São Paulo tries to combat Brazil’s rape culture

By — February 15, 2017

On December 14, 2016, 23-year-old feminist activist Débora Soriano de Melo was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in a bar in São Paulo, Brazil. There was evidence that the young activist suffered sexual abuse that same night. Detectives suspected Willy Gorayeb Liger, a manager of the bar, in the assault and called for his arrest on rape charges.

That same month, São Paulo state government’s Public Security Secretary Mágino Alves told the press about an increase in reported rape cases for the fourth consecutive month. An average of 30 cases were registered in the state of São Paulo each day in November with a total of 914 cases, representing an 11 percent increase compared to the same period in 2015. Between January and November 2016, the increase was 6 percent when compared to the same period in 2015.

However, according to Laura Carlsen, a specialist in violence against women in the Americas at Stanford University, it is impossible without reliable statistics to trace what percentage of the increase is a result of higher reporting and what percentage is an increase in the occurrence of rapes. She believes it’s a combination of the two. Even so, regardless of why reported rapes are increasing, Brazil still ranks fifth out of 83 countries in statistics for murders of women, according to the Map of Violence 2015, prepared by UNESCO’s Latin American Social Sciences Institute.

“Femicide and rape statistics in Latin America are particularly high,” Carlsen said. “This stems from the macho culture and the failure of governments to prevent and prosecute these crimes, sending a message that you can get away with it.”

Women protest rape outside a church in Brazil in 2013. The sign reads “Every 15 seconds a woman is raped in Brazil.” (Camila Garcia)

But it seems that times are—ever so slightly—changing. Secretary Alves said that in 2017 the state will initiate a uniform protocol for assisting sexual and domestic violence survivors. Every police station will help victims, not just stations dedicated to crimes of violence against women. Currently, the state of São Paulo has 113 police stations for crimes against women, while the city of São Paulo has just nine. Other big changes include the introduction of a new method that includes DNA found at a crime scene in station or national data bank in the first phase of investigations and a new course of education for officers how to investigate and treat victims of gender-based violence.

For Silvia Chakian, a prosecutor for Grupo de Atuação Especial de Enfrentamento à Violência Doméstica, or GEVID, an organization that advocates against domestic violence as part of São Paulo’s public prosecutor’s office, these are progressive moves. These measures have been requested for a long time. Chakian is a 17-year veteran who has dedicated seven years specifically to gender-based violence.

While the police force as a whole tries to catch up to other countries in terms of its training and investigative methods, not all crimes are going unsolved. In the case of Débora Soriano de Melo, authorities caught Liger, their suspect, 10 days after the murder in the northeast state of Bahia. While he denied raping her, he did confess to her murder.

Tackling rape and machismo culture
The crime mentioned above, like that of the gang rape of a girl, 16, in Rio de Janeiro in May, exposes the rape culture that runs rampant in this tropical South American country. According to Chakian, victims often endure in silence until and if they are able ask for help. Many times, she said, it is a repeated and aggravated kind of violence. By the time the survivor goes to the authorities, she said, the assault has been happening for a long time.

According to a report published in 2015 by the NGO Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (Brazilian Forum of Public Security), Brazil registered 45,460 rape cases that year—or a rape every 11 minutes and 33 seconds. Yet, the report points out, there could have been anywhere between 129,900 and 454,600 rape cases that year. Only a fraction of rapes are reported, a phenomenon that occurs across the world.

Laura Carlsen points out that in many parts of Latin America, reporting of rape is actually diminishing due to survivors being revictimized after they report the crime, being stigmatized in a society that often blames them, or becoming targets by organized crime groups and corrupt officials. The lack of reporting rapes is “the greatest hardship in engaging with this type of violence,” Chakian said. “This is a world reality: The number of reported crimes is astonishingly inferior to the real number.”

For Chakian, another factor in low reporting is that many women don’t comprehend that they are a victim of a crime or that the behavior of the abuser is a crime of rape, which is recognized in the country’s penal code. There is also the difficulty that survivors face in denouncing their abuser and seeing the person in daily life while facing the justice system. And then there is the fact that 70 percent of rapes against adult women are carried out by relatives, boyfriends, or friends, as a 2014 report by the economics research institute Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (IPEA) said.

In many cases, the survivor withdraws their testimony and the perpetrator gets away. 

The black and indigenous dilemmas
In 2017, the major TV network Globo, which used to feature a semi-naked biracial dancer in a commercial to promote the country’s annual Carnival party and other events, put some clothes on its model. One of its dancers was dismissed by fans for “being too black” and was the main character of a Guardian documentary on racism and sexism in Brazil.

Brazilian journalist and female black movement activist Juliana Gonçalves said that rape culture against black women has its roots in slavery: Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. She also said that rape is not just related to sex but “to power and the fetishization of it.”

According to the report by IPEA, at least 51 percent of rape cases in 2014 were involving black women. And 53 percent of Brazil’s 200 million population is black or has African ancestry, according to a 2015 report by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics).

In Brazil, Gonçalves said, “poverty is feminine and black,” and, according to her, this group fares the worst.

Chakian said that combating violence against black woman demands repudiating gender stereotypes that our society creates and cultivates. “In our country, one cannot accept that black women be qualified as ‘exotic beauty,’” she said. “This hypersexualizes their bodies, treats them as sexual objects as the famous ‘mulatto girls’ and legitimizes their sexual exploitation.”

And when it comes to indigenous women, Chakian points out that they suffer from isolation, invisibility, indifference, and prejudice from the general population. Native Brazilian women endure forced marriages, domestic violence and rapes, she said, adding that she believes that a different and respectful perspective is needed that will secure and promote laws in their defense. Chakian recognizes that the institution she works for does little for them, but adds that the increase of female indigenous activist groups are giving more credibility to their struggles.

“A culture of violence against women is on the rise, which has to do with a patriarchal system emboldened by the rise in fundamentalist views, militarism, deterioration of the rule of law, and renewed racism,” Carlsen said. “The reassertion of the rule of the heterosexual male by force in this context is reflected in rape—with impunity.”