Rape: another pandemic we didn’t solve

By Julia Dias

[9 min read]

Fortaleza, Brazil is the 9th most dangerous city in the world. I lived there for a little over two years and loved it. It has such a rich and vibrant culture that made me feel right at home. However, when I got there, people thought I was crazy to walk in the streets. The upper-class elite had literally built walls to separate themselves from the city and walking in the streets was a risk they were not willing to have. Nonetheless, I rarely walked anywhere alone, except to get to my Pilates class, which was just two blocks from my house.  And even then, I was not safe. One evening, around 8 PM, while I was coming home from a class, I overheard two men behind me saying “We should take this one to the bushes and give her a treat”. I immediately ran to my building and closed the gates behind me, as I heard them shout “We will be back another day sweetheart”. I didn’t walk anywhere for four months after that. Then, I moved.

What almost happened to me is a  cliché: a strange man in a dark street, helpless young woman all by herself — you know the rest. But most cases of rape in Brazil don’t happen like that. In fact, 76% of sexual violence victims in Brazil know their rapist. We all know someone who has been a victim. A close friend of mine was raped by her drunk “friend”. Another, by an older cousin, when she was only a child. Curiously, most of us don’t know any rapists.

According to Brazil’s Penal Code, rape is to force someone, through violence or threat, to have “carnal conjunction” or to practice or allow another “libidinous act” to be performed on someone. Penalties range from 6 to 30 years, depending on body injury, victims’ age, and death. It is considered a heinous crime and perpetrators are not eligible for bail. 

Every eight minutes a girl is raped in my country. The Forum de Segurança Pública reported more than 66 thousand cases of sexual violence in 2018. That is more than 180 rapes per day. To make matters worse, only 7.5 percent of victims notify the police. As my stomach churned while I struggled to write this paragraph, another girl in Brazil was raped. Probably a child, since 54 percent of the victims are under the age of 13.

The Penal Code is quite clear: you rape someone, you go to jail.  So why is a girl raped every eight minutes in Brazil? The first reason is simply that the law is not enforced. While there were  66 thousand cases of rape in 2018, Helio Buchmüller, former president of the Brazilian Academy of Forensic Science, estimates that only 1 percent of perpetrators ended up in jail (which means that less than 1 percent ends up in jain, given that only 7.5 percent notify the police). Although there is no official number, it seems clear that victims get little to no justice. The second reason, (and perhaps what causes the first) is that one-third of the Brazilian population (both men and women) agree that “a woman with provocative clothes cannot complain if she is raped”. Our culture accepts, even endorses, rape and prefers to victim blame rather than take action. And how do we change culture?

While shifting mentalities seem daunting, it is not impossible, and there are tangible actions that can be taken: 

  1. Execute the law. Simple as that, no explanation needed – judges and public prosecutors need to execute the penal code to its fullest extent, every time, no exceptions. 
  2. Sexual education at schools. Cultural shifts start with boys and girls learning how to identify inappropriate actions or attitudes, as well as how to protect themselves. While most Brazilians believe these classes promote a premature sexualization of children, they have been effective in helping children identify sexual abuse. Hundreds of instances of children finding out they were being raped in sexual education classes have been documented throughout Brazil. Sexual education does not just help children learn about appropriate behaviors, it also helps prevent child abuse.
  3. Mental health programs for men. Beliefs such as“Men don’t cry”, “men don’t feel” and “men are strong providers” might influence them in being violent to others and themselves. In the US the suicide rate among men is 3.54 times higher than the suicide rate among women. This pattern is true for most countries around the world. The adverse psychological effects of imposing these standards on men perpetuate violence against women and children and must be addressed diligently.
  4. Teach people how to intervene. One of the most famous cases of violence against women happened in Fortaleza in 2017. Two men bit up to almost death a transgender woman, Ms. Dandara do Santos, in public, in the middle of the day. They later put her in a wheelbarrow, relocated her to another site, and shot her twice. The attack was recorded, in which you can see about 20 people watching this occur, and doing nothing to stop it. The inaction of these 20 people is maybe scarier than the cruelty of the two men. Why didn’t they intervene? As John F Kennedy said in his 1961 speech, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing.”

The rape culture is a social disease, and changing culture is not an easy quest. Education can play an enormous role in raising more conscious and respectful boys and in empowering girls. But once a crime happens, the State must ensure justice.

No Means No Worldwide‘s programming in Kenya figured this out. They are providing sexual education and teaching kids about consent. Girls are taught to defend themselves and boys to respect women, disrupt harmful stereotypes, Both are taught to intervene in assaults. According to the program, “Some 50% of girls stopped a rape in the year after training, while 73% of boys who intervened in an assault successfully prevented its completion. Overall, interventions when witnessing assault jumped from 26% to 74%.

The rape culture is a social disease, and changing culture is not an easy quest. Education can play an enormous role in raising more conscious and respectful boys and in empowering girls. But once a crime happens, the State must ensure justice. If criminals are above the law, why would they stop committing crimes? And why would victims come forward? They are already suffering from the fear of retaliation and stigmatization. 

Between 2009 (when Brazil finally defined rape and instated it as a crime) and 2018, half a million women have been raped. Women risk attack in all facets of life: walking on the street, spending time with friends, at work, and at home. We let our friends know when we’re out alone and update them when we’ve managed to get home safely, and our friends wait up diligently into the late hours of the night to make sure we’re fine. But even home is not always a safe place for us. I don’t want to have to be brave to go out alone. I don’t want to have to be brave to stay home. I don’t want to have to be brave just to live my life.

[Thank you to the amazing women who reviewed this piece, Maddie Dejean, Gabriela Silvestrini, and Renata Penalva]

Julia Dias is from Bahia. She has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from UNICAMP and is current enrolled at the Master in Public Administration at Columbia University, with concentration in Urban and Social Policy. Before Columbia, Julia worked at the Inter-American Development Bank, Leading its Open Innovation program in Brazil and at Endeavor, leveraging the growth of the main innovative entrepreneurs in Brazil, structuring innovation ecosystems and lobbying for a more competitive business environment. At Columbia University, Julia is the president of the Technology and Innovation Student Association, Executive Secretary of Brazil Talk and Research Assistant of the Tech & Policy Initiative.