brazil’s Federal District, about 18 miles away from the national capital of Brasília.
It was an act of violence that could have been avoided.
Only three days before her death, Ms. Morais had been assaulted by her husband, Vinícius Rodrigues de Sousa, 24 years old. In the presence of their children, who are 2 and 4 years old, he beat his wife and tried to strangle her. Neighbors heard the assault and called the police. Mr. Rodrigues was arrested. But only for one day.
The neighbors told the police that the couple quarreled often. Ms. Morais described the violence of her husband’s assaults to police, describing how during their fights, Mr. Rodrigues ripped curtains with a dagger and broke furniture, the family’s refrigerator and the television.
Despite this evidence of his rage, the judge, Aragonê Nunes Fernandes, did not think it was necessary to keep Mr. Rodrigues locked up, imposing only “protective measures” meant to limit his access to Ms. Morais. The measures were not sufficient. After killing his ex-wife, Mr. Rodrigues unsuccessfully attempted suicide. On Nov. 14, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Only three days before her death, Ms. Morais had been assaulted by her husband. In the presence of their children, he beat his wife and tried to strangle her.
Ms. Morais’s death is a notorious example of an everyday horror in Brazil and other Latin American states: the crime of femicide. According to the World Health Organization, femicide is generally understood to involve the intentional murder of women because they are women, but broader definitions include any killings of women or girls.
In 2017 at least 2,795 women were victims of femicide in 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. That is according to a survey conducted by the Gender Equality Observatory, an office of a United Nations economic commission that tracks homicides of women aged 15 and over.
“Femicide is the most extreme expression of violence against women,” said Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Putting a name to the violence and raising its “statistical visibility” are important steps, but neither “have been enough to eradicate this scourge that alarms and horrifies us every day,” she added.
The U.N. commission has called for authorities of the countries in the region to give higher priority to public policies aimed at “preventing, sanctioning and eradicating” all forms of violence against women.
Brazil leads the list in absolute terms, with 1,133 victims confirmed in 2017. However, El Salvador has a higher incidence per capita, reaching 10.2 femicides for every 100,000 women. (These statistics do not count abortions that may have been performed because the child is female, a common practice in some countries.) “In 2016, Honduras registered 5.8 femicides per 100,000 women. In Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia, high rates were also observed in 2017, equal to or greater than 2 cases per 100,000 women. Only Panama, Peru and Venezuela register rates lower than 1.0 in the region,” the observatory reports.
Many of these crimes can be described as “intimate femicides.” They are committed by people who are family members or very close to the victims. A Catholic journalist and expert in gender issues in Brazil, Karla Maria, told America that, sadly, the numbers do not surprise her.
In 2017 at least 2,795 women were victims of femicide in 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“It is terrifying and disturbing that women are hurt by people they love, whether they are their companions, parents or uncles,” she says.
Ms. Maria is the author of the book Mulheres extraordinárias (Extraordinary Women). She traveled Brazil to find stories of a variety of women, including many victims of violence.
As a Catholic, Ms. Maria says she believes that religion can play a role in protecting women. Any attack against the human body is an attack against Christ himself, she says.
“Understanding how sacred we are, because Christ lives in each one of us, can free women from this cycle of violence. My faith is one of the elements of my behavior; now, a secular state must at least ensure physical safety and create consciousness among women [to help them speak up].”
But it was also because of her religion that Amanda Barbosa Loiola says she tolerated being beaten by her husband for five years. “I came from a very Catholic family, so for me there were only two permanent choices: becoming a nun or getting married,” she says.
She explains that she “never had the courage” to reveal the violence in her marriage and denounce her husband’s behavior “because religion was still too strong for me. Just as the great female saints held out, I felt that I had to endure and fight for my marriage. I had to put up with all this.”
“It is terrifying and disturbing that women are hurt by people they love, whether they are their companions, parents or uncles.”
“I went to talk to a priest and he told me that, too,” she says. “He said, ‘My daughter, pray for your marriage.’ So I nurtured these feelings.”
Her nightmare started very early. Only three months after her wedding, her husband, who already demonstrated an aggressive temperament when they were dating, became violent. She was 21 years old.
“I was washing dishes. He told me that his sister wanted to come live with us and I said, no, that it would not work. He threw the remote control on my back and a vase of flowers on my head. This was the first aggression,” says Ms. Loiola. “He asked for forgiveness, said that he loved me and that it was not going to happen again. After two months, he became violent again.”
Now a social worker, she helps other women get out of similar situations. “Physical violence gains strength at each aggression. It starts with a push, a slap, a pinch, until things get more serious. And before the physical violence there is the psychological one: blackmail, humiliation, embarrassment, ridicule among friends, etc.”
After a few years, she found out that her husband lived a double life. He was having an affair, and only then she saw the need to break up. After a painful process that “felt like the Inquisition,” she managed to get an annulment of her marriage.
“The truth is that many of us women reproduce this kind of machismo: to think that violence is not a reason to end a relationship, but cheating may be. I broke up only after that. But it was very difficult because I had no support at all—neither from my family nor from people in my parish. None, none.”
She suffered depression and anxiety, and she attempted suicide three times. She kept her faith in spite of everything, but she never found the strength to file a complaint with police against her husband.
Ms. Loiola believes that many women who are trapped in abusive relationships may not know they are being victims of a crime because their social lives do not give them the tools they need to recognize the problem. “Although many women may even identify that they are suffering from an abusive relationship, they may not understand that such violence should be reported. They think that it’s part of a relationship, that every relationship is like this.”
But according to Ms. Maria, a cultural change is slowly taking place, and in particular, younger women in Latin America are feeling more encouraged to report violence in relationships. “It is like a wave…. We start to realize that our companions or relatives, the biggest aggressors according to the data, are not owners of our lives and our bodies,” she says.
In her view, Brazilian law is now quite strong when it comes to the protection of victims and punishment of aggressors. For example, in 2006 the country passed the groundbreaking Maria da Penha Law. Maria da Penha became a women’s rights activist after her husband almost killed her and left her a paraplegic in the 1980s. The law named after her establishes special courts and stricter sentences for offenders and intensifies punishment for domestic assaults.
But the day-to-day application of the law is still very weak, and many victims of domestic abuse remain too fearful to file a complaint.
“Brazil still does not guarantee the necessary mechanisms so that, in practice, women feel protected and safe from the moment of the denunciation [of their abusers],” Ms. Maria says. Since 1985 Brazil has maintained “delegacias da mulher,” women’s police units that are often staffed by women and focus on crimes committed against women to create a more welcoming environment for victims of gender-based crime. But Ms. Maria complains these specially trained units cannot be found “in all the municipal districts, and the ones that do exist do not work on weekends and holidays.”
It is not yet clear how seriously Brazil’s new federal government will treat violence against women. President-elect Jair Bolsonaro takes office on Jan. 1, and as part of his conservative agenda, he will have a female evangelical Protestant pastor in charge of the Ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights. Damares Alves says she was a victim of abuse in her childhood and strongly opposes both violence against women and abortion—two issues that are not typically connected by women’s organizations in Brazil.
This article has been updated.