It is as widespread as a popular sport – from rural provinces to dense slums and high-wired towns. There are no real winners, only victims… broken, damaged and extinguished. Violence against girls and women in Brazil pervades private and public landscapes across all social boundaries.
Only last month a savage video of a teenage Brazilian girl being sexually assaulted by several men emerged on social media and laid bare the vastly unreported violence in various forms that blights the lives of thousands of girls and women in the country every day.
As the Latin American nation proudly hosts the world’s biggest sporting event – the Rio 2016 Olympics – girls and women are demanding game over.
**Warning: the stories below depict violence and sexual violence against women.**
In São Paulo alone, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds. In São Luís, in the north east region of Maranhão, the situation is no different. For 17 years, Charlienne witnessed her father assault her mother on a daily basis. It deeply affected her as a child. Now she’s a mother herself and a wife, Charlienne, 17, is determined to have an equal relationship with her husband. “If my husband was to beat me, I would go to my mother’s house and report him to the police. Violence against women should not be tolerated.”
Charlienne’s mother, Raimunda, endured an abusive relationship with her husband, suffering frequent bouts of violence. They have now separated, although the abuse still continues as her ex-husband refuses to leave her alone. “It’s been 17 years of hell. When we were together, he was so violent. He was always aggressive. He didn’t know how to talk, he only knew how to beat and punch me. Once I woke up to find a gun against my head.
“Here in São Luís, this situation is very common. Most women in my community are beaten by men, but they keep quiet because their husbands are too violent. It’s not only me.”
Violence for girls and women doesn’t remain confined to households, it also takes place in public places too. Simple acts such as going to school fill girls like Larice, 18, with fear. The teenager lives in a dangerous community in São Luís, where drugs and violence are rife. She always has to make sure her belongings are safely out of sight. “Girls are more vulnerable in my community. You can’t walk alone or you might get attacked like my sister did. The only place I feel safe is at school and at home.”
Physically assaulted by her father, raped by her stepfather and left to live on the streets at 13. In a country where over 500,000 people are raped every year, yet only 10 per cent of cases are reported, Girlene, 30, is a true survivor who’s standing up to the widespread violence against girls and women in Brazil.
“When I was a teenager, my mother went to live with another man. I had enrolled on a dance course at school – I loved to dance. When I arrived home after class I went to take a shower. The shower was outside and there was no door – just a shower curtain. As I was showering, my stepfather barged in and put his hands on my mouth and forced himself on me… I was 13.”
Girlene has found hope and strength through dancing and she’s now determined to speak out about violence against women.
“Sexual violence is a serious issue in Brazil due to a lack of public policies and it stems from a lot of other issues. In my case, my mother suffered too. She wasn’t sexually abused, but she suffered violence. If these issues are tackled through workshops and lectures, such as those run by Plan International Brazil, girls could have a different future. To all the girls and women who have suffered like I have, please, speak up! Don’t let this person get away with it. Let’s show society we don’t have to stay quiet.”
As part of Plan International Brazil’s Girls Leadership Project, a group of girls are following in Girlene and Charlienne’s footsteps and trying to put a stop to gender-based violence. From taking on the local government to questioning the current laws on violence, they are determined to make their voices heard.
Why? Well, according to Luca Sinsei, Plan International Brazil’s Programme Director: “Girls should speak for themselves. When we see girls take on politicians and speak up for their rights, it makes a big difference. Their voice represents their lived realities and it is the first step to ensuring they can grow up in an environment where they can learn, lead decide and thrive.”
Authorities are making moves to combat violence against girls and women. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Maria de Penha law – a landmark ruling that was in put in place with the intent of tackling domestic violence.
Kazumi Tanaka is Chief Commissioner of the Special Women’s Police Unit in Maranhão. She says:
“Violence against women is the most common crime we have in Brazil and it’s one that needs to be tackled. There are two reasons violence continues to take place. Women not only live in fear, but there is a deep-rooted emotional dependency, where women in Brazil feel they are not worthy without a man.
“The Maria de Penha law is a legal landmark in the country, which has brought hope to many and provided an opportunity for women to speak out about this type of violence.”
To ensure all women across the region are able to report violence, Kazumi and her team have set up mobile units that visit rural communities across the region so women can visit workshops, learn about their rights and report crimes.
It’s not just girls that are championing for change. A group of boys from Plan International Brazil’s Goals for Peace Project are getting in on the act, too.
“I want to make women realise they don’t deserve to be beaten,” says Taniel, 18, São Luís, Brazil (right). “Together we can fight for girls’ rights. It inspires me when I see girls standing up for themselves and calling for gender equality. Girls deserve to have a voice and it makes me want to fight for girls’ rights too.”
These girls from São Luís represent a growing minority of young people who are fired up and ready to change the attitudes in Brazilian society and put an end to violence.
Maria Fernanda, 18, from São Luís (centre), says: “Violence against girls and women needs to stop. Every day we face prejudice and we are excluded from society. It’s about time we had our turn and our voices were heard.”