On May 21st, 2016, a 16 year-old girl visited her boyfriend at his home on the Morro do Barão, one of the many favelas, or slums, that surrounds Rio de Janeiro. She awoke in a different place, to the sight of more than 30 men, brandishing weapons, smiling, and raping her. A short video and a series of photographs were soon posted on Twitter by one of the attackers, demonstrating the mutilated, unconscious body of the victim.
“This is the famous slut from Barão”, one man proclaims.
His buddy adds, “over 30 guys have made her pregnant.”
The video became viral, and prompted hundreds of thousands of Brazilians to flood the streets in protest. The hashtag #EstuproNuncaMais, or #RapeNeverMore, circulated through social media. The organization Rio de Paz established a temporary exhibit titled “I will never be silent” on Copacabana Beach, where pictures of female faces with bloody handprints across their mouths were mounted on the sand. 420 pairs of underwear were carefully placed around the massive photographs to represent the average number of rapes that occur every three days in Brazil.
The vicious sexual assault of a 16 year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro this past May does not represent an extreme and unfortunate aberration. The case exposed facts already known for most women in Brazil: abuse is a daily occurrence, and misogyny permeates every facet of life.
Misogyny and Politics
In 1964, leftist leader João Goulart was overthrown, and a military regime was established in Brazil. From 1964 to 1985, the country was ruled by a series of generals, and repressive tactics—including the use of media censorship—were implemented to silence public dissent. Elections existed, but their results were heavily manipulated by the regime.
James Green, a Latin American history professor at Brown, attributes the prevalence of misogyny to the “notion of impunity,” a remnant of a long legacy of military autocracy. The regime, he told the HPR, perpetrated acts of violence, such as state-sanctioned assassinations and kidnappings, freely and without fear of repercussion. For the 21 years that Brazil was under military rule, acts of violence became normalized and a hierarchical system of power was established.
Moreover, Green stressed that for centuries, a culture of honor dominated Brazil. If men believed their wives were unfaithful, they had the right to kill them in order to protect their honor. This culture of honor entrenched the attitude that women are dispensable.
Brazil has been rife with political and economic turmoil of late. Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, was embroiled in an extensive scandal when it was discovered it had accepted billions in bribes from construction companies in exchange for lucrative contracts. The country’s economy has rapidly deteriorated as inflation has risen, employment has decreased, and GDP has contracted. Former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached for fiscal irresponsibility—or manipulating the budget—although she claimed her dismissal from office was part of a coup.
Rousseff also blamed her impeachment on Brazil’s misogynistic culture. When asked by the HPR about the validity of that argument, Carla Vitória of Sempreviva Organização Feminista, a Brazilian organization dedicated to raising awareness around issues of violence against women, affirmed that certainly there were discriminatory factors that led to the former president’s removal from office.
Vitória commented that from the beginning of Rousseff’s first term, she was constantly criticized on her appearance and age. Rousseff’s outspoken role as a leader also represented an “affront” to the extremely conservative and evangelical forces that have steadily gained control in Brazilian politics, increasing their representation in Parliament by 14 percent in 2014.
At the same time, the media lauded Marcela Temer, the wife of current president Michel Temer, as a beautiful and maidenlike homemaker. In a now notorious article by Veja, a popular Brazilian magazine, Marcela, who is 43 years younger than President Temer, was called a lucky woman for snagging her fantastic husband. Vitória maintains that such media reports are reflective of a society that emphasizes a binary standard of beauty and a singular role of women as housewives. She stated, “Marcela is portrayed by the media as Michel Temer’s pendant, and not as a person that can exercise a life in politics.”
Unsurprisingly, President Temer endorses the view that women and politics are incompatible. After becoming acting president in May, Temer appointed an all-male cabinet, which has not existed in Brazil since 1974. In response to public backlash, Eliseu Padilha, Temer’s chief of staff, stated, “We tried to look for women, but it wasn’t possible.” Moreover, he decreased the number of ministries from 34 to 22, abolishing the country’s Ministry of Women in the process. Without an office to represent the rights of Brazilian women, many of the policies and programs created for their advancement and protection could be neglected or even reversed.
The Banality of Rape
Data from the United Nations shows that a woman is a victim of sexual assault every 15 seconds in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. However, the actual rate may be even higher. Rape remains grossly underreported, and nearly all of the country’s states, except Rio de Janeiro, lack a standardized and accurate database on instances of violence against women.
A recent study by the Institute for Applied Economic Research was the first of its kind to demonstrate the prevailing attitudes toward domestic and sexual assault in Brazil. The study reported that 26 percent of Brazilian citizens believe that women who dress in revealing clothing deserve to be raped. Furthermore, 58.5 percent of those surveyed thought that there would be fewer instances of sexual assault if women behaved “properly.” 81.9 percent agreed that cases of domestic and sexual assault should be resolved within the home. Most shocking of all, 65 percent of those surveyed were Brazilian women.
The results of the study garnered considerable media attention and women across the country began using the hashtag #NãoMereçoSerEstrupada, or #IDoNotDeserveToBeRaped. A culture that blames victims for the violence they suffered naturalizes sexual assault and places absolutely no burden on Brazilian society to mitigate the issue through education, policy, and criminalization.
However, one form of sexual assault has been historically downplayed: street harassment. Catcalling; wolf whistling. Regardless of how innocent the language to describe the objectification of women seems, street harassment is undoubtedly hazardous. It blatantly treats peoples as objects whose sole function is to indulge the male gaze. Juliana de Faria, a resident of São Paulo, assumed the hefty goal of mapping street harassment in Brazil. She created the website Chega de Fiu Fiu, or Enough with the Catcalls, as a community by and for Brazilian women to document instances in which they were harassed in public. By scrolling to a neighborhood, one can find an appalling number of accounts of vile suggestions, impudent touching, and horrifying ambushes. Having a visual, geographic display of occurrences of sexual assault certainly affirms the reality and the large scope of the issue.
Marina, 26, is a native of Rio de Janeiro. She recalled feeling like “an origami paper” after she was mercilessly attacked by a local bike man five years ago. After the police report she filed did not result in an arrest, Marina sought support from one of the various women’s organizations operating in the city. For her, the issue was straightforward: boys are taught to be dominant; girls are supposed to be submissive. Marina asserted, “the prejudice against women in [Brazil] is social entrenched. 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.” Educating children to follow the binary roles assigned to their genders propagates a chauvinistic culture that fails to recognize the rights of women to feel safe, valued, and equal.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
There are 475 “women’s police stations” across Brazil. These stations are devoted solely to handling complaints of domestic and sexual assault, and female staffers are specifically trained to deal with such cases. Yet, when asked about the effectiveness of these special police units, Green stated that many of the staffers tend to identify more with the state than the victims; the practice of victim-blaming remains pervasive even in these supposedly safe spaces. Vitória also raised doubt on their ability to handle cases of violence. For example, women’s police stations only function from nine to five, even though it is recognized that most instances of domestic and sexual assault occur at night.
Sinara Gumieri, a researcher at ANIS, a prominent Brazilian institute of bioethics, human rights, and gender, expressed a skepticism of the criminal justice system’s ability to protect women against violence in an interview with the HPR. She called attention to a recent series of studies called Mapa da Violência (Map of Violence), which concluded that Brazil ranks fifth among countries with the highest number of violent deaths of women.
Certain policies of the last decade have seemed like promising steps toward reversing this trend . The Maria da Penha Law was passed in 2006 with the intent of increasing punishment for those that commit acts of domestic or sexual assault against women, creating special courts to hear these cases, and allocating greater funding for resources for victims of violence, such as shelters.
Although Gumieri recognizes the potential of the Maria da Penha Law, she also highlighted that the legislation has faced considerable challenges. She claimed that there is a “large regional inequality in the resources needed to implement the law successfully.” Brazil’s federal district, a region of approximately 3 million citizens in a country of over 200 million, contains more than 30 percent of the country’s domestic violence courts. In most states, the only special court is the in capital, inhibiting women that live far away to seek justice in these specialized institutions.
Most recently, in March of 2015, former president Dilma Rousseff signed a law criminalizing femicide, or the killing of women on the basis of their gender. The United Nations commended the legislation, which would place severe punishment on those convicted of gender-motivated violence.
Ironically, the supposedly revolutionary femicide law was passed a year before a short video documenting the rape of a 16 year-old girl would be posted on Twitter. By that night, that video had gone viral. By the next day, thousands of Brazilian citizens poured into the streets, chants and signs at the ready. Contrary to what many may think, that video did not set a country aflame, but rather exposed a fire that had been burning for years.
Image Source: Wikimedia/tetraktys