Violence against women in Brazil: it is time to break the silence

by Talita Nascimento

May 29th, 1983. It is almost midnight, the biopharmacist Maria da Penha Fernandes is sleeping when her husband shoots her, leaving her paraplegic for life. Marco Antônio Heredia Viveros, her husband, was an economist and professor at that time. They first met at the University of São Paulo (USP), one of the most renowned universities in Latin America, where both were graduate students. It was not the first time that Marco Antônio had physically assaulted Maria da Penha, but she kept silent about it. Four months after this episode, he tried to electrocute her, and Maria da Penha decided to finally break her silence.

At the time, the Brazilian legislation established that domestic violence was a crime considered of low offensive potential. As a result, domestic violence at all levels often fell below the threshold of police concern. Women were advised to return home; charges were usually dropped; and penalties, if established, were trivial. It was not different with Maria da Penha. Her case filed languished in court for almost two decades, while her husband remained free. Years later, in 2006, the Brazilian Government published the Maria da Penha Law, which establishes special courts and stricter sentences for offenders, and also other instruments for prevention and relief, such as police stations and shelters for women. Indeed, Maria da Penha Law is recognized by the United Nations as one of the world’s best legislations concerning violence against women.

As Maria da Penha, more than 13 million women have already experienced physical harm in Brazil. 31% of these women still live with the assaulters and, alarmingly, 13% of these women are still victims of violence in their homes[1]. Current researches suggest that every five minutes, one woman is physically assaulted by a men, and every day thirteen women is murdered in Brazil[2].

These numbers come from data gathered recently, but the problem is far from recent. Violence against women is an old and a silent issue in the country, and the establishment of Maria da Penha Law represented a change of paradigm in Brazil; it was the first concrete step to fight the culture of male chauvinism and domestic violence against women. Indeed, Maria da Penha Law triggered the development of impacting policies focused on gender-based violence and the consolidation of specific centers to attend women’s victim of violence, such as the Women’s Police Office.

In 2006, for instance, the Brazilian Government launched the Women’s Dial Complaint, which enables victims of violence, family members or neighbors to denounce any form of violence against women to the Public Authorities, anywhere in Brazil, 24 hours per day. In 2009, the Ministry of Health implemented the mandatory notice of domestic physically and/or sexual violence in the Brazil Public Health System (SUS), which means that every case of woman’s violence shall be reported by the local health manager at the moment of the medical attendance.

In 2015, the Federal Government launched the Brazilian Women’s House, which is a center that provides psychological and legal assistance, support on health-related issues, emergency shelter, and guidance on employment opportunities to women who are victims of violence. At the Women’s House, there is also a Women’s Police Office, a State Prosecutor Office, and a Public Attorney Office. This full service aims at encouraging women to report the violence cases, and at the same time, to provide them a safe place, where they are protected against any other attack. In fact, the Women’s Police Station in Campo Grande has declared that the number of domestic violence reports in the city has increased 30% after the construction of the Brazilian Women’s House in Campo Grande – which means there was a severe reduction on the underreporting of domestic violence against women in Campo Grande, and a parameter of what can be achieved if this policy is implemented in the entire country.

Most recently, President Dilma Roussef signed the Feminicide Act, which criminalizes the gender-motivated murdering of women, and establishes more severe penalties for those responsible for such crimes. The new legislation amended the Penal Code to redefine the conception of “feminicide” as any crime that involves domestic violence, and discrimination or contempt for women, which results in their death.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go, and finding out exactly how long is also a problem. That is, because one important problem in Brazilian gender-based violence analysis, for instance, is the hidden data. Even though Brazil has promoted significant changes in the past 10 years, many women still feel uncomfortable reporting physical or sexual attacks to Public Authorities. In other words, the numbers reported to formal sources may not be accurate, and the real situation is probably even more shocking.

According to DataSenado – 2013[3], 1 in 5 women assaulted have done nothing about it. Many causes may explain this attitude, such as fear, the severity of violence, financial issues, among others. The research suggests that the majority of low income women (up to US$220 per month) have not reported their aggressors because they felt insecure or worried about their children’s safety. On the other hand, the majority of high income women (more than US$1,200 per month) have not reported because they felt shame for being a victim of domestic violence. In fact, shame is also an important factor for those women who completed higher education (35%), but it seems not too relevant for those who completed high school (19%).

Also, a recent research developed by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the Ministry of Justice pointed out that 80% of women who are victims of violence do not want their aggressors’ detention. Instead of prison, victims prefer that their perpetrators were subjected to medical care, psychological treatment or penalty payment[4].

The numbers are compelling: they show not only how many victims continue to suffer in silence and obscurity, but also how male chauvinism still influences their acts. Therefore, it is essential that the Brazilian Government keeps working on the development of public policies and specialized centers focused on women’s violence. The Brazilian Women’s House in Campo Grande is a good example on how a well structured system may highly contribute in this cases, specially by galvanizing the formal reports by the victims. Now it is time to spread this initiative not only to big cities, but also to rural areas, where the violence against women is especially alarming.

More than that, changes on public policies and legislations must be followed by a significant transformation on the misconceptions and chauvinism culture in Brazil. It is necessary to promote formal and informal education initiatives focused on gender equality, which enable the formation of boys who are able to live in an equal-gender society without violence and, most importantly: in a society of empowered girls who are able to break the silence of their homes’ violence.

[1]SENADO FEDERAL. Violência Doméstica e Familiar, Brasília: 2013, in

[2] WAISELFISZ JACOBO, Julio. Mapa da Violência: homicídios de mulheres no Brasil. Brasília: 2015 in:

[3] SENADO FEDERAL. Violência Doméstica e Familiar, Brasília: 2013, in

[4] BRANDÃO, Cristiane (coord.).Violência contra Mulheres e Práticas Institucionais, in Série Pensando o Direito nº 52. Instituto de Pesquisa e Economia Aplicada (IPEA), Brasília:2015, in