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The faces of domestic violence

Studies investigate the profile of women who are victims of domestic violence in Brazil

230.078 casos de violência contra mulheres foram notificados no Brasil em 2017

Brazil has a rate of 4.8 homicides per 100,000 women, representing the 5th highest in the world according to data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO). The majority of crimes are committed inside the home and often by people known to the victims. The number of assaults is also alarming. In 2017 alone, the Information System of Registered Grievances (SINAN) of the Brazilian Ministry of Health registered 230,078 cases of domestic physical assault against women, often involving people with lower levels of education and who demonstrate excessive use of alcohol and illicit drugs. More recently, other studies have investigated socioeconomic factors that could be related to cases of domestic violence against women in Brazil.

In one of these studies, published at the beginning of January in the journal PLOS One, a team of Brazilian and Canadian researchers analyzed 3,559 medical and police reports of domestic violence incidents registered in Campina Grande between 2012 and 2014. This city has the second highest population in Paraíba, with 410,332 inhabitants, and it is one of the key economic and industrial centers of the northeastern region. The data collected by the researchers came from cases of women who had registered claims of assault in police reports and were subjected to corpus delicti exams. The documents contained data such as age, marital status, level of education, occupation, and address of the victims and their aggressors.

Based on the analysis of this information, they verified that, among the reported cases, the incidents of physical violence committed by men against women often took place in the home. Overall, for every 10 victims of domestic violence, eight were women. Almost all of them were between 19 and 39 years of age. “The aggressors were very often related in some way to the victim, predominantly partners or ex-partners,” explains dentist Kevan Nóbrega Barbosa, of the Department of Social and Preventive Dentistry at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and one of the authors of this article.

The team of researchers was also able to identify geographic and socioeconomic patterns that could be related to these cases of domestic violence, unlike prior studies. Based on the data of the medical and police records, they mapped out the addresses of 2,563 victims, confirming that the majority lived in the eastern district of Campina Grande. This region is characterized by a highly dense population, lack of basic sanitation, and residents with a lower socioeconomic status. “Many residents live on less than minimum wage,” points out Barbosa.

The findings led the team to predict that socioeconomic factors can be associated with the frequency of cases of domestic violence in the region, which is in line with observations of other studies. In one of them, published in April 2016, researchers from the Department of Dentistry at the State University of Paraíba (UEPB) analyzed the sociodemographic characteristics of women who were victims of domestic violence that had also registered official reports in Campina Grande. The study, which was coordinated by professor Sérgio D’Ávila Cavalcanti, looked at 1,704 medical and police records taken from January to December 2012. The majority of victims were housewives between the ages of 20 and 39 and with a low level of education and socioeconomic status.

Same profile
The results presented in the two studies are similar to official estimates. In the reported cases, the majority of the female victims of physical aggression and of feminicide in Brazil have the same profile. The data come from a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, based on information from the Individual Reporting Chart for Interpersonal Violence and Self-harm registered with SINAN between 2011 and 2016. The complete report is expected to be published this month.

The researchers argue that, together, lower education and poor socioeconomic circumstances can result in victims being financially dependent on their partners—who are almost always their aggressors—and less apt to turn them in. Some studies have already noted that women with paying jobs have a greater chance of becoming financially independent and less tolerant of aggressive behavior, possibly due to the fact that they are also more informed about their rights.

However, the interpretation of the numbers presented in these studies should consider that they refer specifically to the incidents of domestic violence that have been officially reported. A recent study indicates that the majority of incidents of this nature are not officially reported, with the degree of underreporting higher than average for women with higher levels of education, and presumably with greater socioeconomic circumstances. For sociologist Giane Silvestre, a researcher doing a postdoctorate internship at the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP), the results presented can be useful for developing public policy for the prevention of violence against women, but they must be interpreted with care such that the more impoverished populations, that already live in vulnerable situations, are not further stigmatized. She notes that domestic violence is a problem that is widespread across all social classes “because it involves social and cultural issues that tend to perceive women not as individuals, but as property.” According to the researcher’s assessment, the problem also relates to the historical role given to women in society. One in three women in the world has been a victim of domestic violence, according to data published by the WHO. The United Nations estimates that, in Brazil, reports of violent deaths involving women have increased close to 230% in the last three decades. The situation is worse among black women, for whom the rate increased from 22.9% in 2003 to 66.7% in 2013, according to data from the Map of Violence published in 2015 by the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and UN Women.

According to official data by SISAN of the Ministry of Health, reports of domestic violence have also increased. Between 2009 and 2014, they tripled: from 6.4 for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2009, to 18.1 in 2014.  The states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Tocantins, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná have the highest rates: every year, there are 50 cases or more for every 100,000 inhabitants. The results of the study were published in 2017 in the magazine Ciência & Saúde Coletiva (Science & collective health).

Dentist Nádia Cristina Pinheiro Rodrigues, from the Sergio Arouca National School of Public Health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), in Rio de Janeiro, one of the authors of the study, said that it confirms what was verified in prior research about the incidents of violence against women: they almost always involve excessive use of alcohol and illicit drugs, and easy access to firearms.

Possible explanations
Researchers do not know the reasons for the increase in reports of violence against women in Brazil, nor if these reports represent the reality of the cases in this country. One possible explanation for the increase in reporting is compulsory communication. “Since 2011, reporting at SINAN is obligatory for cases in which there is a suspect or confirmation of domestic and sexual violence against women, independent of their age,” clarifies physician Maria de Fátima Marinho de Souza, director of the Department of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion at the Ministry of Health. “It is possible that this has shone light on thousands of cases that were previously not reported,” says the researcher, who is the coordinator of the study for the Ministry of Health. She notes that, since 2011, 856,006 reports of violence against girls and women between 10 and 59 years of age have been registered in Brazil. Taking only the data for victims in this age range, the reports in 2017 increased more than 200% when compared with 2011.

Through assessment by some academics, this increase also reflects the Maria da Penha Law coming into effect, after being sanctioned in August 2006 with the goal of preventing, controlling, punishing, and eradicating all and any kind of violence against women. According to Pinheiro Rodrigues, the law gave legal support to women, who began to feel safer when reporting their aggressors. This resulted in an increasing number of victims breaking their silence about abuse, contributing to new cases coming to the surface.

For anthropologist Guita Grin Debert, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), one of the positive points about the law was the fact that it excluded the possibility of mediation sessions between the accused and the victim. In other words, since 2006, the offender is prosecuted independent of the intentions of the one he/she attacked. “The new legislation also changed cases of domestic violence into crimes of bodily harm and instituted an autonomous judicial system for crimes defined in the Penal Code as having been committed against women for reasons of gender, in a domestic or family setting, and in contexts involving intimate relations,” he clarifies. Up until then, these cases were classified as crimes of passion, allegedly of lesser aggressive potential. For Debert, who managed the Pagu Center for Gender Studies at UNICAMP, between 2007 and 2009, this disqualified aggression, perpetuating the violent behavior of the aggressor.

Rodrigues, of FIOCRUZ, suggests another possible explanation could involve the changes with respect to the role of women in society. Recent studies prove that female behavior within the family has changed in the last 40 years, independent of social class, with significant advances in autonomy which results in greater control over one’s body, the capacity to generate income and to administer these resources. “These processes are contributing to an increase in the number of divorces,” affirms Pinheiro Rodrigues. Today, in Brazil, almost half of hate crimes against women are committed by ex-partners who are unhappy with their separation.

Also noteworthy is a study by Souza in which initial data in 2017 indicate that, in that year, the reports of violence against adult women between the ages of 20 and 59 years increased by close to 30% in comparison with 2016. “We are witnessing the normalization of violence against women in Brazil,” says the physician who, with her team, is analyzing 2018 data with the objective of verifying the growth trend.

To suppress and intimidate
Violence against women is widely recognized as a serious public health problem, with implications for the physical and mental health of victims. In general, those who suffer from domestic violence are more susceptible to developing psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. According to a study by the Ministry of Health, Brazilians who report violent incidents with public health services have 151.5 times greater risk of death by suicide caused by depression, relative to the general female population.

“We need to invest in approaches that help prevent, and more acutely punish, cases of domestic violence in Brazil,” notes Pinheiro Rodrigues. This should become part of the training of health professionals who are not always able to identify cases of aggression against women. One initiative that follows this approach is the Maria da Penha Round, in which military police carry out operations in areas near victims’ homes, using protective measures ordered by the courts.

Created in March 2015, the project is operating in Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, and Amazonas. “Through partnerships with the legal system, the police identify women who have suffered from domestic violence and had protective measures ordered, and they get in touch to see if they would like the police to make periodic rounds in their neighborhood,” explains Giane Silvestre, of NEV-USP. This effort is helping to intimidate aggressors who continue to threaten their victims.

Silent victims
The majority of Brazilian victims of violence opt to not report their aggressors, according to survey

More than half of women who are victims of abuse and aggression do not report their persecutors, possibly because they are discouraged to or they are not properly served at the police stations or public health clinics. This conclusion is part of the second edition of the report Visible and invisible: The victimization of women in Brazil, published in February by the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety in partnership with Datafolha.

The study is the result of 1,092 interviews with women 16 years of age and older, from 103 municipalities and from every region of the country. The sample is nationally representative and indicates that approximately 16 million women, of all social classes, suffered some form of violence in Brazil in 2018—this figure is equivalent to 1,830 reported cases each hour.

Close to half of the women continue as victims of violence at home. For those who decided to forge ahead and report their aggressors, only 22.2% sought out an official agency, such as the Defense Department for Women. The other 29.6% preferred to seek the support of family, friends, or the church.

The largest percentage of victims are women who self-reported themselves as black—28.4% of them confirmed having suffered some kind of violent attack in the last 12 months. The next group (27.5%) declared themselves to be pardo, which is generally understood as mixed-race of African descent. According to the authors, this data reiterates the situation of vulnerability in which these two groups find themselves, and their low levels of education and socioeconomic status.

The survey also indicated that women with higher education tend to seek less help. Among the victims who have completed high school, 58.6% did not do anything regarding the incident, despite recent advances to create institutional mechanisms to address violence against women.

According to the project leaders, the data show the challenges and the need to adopt strategies focused on the prevention of violence against women—which has feminicide at the top, but also includes a very wide gamut of actions, such as threats, psychological torture, verbal aggression, and physical and sexual violence.

Scientific articles
BARBOSA, K. G. N. et alEpidemiological and spatial characteristics of interpersonal physical violence in a Brazilian city: A comparative study of violent injury hotspots in familial versus non-familial settings, 2012-2014. PLOS One. v. 14, n. 1, p. 1-19. jan. 2019.
DEBERT, G. G. & PERRONE, T. S.. Questões de poder e as expectativas das vítimas: dilemas da judicialização da violência de gênero. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Criminais. v. 150, n. 26. p. 423-47. dez. 2018.
RODRIGUES, N. C. P. et al. O aumento da violência doméstica no Brasil, 2009-2014. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva. v. 22, n.9, p. 2873-80. 2017.