Unveiling the Harsh Reality: Women and Children in Brazil Caught in Dire Circumstances
In the past year, rates of sexual violence against women and children in Brazil have hit an all time high. Data published in the Brazilian Public Security Forum’s 2023 Yearbook substantiates this dark reality. The Brazilian Public Security Forum is the nation’s leading non-governmental organisation that analyses links between law enforcement and public security in Brazil.
In 2022, the registered number of rape cases in Brazil reached 74,930. Of these, a staggering 88.7% of victims were female, 56.8% were of Afro-Brazilian ethnicity, and 60% were aged 14 years or younger. During this period, other forms of violence also increased. For instance, femicide, the killing of a woman based on their gender, rose by 6.2% and attempted femicide by 16%. The sexual exploitation of minors also rose by 16.4%.
While Brazil has historically experienced high rates of sexual violence, this new spike exacerbates concerns about how safe it is to be a woman or a child in Brazil.
The Yearbook discusses some key factors that have culminated over the past decade that help to explain the recent spike in sexual violence against women and children.
The Brazilian Public Security Forum cited the far-right leadership of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who served from 2019-2022, as a prominent reason for the country’s rising sexual violence rates. Having served for 17 years in the military, Bolsonaro idealised the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil between 1964-1985. He was able to come to power during the political and economic turmoil of the mid-2010s when the Petrobras scandal revealed corruption within the government and private sector. Under these circumstances, Bolsonaro capitalised on Brazil’s polarised society, pushing a populist anti-establishment campaign and a conservative approach to social issues. Accordingly, Bolsonaro’s government introduced a slew of anti-rights policies, reduced financial resources to curb gender-based violence by 94%, implemented laws preventing sex education in schools, and sought to abolish the Ministry of Human Rights as part of his pro-family values agenda. The combination of these populist policies and Bolsonaro’s macho leadership created an environment of hegemonic masculinity, whereby the concept of male superiority was legitimised by Brazilian society. Further, his incessant and insensitive remarks towards minorities afforded Bolsonaro the label the ‘Trump of the Tropics’.
The severity to which Bolsonaro’s policies influenced gendered violence was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While no national lockdown was implemented, each state and municipality introduced various lockdowns and restrictions throughout 2020 and early 2021. Usually, these included school closures, suspending non-essential businesses, and limiting public gatherings, which meant families were confined to their homes. The Yearbook linked this to the increasing rates of sexual violence against minors in Brazil, as schools and teachers that usually provide social support and monitor the wellbeing of children ceased amid the lockdowns.
Implications for Women and Children
The implications of sexual violence on women and children are alarming and numerous. Victims may experience emotional trauma, poor mental health, social isolation, and their work or education may be negatively impacted.
These damaging effects combined with the deteriorating social infrastructure linked to Bolsonaro’s presidency make it even harder for victims to access help or feel supported in their community. This also contributes to the plethora of reasons why victims may choose not to report their experience of abuse. These may include a fear of not being believed, a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, and existing societal norms which stigmatise victims. Consequently, these factors make it difficult to assess the true extent of sexual violence in Brazil.
Regardless, these worsening statistics indicate increasingly dangerous circumstances which prevent women and children from safely participating in Brazilian society. This is concerning, because Brazil is already among the most violent countries in the world for women, with a murder rate of 3.5 per 100,000 female inhabitants. Brazil also has the 5th highest rate of child marriages globally, a statistic that has remained high despite amendments to the Civil Code outlawing marriage below the age of 16. Notably, The Equal Measures Index, which rates each country’s progress in achieving gender equality in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranked Brazil 78th out of 144 countries in 2022. Brazil’s progress in SDG 5: Gender Equality has been ranked as very poor, and decreased from 50.1 in 2015 to 46.2 in 2020. These statistics are indicative of Brazil having ingrained societal norms of gender inequality that will require extensive efforts to undo.
An intersectional issue
The data released in the Yearbook also indicates sexual violence in Brazil is largely an intersectional issue. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to overlapping characteristics an individual may possess which increases their vulnerability to discrimination and oppression. In Brazil, individuals who are women, Black or Indigenous are more likely to experience sexual violence than those who are only women or only Black. This means an individual’s gender and race interact in complex ways, influencing their experience of discrimination.
The intersectional nature of Brazil’s sexual violence becomes strikingly evident through the aforementioned statistic, that a disturbing 56.8% of documented rape victims were of Black ethnicity. Similarly, the Amazon region, where the majority of the Indigenous population resides recorded disproportionately higher rates of violence. This shows that the intersection of racial and gender discrimination seriously influences the probability of experiencing sexual violence.
What needs to change
The Yearbook urged the importance of adequate sex and respect education in schools. This would enable children to learn about appropriate sexual behaviours and help them to identify sexual abuse at home. It also facilitates a safe environment for children to raise concerns with teachers and serves to curb gender-based discrimination by entrenching norms of gender equality from an early age.
Extensive legal reform is also necessary to address gender-based sexual violence. New laws must effectively criminalise sexual and domestic violence and protect victims, particularly in the private sphere. Laws should acknowledge the gendered and racial nature of sexual violence. Alongside this, greater investment in public services and social infrastructure can provide victims with resources, support and increase public awareness around the stigma victims face. If done correctly, this would also serve to combat the far right and pro-family attitudes Bolsonaro amplified during his Presidency.
Change will not happen overnight, however, Brazil can begin to reduce rates of sexual violence and reform social norms if the aforementioned policies are paired with an adequate allocation of resources and stringent implementation methods.
Fortunately, the current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has acknowledged the seriousness of the issue at hand. He recently announced new initiatives to build more safe houses for women experiencing domestic violence, commence training programs to upskill women in precarious situations, and promote equal pay for men and women. While this is welcomed, for Brazil to make its dark history of sexual violence against women and children a thing of the past, considerable work from a top-down approach is required to promote positive behavioural change.
Victoria Jagger is currently studying a Bachelor of Law and Arts, majoring in Human Rights at Monash University. As a New Colombo Plan Scholar, she is currently located in Singapore interning with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). She is interested in exploring how international relations and foreign policy decisions impact both individual and collective rights.