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Macho notions of rape linger in Brazil

Study finds onus is still on women to dress and behave properly

May 8, 2014 1:15AM ET

Statistics show that sexual violence against women is very prevalent in Brazil, but it tends to escape media attention unless it involves a grisly incident or a victimized tourist. It remains alarmingly underreported and easily displaced by other news, such as the upcoming (and sacrosanct) World Cup or clashes between gangs and the police in the favelas of Rio.  

But a study conducted by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), in partnership with U.N. Women’s Brazil branch, reveals public attitudes toward rape that are more disturbing than indifference. Published in late March, it initially reported that 65.1 percent of Brazilians believed that women who dressed in revealing clothes deserved to be raped. Shockingly, of those surveyed, 65 percent were women. (The survey was conducted with a reflective sample of 3,810 Brazilians across 212 cities between May and June 2013.)

The study’s findings created a stir across social media. Journalist Nana Queiroz started a hashtag campaign: #NãoMereçoSerEstuprada (“I don’t deserve to be raped”). She subsequently received rape threats. Meanwhile, perhaps shortsightedly, some expressed dismay that such statistics would soil Brazil’s reputation in advance of the World Cup.

Amid this debate, the IPEA then announced an error in the published numbers. The percentages represented by the answers to two of its survey questions had been accidentally switched: Rather than 65 percent, it was 26 percent of Brazilians who believed women wearing provocative clothes deserve to be raped — a glaring mistake, although the correct number is still quite shocking. Nevertheless, media criticism of the IPEA and its research was harsh, with many quickly discrediting the findings of the whole study.

But it would be foolish to dismiss the study on the basis of an unfortunate publishing error. The rest of the findings remain relevant and underscore deeply held, problematic beliefs about women. For example, 58.5 percent agreed that if women knew how to behave properly, there would be fewer cases of rape. According to Camila Morsch, a member of the Civil Society Advisory Group for U.N. Women, this statistic is a telling indicator of sexism in Brazilian society and the daily dangers that women face.

Morsch pointed to another problematic finding: A majority of Brazilians believed (58.4 percent totally agreed and 23.5 percent partially agreed) that cases of domestic violence should be resolved within the family; it’s a belief that for decades has protected perpetrators and rendered victims invisible.

As I have argued elsewhere, the rhetoric of sexual harassment has only recently entered into Brazilian society. These findings are proof that there is much work left to be done.

The Fernandes case study

There are vivid examples of a disturbing rape culture that justifies violence against women. Brazilian goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes de Souza signed a contract to play on the Montes Claros soccer team in February, while he was serving a 22-year prison sentence. Fernandes was convicted last year of ordering the brutal murder of his former girlfriend, Eliza Samudio, in 2010, when he was playing on Flamengo, one of Brazil’s biggest teams. According to testimony, she was strangled, cut up and fed to dogs. Three years into his 22-year sentence, Fernandes will likely be allowed to train with the Montes Claros team, returning to his jail cell only at night.

The concept of the ‘honest woman’ has been retired from the national penal code, but it has left a stain on cultural attitudes.

Throughout the case, the words used to describe Samudio were telling. Many publicly referred to her as a “Maria Chuteira,” a label for women who pursue relationships with soccer players. The insinuation: Samudio laid herself open to, even deserved, this grotesque destiny.

Her own lawyer felt compelled to state that despite her reputation, Samudio was still legally innocent. The necessity of insisting on the innocence of a brutally murdered woman would seem to dovetail with the IPEA’s findings that more than half of Brazilians blame the behavior of women as the determining cause of attack, rape or even murder.

Meanwhile, Fernandes’ lawyers hope to arrange his release from prison. Stressing his importance to the national soccer scene, they claim he has repented and wishes to pay his dues through stellar performances on the field. It is an extraordinary claim to make: that the goalkeeper’s excellence as a player should be given precedence in the eyes of the law. 

A crime against dignity

Before 2009, rape was defined in Brazil’s penal code as a crime against social dignity — an insult directed at the integrity of the family (e.g., a woman’s husband or father). Rape justice was predicated on the idea of the “honest woman” (a translation from Roman Civil Law that was codified in the 1940s), which considered only unmarried virgins and married women deserving of the law’s full protection.

In 2009, the penal code was changed to define rape as a crime against dignity and sexual freedom. Since then, a study produced by Rio de Janeiro’s Institute of Public Security reported a 24 percent increase in rape cases between 2011 and 2012, indicating that more people than before were encouraged to report the crime to the police.

But further work remains. The decision to report rape is obstructed by social taboos: The IPEA study estimated that there are 527,000 attempted rapes per year in Brazil, of which only 10 percent are reported.

Drawing attention to such statistics may help provoke public discussion, but we hardly need them to see the strong hold of sexism on the collective Brazilian psyche. Though the concept of the “honest woman” has been retired from the national penal code, it has left a stain on cultural attitudes. The cases spotlighted by the media address a mere fraction of the entrenched macho attitudes that shape women’s lives. Such an atmosphere discourages women from making autonomous decisions about their sexual rights or the clothing they wear.

The IPEA study — the first of its kind — generated an important debate about Brazil’s culture of rape. It showed an unacceptable level of social tolerance for sexist behavior and justified violence against women. There is a deep need for further national discourses that prioritize concerns about rape and violence. Only then will Brazil be able to adequately address a societal infrastructure that continues to reinforce sexist, patriarchal attitudes. 

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, politics and media, currently based in Sao Paulo.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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