RIO DE JANEIRO — “My best hope is that he dies,” the tall, slight and articulate 45-year-old speech therapist said calmly of her husband. “I know that he can kill me.”
The woman, who asked not to be identified, had gone to the courts in Rio de Janeiro to seek protection from her husband of 22 years.
After her husband suffered a psychiatric breakdown in 2001, she said, he became violent and threatened to kill her, their daughter and himself. “I learned that between him and me, it’s me first,” she said.
It is estimated that more than 13 million women have been victims of domestic abuse in Brazil, where a woman is killed every two hours. Despite measures to reduce domestic violence with the Maria da Penha law in 2006, government figures suggest 700,000 women still live with aggression and assaults. Out of 84 countries, Brazil had the seventh-highest rate of women killed, according to the World Health Organization.
But women’s rights campaigners hope a femicide law passed in March that defines gender-based killings and sets out tougher punishments will bolster legislation that has so far failed to curb violence against women. The penalty ranges from 12 to 30 years in prison; under the new law, the tariff can be increased by a third if the victim is pregnant, is under 14, is older than 60 or has a disability or if the crime happens in front of the woman’s parents or children.
“A law like this has a symbolic significance,” said Carla Batista, a gender and feminism expert at the Federal University of Bahia and member of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights. “It reinforces what has already been recognized under the Maria da Penha law —violence against women is a crime, cannot be accepted and needs to be eradicated from our society.”
“It seems that the necessity of a law that criminalizes femicide also signifies a recognition of the state’s inability to deal effectively with the problem,” she added.
At Projeto Violeta in downtown Rio, judges work to expedite cases of domestic abuse and speed up access to court orders under the Maria da Penha law. In almost two years, the initiative — a partnership between the courts, public prosecutors and civil police — has helped more than 650 women escape abusive partners or relatives. Working within the legal system, the public project receives referrals from police, and its legal experts assist victims immediately, offering swift recourse.
The Maria da Penha law, named after a domestic abuse survivor who fought to have her husband convicted, gives police 48 hours to act when a woman reports domestic abuse. A judge then has an additional 48 hours to grant protective measures, which can include a restraining order of 300 meters.
Those behind Projeto Violeta said the deadlines are still too long — leaving women in dangerous situations for up to four days — and have tried to reduce the time frame of the whole process to just four hours.
While the Maria da Penha law has been internationally recognized by the U.N. for addressing domestic violence, coordinators at Projeto Violeta said ending violence against women would take a long-term shift in attitudes that go back to the country’s colonization. The new femicide law has been seen as an important step forward in recognizing gender-based killings as a specific crime and raising awareness of continuing sexist attacks.
“The Maria da Penha law is a recent law. And you don’t change a culture of centuries in nine years,” said Adriana Ramos de Mello, who created Projeto Violeta. “And you’re also not going to change it with just laws, judges and police stations. We have to change the whole system.”
According to the Institute of Public Security, in Rio alone last year there were 420 women murdered and more than 56,000 cases of assault. Some 8.5 percent of murder victims in the state were women, and more than 1 in 10 died in a domestic environment. The rate of femicide across Brazil has steadily grown, to 4.6 per 100,000 in 2010, while the level in the U.S. has stayed at 2 to 3 per 100,000 — a rate similar to Argentina’s and Chile’s.
It was not difficult to find Brazilian women who have suffered unprovoked violence. In a straw poll on the streets of downtown Rio, many women spoke of enduring aggression or violence.
“We suffer every day,” said Gabriela Carriço, 39, an events producer. “I had a case of abuse when I was a child, and I have seen this a lot.
“The big problem is that many women are chauvinistic and they don’t even realize it. They are so used to that system that they will raise a son in a way that he will become one of these little men who does not respect women.”
Gabriela Dottori, 26, a psychology student, said she left home when she was 17 because she was abused by her family.