The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing need for social distancing to avoid spreading the Sars-CoV-2 virus have aggravated the issue of violence against women. March and April saw a 22.2% increase in femicide rates in 12 Brazilian states when compared to the same period last year, according to a report by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety (FBSP), requested by the World Bank. Published in early June, the study titled “Violência doméstica durante a pandemia de COVID-19” (Domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic), shows that, in the state of Acre, domestic violence increased 300%, followed by the states of Maranhão (166.6%) and Mato Grosso (150%). While the ongoing health crisis has aggravated the issue, research shows that many of the victims had already been experiencing violence in their homes. With the quarantine, women and children that live with violent relatives have become even more vulnerable to them.
It is not an issue specific to Brazil. Countries from every continent have been recording an increase in different types of violence against women. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates an average increase of 20% in domestic violence cases in countries that have adopted self-isolation. In Argentina, the number of women murdered was the highest in a decade, with more than 50 femicides recorded in the past two months. In Russia, reports and calls for help in domestic violence situations grew by 70% in the same period. “Women often do not realize they are in danger until it’s almost too late. We often hear the following expression: ‘Leave and be killed by the virus; stay and be killed by the husband,’” reports Ivete Boulos, coordinator of the Care Center for Victims of Sexual Violence (NAVIS) at the University of São Paulo School of Medicine (FM-USP) Hospital das Clínicas (HC).
Despite this increase, violence against women, adolescents, and children, including sexual violence, is not actually caused by the quarantine, emphasizes the infectious diseases expert at HC. “These circumstances already existed before the pandemic and were aggravated by the stress of self-isolation, job loss, increased domestic work, being subjected to the controlling behavior of the aggressor full time, among other reasons,” she notes.
Recent data from projects, such as Monitor da Violência (Violence Monitor), had already been reporting a rise in femicide cases prior to the pandemic. Carried out by the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP), alongside the FBSP and the news portal G1, the survey found that, in Brazil, femicide rates rose 7.3% in 2019 when compared to the previous year, and cost the lives of 1,300 women.
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According to data from the 13th Brazilian Public Security Yearbook, by the FBSP, 2018 saw 1,206 cases of femicide in Brazil—an increase of 11.3% compared to 2017. The yearbook also reported more than 66,000 cases of sexual assault during that period, an increase of 4.1% compared to 2017. Globally, the UN report released in April found that, in the 12 months preceding the pandemic, 243 million girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 were subjected to sexual or physical violence.
The perpetrator is often a romantic partner, such as the victim’s husband or the father of her children, according to a 2019 study by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA). The study also pointed out that, in Brazil, 43.1% of cases of violence against women occur within the home, 32.2% involve someone the victim knows, and 25.9% involve their partner or former partner. In the state of São Paulo, a survey by Instituto Sou da Paz, based on data from the Secretariat of Public Security and the internal affairs offices of the civil and military police, showed that, in 2019, seven out of 10 femicide victims were killed inside their home. This means 125 murders took place in the victims’ own homes. Compared to 2018, that number rose 40%. The study also revealed that 80% of victims knew their aggressor. Data from the 13th FBSP yearbook also indicate that most rapes are perpetrated against girls under 13.
Guita Grin Debert, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), reports that the high rates of domestic violence reveal a reality long observed by anthropologists and sociologists. “The family is not only a source of affection, but also of conflict, both between generations and genders,” she believes. Debert, who has been developing research projects on gender for more than 20 years, also points out that the last few decades have seen radical changes in the situation of women. “Today, around 20% of Brazilian households are headed by women; this is a significant contrast to the reality of the 1960s, when women needed permission from their husbands to work outside the home. In just a few years, women have challenged the traditional mold of femininity, which no longer fits with the roles they currently play in society,” she notes.
According to experts, achievements in women’s rights continue to trigger conservative reactions, including their most extreme form: violence. Heloísa Buarque de Almeida, from the USP Department of Anthropology, states that, when middle class women joined the labor force en masse in the 1970s, the rates of violence also began to grow. “The more women try to overcome inequality in gender relations, reject male authority, and fail to fulfill traditional roles in the home, the more they suffer violence,” observes the anthropologist, who finished her research project on sexual violence and the process of establishing rights at the end of 2019.
Scholars, such as anthropologist Beatriz Accioly Lins, a researcher at the Center for Studies on Social Markers of Difference (NUMAS) at the USP School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Humanities (FFLCH), who are experts on gender and sexuality theories, believe the increased rate of violence against women is an attempt to control their growing physical, sexual, and financial autonomy. “From the moment they began objecting to attitudes previously considered natural, such as harassment, reactions have become more virulent,” claims Lins, whose 2019 PhD thesis included an analysis of gender violence on the internet.
Femicides—murders motivated by the victim’s femaleness—are a serious problem throughout Latin America. According to data from the UN, it is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world. In Brazil, femicide became a criminal category in 2015, with the approval of Law No. 13,104. Known as the Femicide Law, it changed the category of cases previously investigated as murders of women. Mariângela Gama de Magalhães Gomes, from the Department of Criminal Law, Forensic Medicine, and Criminology at the USP Law School (FD), explains that, with the new law, femicide became a qualifying circumstance and may increase the sentence of the perpetrator. “When a crime is determined to be murder, the sentence varies from 6 to 20 years in prison, but when it is considered aggravated murder, that is, when the judge decides it was perpetrated for futile reasons, through torture, or including another aggravating circumstance—as is the case with murder motivated by gender—the perpetrator can get up to 30 years,” she explains. Gomes—who coordinates an outreach project to inform victims of gender-based violence about their rights according to the Maria da Penha Law—believes that, in addition to improving the chances of these murders being recognized as femicide, the new law has shone a light on violence against women and helped the mapping of cases.
The Femicide Law was passed as part of a transformation within the legislative system, explains Gomes. According to the researcher, until the beginning of this century, Brazilian courts often acquitted aggressors deemed to have acted “in legitimate defense of honor,” that is, when it was believed that the perpetrator was betrayed or humiliated by the victim. “Historically, the idea of male supremacy in the household has permeated the Brazilian legislative system since its inception, harming women not only when trying crimes committed against them, but also in divorce and custody court proceedings,” she points out.
A recent milestone of this transformation involves the 1995 approval of the Special Criminal Courts Law (No. 9,099). These courts were established to speed up the trial of crimes with sentences of up to two years, particularly disputes related to traffic or between neighbors. “In the early 2000s, it was found that more than 70% of cases referred to special courts involved violence against women,” shares Maria Filomena Gregori, from the UNICAMP Department of Anthropology. She goes on to reveal that the sentencing determined according to this law mainly included community service, which is unsuitable for physical aggression cases. “It often happened, for example, that women who were heads of their households would report their husbands for violence, only for the sentence to be the donation of basic food baskets, often paid for by the victim herself,” shares Gregori, who has studied violence against women since the 1980s. According to this law, it used to be the battered woman’s prerogative whether to press charges. “Law No. 9,099 made it harder to fight these crimes, as it discouraged the victims from reporting their aggressors, since their sentences often befell the victims instead—like in the case of the donation of basic food baskets. These situations sparked debate about the prosecution of violence against women,” she adds.
Based on recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and in an effort to update the law, Congress approved the Maria da Penha Law in 2006. “For the first time ever, the term ‘gender violence’ was used in a law,” points out Gomes, from FD-USP. She also notes that, according to the new law, the decision to prosecute is no longer exclusively up to the victims. Today, any witness to an assault can file a police report and request that the case be investigated. “The passing of the law sparked much debate in society and in the media. It helped many women who were victims of violence in abusive relationships become aware of the nature of their situation and the number of reports has increased,” reveals the researcher.
While Gregori recognizes the advances represented by the Maria da Penha Law, she also draws attention to one of its fundamental flaws: it characterizes violence against women as “domestic violence” and usually attributes this type of assault to heterosexual conjugal relations. “It does not cover, for instance, violence that is also motivated by gender and sexuality, but affects transgender individuals,” she notes.
Another complicating factor, according to sociologist Wânia Pasinato, an advisor for projects related to violence against women, is the lack of a national database in Brazil. She explains that official data records on domestic violence only started being kept after women’s police stations were established, in 1985. “Up until then, violence against women was treated as a private matter and the crimes we now call femicide were considered crimes of passion,” she recalls. With the Maria da Penha Law, violence against women started being measured through police and criminal statistics from state public safety departments. “However, there is no protocol to follow and only some states disclose this information,” she says. According to Pasinato, the federal government has also failed to carry out studies to measure the prevalence of this type of violence in Brazil—unlike the European Union (EU), for example, which has launched official initiatives to recognize the issue within the context of each country. The 2014 study “Violence Against Women: An EU-wide Survey,” involving 42,000 women from 28 EU nations, found that, from the age of 15, one in ten women has been the victim of some form of sexual violence.
If, on the one hand, official records show violence has increased in the home, Gregori highlights the need to analyze a recent phenomenon: increasing public instances of violence against women, including abusive hazing practices in universities and cyberbullying. Pasinato also draws attention to events beyond the home, such as the murder of girls by criminal factions in the state of Ceará. “Many have their death declared over the internet because they are dating members of rival gangs,” she reveals. In her PhD thesis, defended at FFLCH-USP, Lins studied the leaking of nude photos, also known as revenge porn. “The technological changes of the last decade have affected the exercise of sexuality. With the popularization of dating apps, either for long-term relationships or sexual encounters, photos of the body are often used as tools of seduction or flirting,” she notes. Lins believes that the leaking of such images without the subject’s consent constitutes a new manifestation of violence against women. The anthropologist compares this type of aggression to instances of sexual harassment, characterized by a lack of consent from one of the parties. “We cannot forget that people still have the same rights and obligations online as they do offline.”
Among other aspects, dealing with violence against women requires police to undergo specific training. “Without proper training, many police officers downplay the seriousness of the incident and can cause women to give up reporting their partners,” notes psychologist Juliana Martins, institutional coordinator of FBSP. Recently, states like Piauí, Maranhão, Paraíba, and the Federal District have taken action to improve the understanding of gender issues within police institutions, with the goal of improving how they investigate and keep records of these crimes. In 2018, the São Paulo Police Academy created a handbook to help police officers develop a more gender-sensitive approach. “Investigating femicides requires skills that not all police officers have. They need to be able to recognize whether the woman was killed due to her womanhood, to what extent this made her more vulnerable, and whether there was a history of violence,” shares sociologist Giane Silvestre, a postdoctoral researcher at NEV-USP. She also points out that pressing charges is not always the most immediate solution in cases of violence. “Women are often subjected to even more violence when their partner finds out there was an attempt to report him. The justice system must also have the right structure to embrace victims, offering help from psychologists and social workers in getting out of abusive relationships,” she states.
In the context of the ongoing pandemic, the creation of online systems for filing reports, emergency call systems in pharmacies and grocery stores, temporary shelters for victims, and restricted sales of alcoholic beverages are some recommendations from the UN to fight the escalation of violence. “It is important to remember that, while these women may be isolated, they are not alone,” concludes Boulos.
Violence against women
Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic or otherwise control a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work. It covers any act that takes place in the context of a power imbalance, when the abuser forces another person to engage in sexual or sexualized activity against his or her will, through physical force, psychological manipulation (intimidation, persuasion, enticement, seduction), or use of weapons and drugs.
The chatbot tool MAIA, an acronym for Minha Amiga Inteligência Artificial (My Artificial Intelligence Friend), was launched in March by the São Paulo Public Prosecutor’s Office, based on a booklet on violence against women, developed for the Namoro Legal (Cool Relationship) campaign. During the pandemic, it has been viewed by over 1,000 women and has helped recognize abusive aspects in relationships, answer questions, and provide guidance on how to proceed in case of violence.
Center for the Study of Violence – NEV/USP (no. 13/07923-7); Grant Mechanism Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC); Principal Investigator Sergio França Adorno de Abreu (USP); Investment R$23,268,665.90.
2. The meanings of sexual violence: different types of media and the public fight for rights (no. 17/02720-1); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Heloisa Buarque de Almeida (USP); Investment R$33,481.14.
3. Should there be a Maria da Penha law for the internet? Debating gender, sexuality, violence, and the internet in the context of revenge pornography (no. 15/03866-4); Grant Mechanism Doctoral (PhD) Fellowships in Brazil; Principal Investigator Heloisa Buarque de Almeida (USP); Scholarship Beneficiary Beatriz Accioly Lins de Almeida; Investment R$263,635.36.
4. Violence, gender, and the limits of sexuality: from establishing rights to public abuse and intolerance (no. 16/11231-1); Grant Mechanism Research Internship Abroad; Principal Investigator Maria Filomena Gregori; Investment R$34,344.64.
Violência Doméstica durante a Pandemia de Covid-19 (ed. 2) (Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic) (issue no. 2). Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. São Paulo. May 2020.
Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (13a edição) (Brazilian Yearbook on Public Security) (13th edition). Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. São Paulo. 2019
CERQUEIRA, D. et al. Participação no Mercado de Trabalho e Violência Doméstica contra as Mulheres no Brasil (Women’s Role in the Workforce and the Domestic Violence They Face in Brazil). Rio de Janeiro: Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), 2019.