Tackling Brazil's rape epidemic: activists see little hope in a country where a woman is raped 'every 11 minutes'

Special report: A gang-rape in Rio de Janeiro would have gone unreported but for video footage hitting social media. 

David Usborne
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Thursday 23 June 2016 18:42 BST
Marina, a rape victim in Rio, relies on a battery of pills to get through the day
Marina, a rape victim in Rio, relies on a battery of pills to get through the day

The young motorcycle taxi driver approaches the girl he has had his eye on. “It’s my birthday, what are you going to give me?” She shakes his hand and wishes him many happy returns. “I was hoping for more,” he says. “That’s all you’re going to get,” she replies.

A mundane exchange, perhaps, but this is Rio de Janeiro, a city where women, especially in poorer neighbourhoods, live in constant fear of violence at the hands of men, sexual and domestic. Marina - not her real name - was raped by the bike man in her own home soon after. It was December 2011; today she is still on four medications to get herself through the day.

“That was the worst thing, when I realised I was like an origami paper,” Marina, who was 21 at the time, explained tearfully to The Independent sitting one recent night in a Rio park, the lit circles of the coming Olympic Games illuminating the pitted surface of a nearby sandpit.

“I didn’t have the power to get out from under him. That was the worst feeling. I felt like garbage because I had always thought I’d have the physical strength to defend myself and I didn’t. I begged him but he did it anyway. Then he got up smiling, saying, ‘I’m going to be a daddy’.”

Marina, who now teachers in primary school in a Rio slum, or favela, did not conceive. With a friend’s help, she summoned the courage to file a report with the local police (though the man was never arrested and even today shows up outside her home). She also was able to contact a women’s support organization - the Movimento de Mulheres (Women's Movement) - which got her into therapy.

She is one of the lucky ones. A study by the Brasilia-based Institute for Applied Economic Research drawing on data from 2013 says a woman in Brazil is raped every 11 minutes, though the number is likely to be higher, its authors admitted, because so few of them report the crimes. The reason is fear - fear that they will suffer reprisals, that the ‘macho’ police will have no interest in pursuing their cases or that they will be exposed to further humiliation by being labeled the guilty party for somehow egging their attackers on.

The same report, published last month, said one in every 200 Brazilian women have been the victims of some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

It is an epidemic that was mostly being ignored - or accepted as simply normal - until last month when the gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl in the same Rio shantytown where Marina works grabbed the attention of the whole world. It too would have gone unreported, but for video footage of the mass assault surfacing on social media and instantly going viral.

The girl, who remains anonymous, told police she had been drugged and violated by no fewer than 33 men. “They robbed me. They robbed me but not of any material property but of physical property,” she said of the 21 May attack. The police chief put in charge of the case, Alessandro Thiers, was removed after publicly suggesting the incident may have been consensual.

“She was the victim of sexual abuse, and she's being victimised and judged here,“ Cristiana Bento, who took over the probe, said at a later press conference. ”This girl should be looked after.” Eventually, seven men were charged in the case, including one boy. Ms Bento said the victim may have dreamed the number of 33 because of the trauma she suffered.

Gang-rape it was, however, and advocates of women’s rights and some political leaders see some silver lining, at least, in the public debate about sexual violence it provoked.

“Now it’s something that society is discussing,” Eduardo Paes, the Mayor of Rio De Janeiro, told The Independent in an interview earlier this month. “It’s good that it came out, because most of the cases are kind of hidden, people don’t talk about it. Now there’s a discussion on the streets.”

Certainly, it has galvanised Marina to speak out even though she fears she may be hurt for it. “I was outraged,” she said of the day the gang-rape hit the news. “I remembered everything I went through, all the pain, all the lack off support, all the feeling of guilt, the feeling of being filthy and of being the worst human being. I was utterly outraged, I knew I had to do something about it.”

Part of what she is fighting, however, is a culture of male dominance in Brazil that will not be easily broken. “The prejudice against women in our country is social entrenched ,” she offered. “You see parents teaching boys to go get the girls, as many as they can. And the girls are raised to serve - to clean the house, raise the children, make the food and then serve sexually”.

The legal landscape for women’s rights has been improving. Before she was suspended from office to face impeachment charges, President Dilma Rousseff oversaw the revamping of the penal code to include femicide - in Brazil a woman is murdered every two hours - and the introduction of longer sentences for a variety of violent crimes committed against women.

Yet Marisa Chaves de Souza, the director the Movimento de Mulheres, where she has worked to help women victims of violence in Rio’s favelas for 27 years, believes all that progress risks being reversed, thanks in part to the ouster of Ms Rousseff and the early decisions taken by the interim President, Michel Temer, 75, including the shuttering of the Women’s Ministry in Brasilia.

“It’s a huge setback,” she said, showing off a newly opened facility for women who have suffered violence on the campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. With the vanishing of the ministry so also will disappear federal funding for women’s programmes, already threatened by Brazil’s deepening economic crisis. “It’s a set-back too because it creates new space for those conservative voices in Brazil who believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” She added: “We have a culture of patriarchy that is reproduced generation after generation.”

Not helping in this respect is the regressive messaging she sees from the Temer administration. Upon taking the place of Ms Rousseff last month he announced the formation of an all-male, all-white cabinet. There was general dismay among women’s rights groups meanwhile when a Brazilian magazine published a profile of Mr Temer’s 32-year-old wife who has her husband’s name tattooed on her neck, under the headline, ‘Marcela Temer: Beautiful, demure housewife’.

The wife of interim President Michel Temer has his name tattooed on her neck

Most telling is what’s happening to the Movimento de Mulheres, her organisation in the favelas that Marina says literally saved her life. Because of dwindling financial support both from private corporations and government it is on its last legs after nearly three decades of operation. Since September, Ms Chaves reports, it has cut its professional workforce from 104 people to just nine today. Unless she finds money from somewhere else it will close entirely in two months.

The irony escapes no one: that at precisely the moment the full extent of the epidemic of violence being committed against women is at last coming into full public view so the infrastructure that has so painstakingly been built over the past several years to tackle it is falling apart. “We face losing everything we fought so hard achieve,” Ms Chaves lamented.

In her own life, Marina believes she has made progress, thanks in part to the assortment of pills in the biscuit tin she takes everywhere in her knapsack. One is a hormone supplement to help with “pre-menstrual tensions,” she explained, before fiddling with the other packets in the box. “This is for when I start shaking, this is an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety, and this is for calming myself down”. She has had one relationship since her rape; it lasted two weeks.

As for whether Brazil might finally, in the wake of Rio de Janeiro’s gang-rape scandal, begin to reduce crime against women and offer victims better access to help and justice, she admitted to having deep doubts. “I think it’s just too hard. The speech they give is a very beautiful one, but in practice the government doesn’t fight for real change.”

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