Stopping Men Killing Women. Q&A With Maria da Penha

In 1983, Maria da Penha Fernandes was asleep when her husband shot her, leaving her paraplegic for life. Two weeks after the young bio-pharmacist left hospital, he tried to electrocute her. The case Maria da Penha filed languished in court for two decades, while her husband remained free. Years later, in a landmark ruling, the Court of Human Rights criticized the Brazilian government for not taking effective measures to prosecute and convict perpetrators of domestic violence. In response to this, in 2006 the government passed the symbolically named “Maria da Penha” Law on Domestic and Family Violence.

The law established special courts and stricter sentences for offenders and increased punishment for domestic assaults. It is recognized by the United Nations as one of the three best laws in the world countering violence against women. Yet, despite subsequent legislation increasing sentences for rape and (later) sexual misconduct, and targeting femicide, the day-to-day application of the law is still very weak, and many victims of domestic abuse remain too fearful to file a complaint.

With an average of ten murders a day,  Brazil remains one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a woman: According to a recent study by the nongovernmental organization Brazilian Forum on Public Security, police receive a report of violence against a woman every two minutes. A rape occurs every eight minutes, and 57.9 percent of the victims are under 14 years old – incredibly, still the age of consent in Brazil. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, evidence from Brazil and elsewhere suggests that rates of violence against women have increased worldwide.

Driving Change recently spoke with da Penha, now 75 and still campaigning tirelessly for women’s rights, traveling the country speaking about her own agonizing experiences. She believes the law that carries her name was a great victory – but it was just a first step. We began by asking her what can be done about the rise in violence during the pandemic, which was 40% higher in Brazil this April than in the same month in 2019, yet has not seen a commensurate rise in prosecutions.

Maria da Penha (MP): The law we have is valid, we’re going to have a vaccine soon and the added challenges will go away. What we really need is to make sure that the law is implemented. For that to happen, each municipality must have a robust ecosystem. Unfortunately, in the majority of districts, women at risk of domestic violence have nowhere to go to make a complaint. It is absolutely necessary, in all municipalities with more than 60,000 inhabitants, that there are public policies in compliance with the Maria da Penha Law, such as the Special Police Station for Assistance to Women, the Reference Center for Assistance to Women, the Court of Domestic and Family Violence against Women, and the Shelter, among others. However, we know that this depends a lot on political will and the awareness of the issue among public officials.

There are data that prove that, in places where there are public policies to welcome women in violent situations, the number of complaints has increased and the number of recurrences has decreased. We need to unite and demand from public officials that the Maria da Penha Law is truly implemented.

Driving Change (DC): The Maria da Penha Law was enacted in 2006. In the 14 years since, what do you consider the greatest victories and challenges facing the law that bears your name?

MP: Nowadays women are coming forward, but the violence continues. They are coming forward to press charges, but only in the cities or the state capitals where there are shelters and specialised police units and all the facilities. There’s a long way to go to change attitudes. The law is now very well-known across Brazil: 98% of the country has heard of it. Many women tell me that they would be dead without the law. But there is still a long way to go. No woman deserves to be suffering like that.

DC: At Driving Change, our aim is to highlight public policies that change people’s lives positively. Laws are often the work of legislators, driven by politics. In your case, it was a terrible personal experience. How was the journey from being an activist to being able to pass a law? Did you fear you would never make it?

MP: I spent 19 years and six months fighting for [my attacker] to be jailed. During that time he was put on trial and found guilty twice, and twice he walked out of the court free because of appeals. Several times, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. But here we are and now I can’t fathom the idea of a different outcome. Many women who are trapped in abusive relationships may not know they are being victims of a crime because their social lives do not give them the tools they need to recognize the problem. Although many women may even identify that they are suffering from an abusive relationship, they may not understand that such violence should be reported. They think that it is part of a relationship, that every relationship is like this.

DC: How was your case viewed internationally? 

MP: I decided to write the book “I survived… Now I Can Tell” in 1994, right after the first trial of my attacker. When he left the court as a free man, though convicted, because of the appeals of his defense lawyers, I felt like an orphan of the State and decided to tell my story. If the Justice department in my country was not able to condemn him, readers could do it after going through the case files and examining my version of the facts.

That is how this book came into the hands of international non-governmental organizations like the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de Los Derechos de las Mujeres and (CLADEM). They prompted me to denounce Brazil to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We made the complaint and in 2001 Brazil was held responsible internationally for the negligent way in which it treated cases of domestic violence. The country was obliged to change its laws. That was when the conditions for creating the Maria da Penha Law were being formed. The law was sanctioned in August of 2006.

DC: To what extent has the Maria da Penha Law advanced women’s safety?

MP: The Maria da Penha Law is an affirmative action to confront a historical condition of violence, discrimination and the oppression of women just because they are women. I usually say that the law that bears my name came to rescue the dignity of Brazilian women. I have traveled a lot throughout Brazil and I can say that, in places where the law is actually being implemented, the changes are significant, complaints increase and recidivism declines.

When we say that the number of complaints has grown, it does not mean that violence against women has also grown, but that women feel more secure and supported, they believe in the power of the state and, therefore, they have more courage to report. One of the greatest innovations of the Maria da Penha Law is its establishing of urgent protective measures, with the objective of ensuring the safety of the victims, by immediately ending the violence before it can get worse.

DC: Fourteen years after the approval of the Maria da Penha Law, what do you think could have been done differently? Is there any part of it that should be updated or overhauled? Which aspect of the law is proving most difficult to implement in practice?

MP: The Maria da Penha Law is very complete. So much so that it is considered by the UN as one of the three most advanced laws in the world with regard to combating domestic and family violence against women. When it was still a bill, public hearings were held throughout Brazil to discuss the situation of women, taking into account the territorial and cultural differences of a country as large as Brazil. This debate involved the executive and legislative branches of government and civil society. In my view, the law does not need reform. What should happen is the proper application of it; the commitment of public officials to its full implementation and the training of all professionals who work in the women’s service network.

(Women’s service network is a service that provides social care and psychological support for women in situations of violence -neglect, physical violence, psychological and sexual abuse).

DC: According to recent research, many people still think that only physical violence counts as domestic violence. In your opinion, is the lack of knowledge about the law a significant factor in why there continue to be aggressions against women?

MP: Yes, but we know that this reality is changing. Today, women already know more about domestic violence, the types of violence, its various aspects and what the Maria da Penha Law can do for them. That is why the role of the press in spreading the Maria da Penha Law is so important, as well as the work of universities, schools and other institutions. In the long run, we know that only through education we will be able to have a less macho and more egalitarian society. Much remains to be done. The trouble is, cultural change needs more time to happen.

DC: Even with access to information, a law that protects them and a support network to help them, why do many women endure domestic violence for so long?

MP: There are several factors that make women endure a situation of violence for many years: fear of the aggressor, financial or emotional dependence, fear of not being able to raise children alone, the shame of telling family members and friends about the husband’s aggression, lack of knowledge of the Maria da Penha Law and what the law can do for them, and so on. But we know that the biggest obstacle is still a lack of mechanisms for implementing the law, which currently exist only in large cities and capitals. That is why it is so important to unite as civil society and put pressure on the government to create the public policies required by the Maria da Penha Law. And, on an emotional level, when we feel trapped it is often easier not to face reality. But the truth doesn’t go away. It just perpetuates itself until we’re forced to take notice.

DC: In your opinion, was having a job and higher education important to your ability to understand clearly that you needed to denounce the violence that you suffered?

MP: First, domestic violence is a phenomenon that affects all women, regardless of social class, age, race, ethnicity, income, religion, cultural status and education. Even having a job and higher education, I lived in a situation of violence for many years, from 1976 to 1983. Furthermore, it is important to say that at that time there was not even a Women’s Police Station in Fortaleza, my city. In other words, it was even more difficult for a woman to break the cycle of violence. Today we have a specific law to protect women from this crime. In my case, I never gave up on seeking justice. I fought for 19 years and six months for my attacker to be punished – which only happened, eventually, due to international pressure. The most important fact is that, in the end, the achievement was not just mine, but of all women in the country.

DC: Many women that report domestic violence feel disrespected and humiliated in police stations – even when they are at women’s stations, that should welcome women in grim situations and enforce the Maria da Penha Law. What can be done about this?

MP: Unfortunately, we know that women who decide to report still often have to go through institutional violence. This happens due to several reasons, such as a lack of training and sensitivity to gender violence, the small number of professionals and the physical and human limitations of these places in general. In this respect, the greatest need is for the training of public security professionals, especially those who are responsible for serving women. They must act in accordance with what is outlined by law, and not according to their personal motivations, which are often sexist and tend to victimize women once again.

That said, Brazil now has “delegacias da mulher,” women’s police units that are mostly staffed by women and focus on crimes committed against women, to create a more welcoming environment for victims of gender-based crime. Yet these specially trained units cannot be found in every municipal district, and the ones that do exist do not work on weekends and holidays.

DC: What message would you like to send to women who suffer domestic violence today around the world?

MP: We know that getting out of a cycle of violence is a difficult and painful process, but we are no longer alone. We no longer need to suffer in silence for years, enduring all types of violence within our own home, a place where we should be welcomed and supported.

I never imagined that my struggle, which started with a lot of pain and suffering, would get where it got. To have my name on a law that can save lives and provide new beginnings for thousands of women is, for me, an honor, but also a great responsibility. Therefore, I do not allow myself to stop. I am aware of my mission. My whole life is dedicated to this cause. We continue together.

DC: Is there another law that you dream of passing?

MP: Absolutely not. I want the one I managed to get approved to work! What’s the point of having my name on a law that only works sometimes?

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

Fernanda Bak

Fernanda is a media professional with robust editorial, research and storytelling skills, spanning multiple platforms. For the past eight years, she worked at The Economist, based in New York, as a Programme Director for the events department. Fernanda is also the author of BrazilYorkers (2014). Written in both English and Portuguese, the book captures the way a diverse array of Brazilians love, struggle, and understand the city they chose to call home. She has extensive experience working for all the major Brazilian broadcasting television networks as a news reporter and newscaster. Fernanda holds a Master's degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) and has written on state and national politics, foreign affairs, finance, technology, sustainability and energy for organizations like Rede Globo, Rede Record, SBT and Rede Bandeirantes.

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