Women: Brazil – Violence towards women – a public issue at last!

It is quite common to hear authorities, public figures, or even some less conscious activists say that sexist violence, the violence suffered by women, “is a private issue”.

It is because that opinion in Brazilian society that only in 2006 (506 years after the ‘discovery’ of Brazil!) was a law passed characterising aggression against women as a crime that leads to public trial and prison: the ‘Maria da Penha Law’.

This law was approved in the second half of 2006 and was the fruit of years of feminist battles and struggles. But the necessary funding to carry out the law is not there! The Lula government, after the endorsement of the law, cut 30% of the funding designated to the fight against violence against women for 2007. This is a situation that, at the very least, should have provoked huge resentment, but, unfortunately, it was widely expected.

From the outset of Lula’s first mandate, the money that should have been used to implement public projects was re-allocated to assure a "primary budget surplus", that is the payments of the public debt. All this is done through fiscal adjustments. For those who still had any doubts about the priorities of the second Workers’ Party (PT) government, this measure makes it completely clear the Lula government will maintain neo-liberal policies through cuts in social expenditure.

The number of indictments for violence against women in Brazil is frightening. According to United Nations statistics, domestic violence is the main cause of injuries suffered among women from 15 to 44 years. In Brazil, one out of four women have suffered domestic violence (if we include all kinds of violence this figure is even higher). According to the non-government organisation, Pagu, out of every 100 killings of Brazilian women, 70 are happening within domestic relationships, carried out by fathers, husbands, uncles etc.

According to studies, only 10% of victims make a report to the police. Women who are subjected to this kind of violence feel uneasy about having to prove in a police station that they were assaulted. In addition to the suffering they have already undergone, it means having to go through the distressing experience of giving the details to prove they have been victims of violence. There is no assistance for women in that situation. Few police stations have special facilities for women, and in the few that have, because of a lack of funding, there are no resources for qualified staff to deal with this kind of situation.

In the first half of 2006, the number of cases registered in police stations of non-lethal violence against women, was 24,176 (the numbers registered are much smaller than the actual occurrences). In the second half of the year, there were several cases that were carried on the national media.

There were two cases in the city of Rio de Janeiro of women assaulted by ex-partners. One of them was Cristina Ribeiro who was kidnapped and assaulted by her ex-husband on a bus. The ex-husband held 55 passengers hostage in the vehicle while he beat her. She had made several complaints to the special police station for women but no action was taken. Some of those complaints she withdrew, as she was afraid to return home and suffer new aggression. When the police finally managed to negotiate an end to the kidnapping, Cristina Ribeiro was taken to hospital by ambulance, seriously wounded. The aggressor is at liberty during the juridical process.

No refuges

One aggravating factor in these cases is the financial dependence of women, as they do not have anywhere to go after they suffer attacks and aggression. There is no coherent public policy, not even some palliative measures which are capable of assuring shelter – "safe houses" for the victims and their children. Many cases illustrate this depressing and gruesome situation involving women victims of violence.

In the beginning of 2007, another case got national attention. A prisoner in São Paulo, on Christmas leave, held his ex-wife in captivity in her house for 48 hours. Not very far away, in Brasília, two other prisoners, also on Christmas leave, raped two adult women and two children. We must make clear that we are not against the possibility of having leave from prison. But it is important that we differentiate between the thousands of prisoners who are simply victims of the capitalist system from those who are heads of criminal gangs, and violent aggressors and rapists.

Apart from these recent cases, there was the infamous case of an ex-editor of the newspaper, ‘Estado de São Paulo’, Pimenta Neves, who killed his ex-girl friend, the journalist, Sandra Gomide, in 2000. Neves is still at liberty, even after getting a prison sentence of 19 years. This is an example of how people in the upper layers of society manage to escape the punitive system. The legal system in Brazil only applies fully to poor people.

The negligence of the state towards the barbarities suffered by the women victims of violence is absurd. During election campaigns, politicians make high-sounding promises, declaring their opposition to violence against women. In the general election, last year, the majority of the candidates spoke in favour of women’s rights. Such are the levels of social barbarity in society, and the fact that women suffer most, all election candidates felt compelled to speak in favour of women’s rights. The right wing and the false ‘left’ used the same opportunistic speeches, while thousands of women continue to be assaulted, beaten and killed daily.

It is important that we consider the situation facing women. Violence against women is neither unusual nor a novelty in Brazil and the rest of the world. Capitalism foments this situation. We are familiar with and angry about the way capitalism exploits female labour, pays ever lower wages, and the way the female body is exploited as if it is merchandise. However, the situation of economic and social crisis, unemployment and misery has reached such levels that human degradation becomes widespread.

Women, due to their social role, which was shaped through history, are the biggest victims of capitalist barbarism. The oppression of women is a part of the foundations of the capitalist system. The bigger the crisis, the bigger the concentration of capital in fewer hands, the bigger the degeneration of society, the worse the situation confronting the exploited class and, above all, oppressed women.

Against this general background, the Brazilian section of the CWI believe it is important we have a vigorous campaign for refuges that provide safe haven for women victims of violence, to escape from the aggression until more long-term solutions can be found.

Such a campaign is a way to put pressure on the authorities to guarantee the funding necessary to implement the new law promulgated last year – the ‘Maria da Penha Law’. We condemn the Lula Government for using this issue to obtain support, while, at the same time, as making cuts which mean the application of the law becomes unviable.

This campaign will allow socialists to discuss, starting from the concrete demand for safe havens, the situation facing women in capitalist society. The only way to end the barbarities of capitalism is to collectively build the struggle for socialism – for a world where this kind of violence is no longer a fundamental part of upholding an inequitable social system.

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March 2007