Sexual Violence against Children and Adolescents in Brazil: What does it mean?

By Gabriela Silvestrini

[9 min read]

Sexual violence is an ancient global pandemic that does not choose economy, color, age, or place. Unfortunately and not surprisingly, high numbers of sexual violence are committed by men against women, regardless of age, including babies. In 2019, according to the National Human Rights Ombudsman, Brazil registered 17 thousand cases of sexual violence against children and adolescents, in which 82% of the victims were girls (0 to 18 years old) and 87% of the offenders were men.

During the COVID-19 pandemic institutions such as UNICEF were concerned about the presumable increase in cases of sexual violence due to the stay-at-home orders. At the same time, the INTERPOL reports on child sexual exploitation showed a decrease in notifications of child abuse and increased sharing of child exploitation materials, due to the closure of schools and the increase of online activities and consequent exposure to the internet. The pandemic brought to light the fragile situation of children’s rights that society – often complicit- was too blind to see. 

Therefore, as education is a fair and fruitful path in raising awareness and to sensitize the ones who are interested, some concepts and data prevalence on sexual violence against girls in Brazil are shared here. To begin with, it is important to understand that sexual violence encompasses a wide range of behaviors, and the following are the most common forms of it in Brazil:

Sexual Abuse: By coercion, threat, or physical force, and intending to satisfy the offender’s pleasure, sexual abuse frequently occurs by people close to the victim, such as family members, neighbors, teachers, and may or may not involve physical contact. The act can go from sexual conversations to rape. In 2019, 73% of the sexual violence cases reported to the National Human Rights Ombudsman took place at the victim’s or offender’s home, 40% of which were by father or stepfather.

Child marriages: Child marriage is described by the United Nations as a premature and forced union, where girls are the vast majority. According to Tirando o Véu, a study on child marriage by Plan International, Brazil is the 4th country in the world in girls’ marriages, and is among the five countries with more cases in Latin America.

Sexual exploitation of children and adolescents: Sexual exploitation is the criminal practice of “trade for sex” or transactional sex, in which the child or adolescent is subjected to sexual contact in exchange for money, food, objects of interest such as a cell phone, among other consumer goods. Some forms permeate sexual exploitation:

  • Sexual exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT): The practice occurs when a traveler, whether domestic or international, engages in the practice of sexual contact with local children and adolescents, who may have been recruited by an exploitation agency or act autonomously. According to the results of the Global Study on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism in 2016, these practices have been expanding as a result of globalization and the growth of the tourism industry. According to reports, the contributing factors to SECTT in America Latina are economic dependence on tourism, sexist social norms, income inequality, violence, corruption, impunity e outros. It was also described that in Brazil the age group of offenders is lower than in other countries.
  • Sexual Trafficking: refers to the abduction and enticement to practice sexual exploitation. According to the Global Study on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism, in several countries of Latin America, most of the victims are children, and a large part of them are trafficked from rural or tourist areas.

Online Sexual Violence: currently, sexual violence practices extend to the online format, in which coercion and exposure of minors, through pornography and incitement by images, has grown worldwide. Data from Safernet Brazil shared by the Childhood Brazil Activity Report, showed that in 2019 there were over 46 thousand complaints of child and adolescent pornography on the internet.

Despite all efforts, sexual violence of children is growing. The underreporting rate during the pandemic can reveal a high dependence in schools for the protection of children and adolescents, demonstrating weakness in the broader network of protection of children and adolescents.

All forms of sexual violence explained above are considered a crime even if there is a claim of consent from the minor. According to the Brazilian Federal Constitution (Art. 227 § 4º) the law will severely punish the abuse, violence, and sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. Therefore, these acts in Brazil constitute a crime and the Brazilian Penal Code may attribute to the defendant’s crimes of Sexual Harassment (Art. 215-A), Sexual Harassment when there is some hierarchy involved (Art. 216-A), Rape (Art. 213), or Rape of Vulnerable, when the victim is under 14 years old (Art. 217-A). Facilitators of exploitation (pimps or others involved) must also be judged under the Article 218-B for submitting, inducing, or attracting prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation to anyone under 18 years of age. Sexual Trafficking goes under Article 231. The recording or disclosure of rape scene or rape scene of vulnerable, sex scene, or pornography is also a crime under Article 216-B and Article 218-C, respectively.

In Brazil, the creation of the National Action Plan to Combat Sexual Violence Against Children and Adolescents – Faça Bonito – in 2003, represented a milestone of hope and changes. In 2013 an action plan for the decade was presented, based on indicators systematized by the following axes: Prevention, Attention, Defense and Responsibilization, Communication and Social Mobilization, Participation and Protagonism, and finally, Studies and Research.

Besides the National Action Plan and other practices promoted by the federal and state governments, some nonprofit institutes and NGO’s embraced the cause working actively to diminish Children’s Sexual Violence in Brazil. By the identification of several risk and protective factors, these organizations created very promising programs including political advocacy and social mobilization strategies worth of note: 

  • The Instituto Liberta is dedicated to teaching sex education in public schools, also in training and sensitizing teachers, and creating campaigns to combat child sexual exploitation. They recently launched, along with partners, the documentary Um Crime Entre Nós, bringing focus to the Brazilian reality of sexual exploitation of children and youth. 
  • Childhood Brazil leads several projects educating and engaging society in the protection of children, such as with construction companies, truck drivers and the tourism industry. The institution engages in the development of social policies and have recently participated in the promotion of the Listening Protected – Law (13.431).
  • The Plan International develops and conducts studies on the theme, as Tirando o Véu, a study on child marriage.
  • The INTERPOL holds the International Child Sexual Exploitation database, with more than 2.7 million photos and videos of child abuse situations, in which data is extracted and analized from many sources, and victims identification experts correlate the facts and find victims and perpetrators. In Brazil, Interpol intelligence action is carried out by the Federal Police. In September 2020, this database led to the arrest of a Brazilian man that used to post materials of child abuse in various Darknet forums.

Despite all efforts, sexual violence of children is growing. The underreporting rate during the pandemic can reveal a high dependence in schools for the protection of children and adolescents, demonstrating weakness in the broader network of protection of children and adolescents. Indeed the school environment is the place where the children spend much of their time, also where more relationships outside the family are cultivated, allowing the identification of strange or unhealthy behaviors. However, this dependence indicates the need to strengthen protective networks for children, adolescents, and their families. 

Therefore, it may be interesting that the National Plan, which is the guiding principle of public policies, receives incursions of technological innovations and the implementation of a robust network of intersectoral integration, in which the objective must be to reach the full potential of all fronts of action. Brazil has laws, resources, government sectors, and incredible projects that aim in achieving the same goal but are not efficiently integrated. There are institutions with well-established relations to the United Nations, but not to the Child Protective Services in the municipalities.

Efficient data sharing and cross-checking need to come into place. This way, actions will be carried out more efficiently, which will expand the exchange of information and knowledge, leading to a feasible way of sharing local studies and scientific evidence. As a result, the implementation of a robust collaborative context will increase the chances of achieving success in scale and hopefully stopping this cycle of harm.  

Trailer. “Um crime entre nós”

[I am very grateful to the changemakers that collaborated on the work: Renata Penalva, Izabela Souza, Julia Dias, and Pedro Vormittag.]

Gabriela Silvestrini is a Master of Neuroscience and Education candidate at Teachers College/Columbia University, concentrating in Neuroscience of Adversity and currently focusing on studying child abuse and neglect. Before starting at Teachers College, she worked as an Occupational Therapist with socially vulnerable populations in Brazil in the Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) Reference Center of Minas Gerais and at LAIS/UFMG, a nonprofit organization focused on research and the care of children from low-income households presenting difficulties in sensory processing, attention, social and affective interactions. She was also a researcher for the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC), in partnership with UFSCar and UFMG, accessing compliance of accessibility conditions of the Brazilian air transportation system including the perspectives of both travelers and services providers. Gabriela is a Lemann Fellow and is part of the Lemann Foundation “Rede de Líderes”.