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Brazil: Domestic violence continues despite law
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

The following article is written by Maryknoll lay misisoner Joanne Blaney, who has lived and worked in Brazil for many years.

In August 2006, Brazil passed Federal Law 11340, known as the Maria da Penha law, to deal with domestic violence. Until that time, domestic violence was handled as a “minor offense” in Brazil. A 2005 World Health Organization study indicated that violence against women is accepted as “normal” in Brazil.

Maria da Penha Fernandes, a bio-pharmacist, suffered years of violence perpetrated by her husband, university professor Marco Antonio Viveiros. On May 29, 1983, Viveiros shot his wife while she was sleeping and, as a result of the attack, Maria da Penha, then 38 and mother of three children, sustained serious injuries including permanent paraplegia. Two weeks after she returned from the hospital, Viveiros attempted to kill Maria by electrocution.

The state of Ceará’s public prosecutor filed charges against Viveiros; eight years later, he was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years in prison. He appealed the sentence, and despite being condemned twice in a jury trial, he was free for 18 years.

In 2001, the case was heard by the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the first time the OAS accepted a case in which domestic violence is treated as a crime. The Commission determined that the “failure to prosecute and convict the perpetrator ... is an indication that the Brazilian state condones the violence suffered by Maria de Penha ...”

This ruling recognized Brazil’s responsibility under international law to take effective action in prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of domestic violence. The Commission said that government inaction in these cases creates a climate conducive to violence and indicated Brazil’s accountability in its role in perpetuating violence against women by allowing batterers to act with impunity.

The Maria da Penha Law of Domestic and Family Violence was signed into law in August 2006. It is the first official codification of domestic violence crimes in Brazil and provides for more rigorous punishments for those convicted of such crimes. It also creates special courts in all states to preside over these cases. The law recognizes specific forms of domestic violence: physical, psychological, sexual, patrimonial, and moral. The law increases the maximum sentence from one to three years, and also provides for treatment centers for abusers and other measures ranging from removing the abuser from the home, to banning them from the proximity of the women and children attacked.

In evaluating the new law, Rep. Sandra Rosado, coordinator of the Women’s Group of the Federal Congress, states that “advances have been made in the struggle to combat violence against women with this new law. The challenge is to implement the law in all Brazilian states.” A study by the São Paulo Catholic University in 2008 indicated that only two percent of criminal complaints for domestic violence against women lead to conviction of the aggressor. UN Special Rapporteur Leandro Despouy noted a tendency to blame the victims of these offenses. According to government statistics and NGO workers, the majority of criminal complaints regarding domestic violence were suspended inconclusively. In the first six months of 2008, 300 women were killed in domestic disputes and 24,000 denouncements of physical abuse and torture were registered.

In practice, domestic violence continues to be tolerated and treated as a “private matter.” Data collected in 2007 by the Special Secretariat for Policies on Women indicates that a woman is beaten every 15 seconds in Brazil. According to the latest research (2008) of the Perseu Abramo Foundation, 43 percent of Brazilian women suffer from domestic violence and 70 percent of the aggressors in these cases are husbands, boyfriends or ex-partners of the victims. “Home” continues to be the most dangerous place for women in Brazil.

There is still resistance in implementation of the law, according to the National Council of Justice’s study released in March 2009. Monica de Mello, a lawyer and public prosecutor, states that “[p]art of this resistance is the difficulty that is still present in our society to recognize that violence against women needs to be a priority. This law demands a cultural and educational change and a rupture of the discriminatory model against women that permeates the justice system. To do this, it is necessary to have financial investment and training of professionals at every level (police stations, justice, health and educational systems).”

According to Fatima da Silva, a lawyer who has worked with victims of domestic violence for the past 12 years and participates in the municipal and state forums against violence, domestic violence has worsened in the past three years. A national study by the Brazilian Institute for Research and Estatistics (IBOPE) in February 2009 confirms her statement. Da Silva’s experience reflects what many others working with victims of domestic violence indicate as current problems: general misinformation about the law in the police stations that deal with domestic violence, resistance by the state and judiciary to create the special courts for domestic violence issues, lack of treatment centers for the aggressors and violence prevention education programs. According to da Silva, “It is incredibly frustrating to work in this area. The law is wonderful and a great advancement on paper but it remains to be implemented….Until that time, we continue to deal with the horrific effects of this violence in the lives of women, children and society.”

Maria da Penha agrees: “I think the legislation is positive in every aspect, but there are many places where the law is not in effect and the women continue without the necessary structures for the law to function. In many places, they lack police stations and resources for attending women, and this is a major omission.”

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