Curtain Raiser

Brazilian Women Take Charge, Colltalers

Brazil can’t seem to catch a break. After a convoluted impeachment process forced democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff to an 180-day leave, the vice president Michel Temer government, which has replaced her, has been an utter embarrassment.
Things got worse with news last week that a 16-year old was raped by some 33 men, not far from where the Rio Olympic Games take place from Aug. 5 on. Over the weekend, women organizations staged protests throughout the nation, as a sign of defiance.
It was a positive development, a show of strength from a crucial demographics that arguably stands to lose the most if Rousseff’s oust becomes permanent. Brazil’s first female president took several steps to address the ingrained problem of violence against women.
Rallying against what they called ‘the culture of rape,’ they seized the momentum of political uncertainty to highlight issues that ultimately affect and benefit the core of the population. The tragedy of rape, of violence against the vulnerable, is that it reveals the underbelly of society, the true stage of maturity, or lack thereof, of its citizenry. In Brazil, the picture is grim, to understate it.
We’ll get to some really cruel numbers, showing that rape is not the exception, but often the preferred power tool used by oppressors to impose their will. But first, let’s point to some of the underpinnings of this seemingly constant street rallies we’re seeing in Brazil. For since around 2013, with external economic conditions and Rousseff’s own lack of leadership conspiring to reverse the country’s ‘golden years’ she’d inherited from her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, people had taken to the streets.
It was a fertile period for conspiracies. Congress’ multitude of parties and interests no longer supported her proposed reforms, and opponents, smelling blood, began to believe they could defeat her on the pools the next year. They lost, as it was, but within those two years leading to her reelection, Rousseff totally spent whatever political capital she had left and went into a survival mode.
The culmination was the vicious chain of events that cost her job, at least temporarily; newly-revealed evidence of political treachery to depose her is now of little relevance. There’s an empty space at the center of Brazil’s government, and Temer’s cabinet, full of corrupted white men, along with himself, shows that’s hardly prepared to provide the country with a new start.
Along with that, there’s the deep-rooted, underlying violence of Brazilian society, marked by seemingly insurmountable social gaps between the haves and the have-nots,

of which Rio serves as both stage and metaphor. If Workers’ Party (PT) supporters may claim 13 years of advances in income redistribution outside Brazil’s great capitals, they can’t say the same about urban areas.
Last October, a study by watchdog group Brazilian Forum of Public Security showed a high of 58,000 homicides in 2014 in Brazil, 3,000 more than 2013, with murder having top billing, followed by crimes committed by on and off duty policemen. Rio police’s ‘shoot first, ask question later‘ credo is also the focus of Amnesty’s You Killed My Son report, released two months before.
Then, in January, Mexico’s own Citizens’ Council for Public Security came up with the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, 21 of which are in Brazil. And you thought two-punch disease zica mosquito was enough of a threat to those who are going to the games. Also, just like everywhere, many think that the solution for this bullet-ridden homicidal wave is… more guns. That’s right. There are some who want to relax Brazilian gun-control laws, which unlike those in the land of daily massacres, the U.S., are considered very strict.
While the sheer power of these statistical figures are in sharp contrast with Brazil’s persistent image of tropical, i.e., sex paradise, they become a national security problem when one adds specific studies about the violence, and murder rates, involving women.
In November, the Latin American Social Science Institute published Homicide of Women in Brazil, which showed that an average of 13 women has been killed every day since 2013, 21% more than a decade before, with one aggravating factor: black or mixed raced women – Brazil’s majority of female population – were 54% more likely to be murdered that year than in 2003.
The report corroborated the disturbing trend that was also evident in the 2014 study, by the same group. Then, murders within black, or rather non-white, i.e., most Brazilians, communities had increased ‘only’ 29%, while dropping 25% among whites. It’s also worth noting that in Brazil, about 49 million black women represent 53% of the population, while their white counterparts, 45%.
But it is rape that is so emblematic of Brazil’s brutal social and gender differences. One woman is raped every 11 minutes in the land of laidback samba lovers. Probably more, because is the type of crime that often goes under reported, out of fear or simply lack of access for help. A great percentage of it takes place at home, by those they love and trust: husbands, companions, and even fathers.
The Applied Economics Research Institute (IPEA) reports that one in every 200 women in Brazil, or about 527,000, have been victim of some form of sexual violence. Besides the trauma that can trigger life-long addiction, prostitution, and worse, rape is also at the root of heart-wrenching social woes, like public shaming and child pregnancy, since abortion is still mostly illegal in Brazil.
The impoverished teenager, whose horrific ordeal was recorded and broadcast on social media by her tormentors, was initially discredited on her claims. She was publicly accused of having either made up the story or somehow ‘provoked’ the aggressors.
Until the police chief in charge was removed from the case, the investigation was slowly going nowhere, even though the Internet was teeming with insults against the victim. He even declared at certain point that there was only ‘suspicion’ of violence, implying that she had invited the 33 – he disputed that figure too. (Asked what she expected from them, though, she answered, ‘a daughter.’)
But despite this disheartening scenario, a way too familiar collision of extreme poverty, illiteracy, violence against the vulnerable, and police insensitivity, the public rallies that popped up all over Brazil were a good sign that women won’t take it all down.
Not this time, it seems. The episode, and the furor that it caused in the Brazilian media, was also seen as a boost to Rousseff, and the few achievements of her administration. Suddenly, even women who a few months ago were out asking for her oust, realized what her presidency really represented to Brazil, which has been internationally recognized by the advances of its pro-women policies.
For the record, only with PT in power Lei Maria da Penha, and Lei do Feminicídio, two laws giving teeth to legislation to protect women, became possible. The same with other programs dear to Rousseff, focused on the physical integrity and dignity of women, including the Casa da Mulher, a shelter system for violence victims, and the free help hotline Ligue 180, now disque-denúncia.
The pressure is now on the interim government to preserve and enlarge such programs, so negative stats like those mentioned are not so sadly mind boggling, and rape is no longer part of what Brazil has to offer, along beautiful beaches and friendly weather.
There as in the U.S. and the rest of the world, so-called ‘women issues‘ are, in fact, humankind issues. Income equality, respect to the individual, housing, health care, free and safe abortion, and decent jobs are all essential for everyone to thrive. Women, however, are the ones usually on the vanguard of the fight for them. And they too often pay a terrible price for it. Have a great one. WC


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