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Women protest against gender-based violence in Brasilia, Brazil, in 2016.   © 2019 Wilson Dias/Agência Brasil

Brazil's Family, Women and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves called a news conference on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. She remained silent for 30 long seconds in front of television cameras and left. Later, she explained to reporters she did it on purpose to make them see “how difficult it is for a woman to remain in silence. It is very bad to take the voice away from a woman.”

She wanted to attract attention to a new publicity campaign to combat violence against women. At an event to announce the campaign, Minister Alves spoke “about the innumerable policies and laws toward women already implemented by this administration,” according to a news release from her ministry.

And yet, funding for projects to protect women has dried up since January 2019, when president Jair Bolsonaro took office. The budget of the Secretariat of Policies for Women, which is within Alves' ministry, was cut by 27 percent in 2019, according to data obtained by Human Rights Watch through a Freedom of Information Request. Furthermore, of the 51 million reais (US$12 million) allotted by Congress in 2019, the Secretariat had actually used only about 40 percent (20 million reais) by November.

More than 90 percent of all the money the Secretariat did spend went to maintain a phone line created in 2005 where women can report violence or get information about services.

But federal government investment in the services described on the hotline is minimal. Adequate support services, the ones that the federal government should be designing and funding in cooperation with municipal and state authorities, can make a difference for thousands of women. One of those women is a 27-year-old mother of two whom I met in October in Boa Vista, Roraima, the state with the highest rate of killings of women in the country. She told me she had suffered domestic violence for nine years and reported it to police five times, but police “did nothing,” she said.

In February, she left her partner and moved in with her sister, but her sister's partner was also abusive. After two months away, she could not find a safe place to live with her children and had no safe alternative but to move back with her partner and back “to the violence,” she said.

On October 16, her partner beat her particularly brutally in front of her children. “I thought I was going to die,” she said, crying. This time, she reported the beating to the police at the “House of Brazilian Women” in Boa Vista, a facility opened in December 2018 that houses specialized police and a temporary shelter, and provides psychological and other support. For the first time after reporting violence to the police, she saw the police actually respond and look for her abuser. She also obtained a protection order, which forbids the abuser from approaching her. And she stayed for two days at the temporary shelter, where I met her.

“This house is very important,” she said. “It´s a place of hope. I can leave the violence behind.”

There are five similar houses in the country, including one in São Paulo that Minister Alves opened on November 11. But the Bolsonaro administration has spent zero reais of the almost 13 million (US$3 million) allocated by Congress to build additional houses in 2019, according to the data obtained by Human Rights Watch.

The publicity campaign Minister Alves opened on November 25 promotes the slogan, “If a woman loses her voice, they all lose.” It should say “we all lose.” And publicity campaigns are of little help if the government does not invest in the services and policies that women desperately need.


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