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“Maria Laura, some women actually like to be beaten up,” a well-off businesswoman told me. And a well-educated male acquaintance said: “These are abusive relationships, women beat up their husbands and boyfriends and then they get beaten up themselves.” 

Those shocking comments were in response to the recent Human Rights Watch report looking at domestic violence in Roraima, the state with the highest rate of homicide of women in the country.

Marchers hold pictures of women killed violently to mark International Women's Day in São Paulo on March 8, 2014.   © 2014 Nacho Doce/Reuters

The research exposed failures at all points in the trajectory of how the state handles domestic violence cases. But some people, like the two who made those offhand comments, don’t seem to pay any attention to the government’s glaring failures to respond to the violence. Instead, they minimize the violence and blame women.

A news flash  from the twenty-first century: the abuse is very real. So is the often-disappointing state response to it. And it’s not women’s fault.

Let’s just take one case, of a woman we called “Priscila” in the report. She suffered beatings and verbal violence from her partner for eight years. Last December, he pushed her out of his house, and hit her on the head, face, and arm in the middle of the street. He only stopped beating her when Priscila´s son put himself physically between him and Priscila.

Priscila´s daughter called the military police, thinking they would help. But the police did nothing when they arrived. “They only left their card,” the 13-year-old daughter told us. At 3 a.m.,  Priscila and her daughter walked for an hour to a non-specialized police station, where a police officer told them they had to go to the women’s police station to report the beating, even though the women’s police station was closed that day, a Sunday. Only the following week could Priscila finally file a police complaint and request a protection order.

Of course, women can also be the  abusers. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the suffering of the many women who feel they have no choice but to endure regular acts of brutality, hide the bruises, and try to pretend nothing happened.

Women often suffer violence for years before they seek any help. Only a quarter of Brazilian women who suffer violence report it to the police according to a 2017 poll by Datafolha. There may be family pressure to stay with a partner. Women may worry about how they will feed, clothe and house their children without their partner’s help. The weight of stigma may make them loathe to share their traumatic experience with the police. Often women fear most that when the abuser finds out they went to the police, he will carry out his threats—and the police won’t do anything to stop him.

But at the top of the list  of reasons is a lack of faith that reporting the violence will change anything. That assessment is not misplaced. When it comes to violence against women, impunity is the norm. We found a backlog of about 8,400 domestic violence complaints languishing in the women’s police station in Boa Vista, Roraima. The station’s chief said she lacks the personnel to take the “initial investigative steps”—such as interviewing the victim—that would allow police  to open a formal investigation. We believe that what we found in Roraima reflects a national problem.

Brazil does have a comprehensive legal framework to prevent violence and to ensure justice when violence occurs: the 2006 “Maria da Penha” law. Brazil is also a party to international treaties protecting the rights of women.

Unfortunately, these legal advances exist to a large degree only on paper. The questions I got after the release of our report show that the “machista” culture that allows impunity for these crimes  is alive and well. And it makes us complicit. To change that, people must acknowledge the abuse women in Brazil face--and recognize that law enforcement is not serving them well. Too many cases are not properly registered and investigated, let alone brought to an acceptable conclusion.

 As long as men who abuse their partners can get away with it, many will continue to do so.

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