In Brazil, women are at huge risk of violence, especially if they are minorised Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ women.
According to the 2021 Atlas of Violence, one woman is killed every four hours in Brazil, where female homicides were reported as almost double the global average in 2017, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Compounding this, violence against women instantly increased – and intensified – when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns were ordered. During the first couple of months of Covid-19 confinement measures, Brazil saw a 22% increase in femicide and a 27% increase in complaints to the national violence against women helpline, compared to the same period of 2019.
Judges who specialize in gender-based violence estimate that cases of gendered violence have doubled – and women’s rights activists believe these alarming figures are only a fraction of the actual number, given the numerous obstacles facing women who need help (lack of access to services, lack of funds, distrust, fear and much more).
Throughout the world, this rise in violence against women and girls was dubbed “the shadow pandemic”, and regrettably, many governments cut funding to women’s aid, rather than putting more in place to support women.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has severely underestimated the effects of the pandemic and mishandled the situation, which intensified existing inequalities and conditions amongst the extremely marginalized.
However, despite serious institutional neglect, Brazilian women are spearheading effective, culturally-specific initiatives which draw on a range of tools, in order to support each other and reduce gendered violence.
For example, in São Paulo, activists from the Escola Feminista Abya Yala, an umbrella organization for Black women, spread information about the dangers of the virus and different precautions people could take, through memes and images sent virally via WhatsApp and social media.
When delivering food to vulnerable families, they’ve also been able to identify women at risk of abuse, and keep in touch with them using codewords to circumvent controlling partners.
Black Brazilian women from Odara – the Institute of Black Women and Life Brazil in Bahia, launched a solidarity initiative whereby women from the organization delivered food from local farmers and fishermen to vulnerable families, with the help of public donations – keeping the community afloat.
A new podcast titled Women Resisting Violence, co-produced by the Latin America Bureau and King’s College London, hears from Brazilian women in Rio de Janeiro and London about some of the strategies they are putting in place to transform their communities from inside out and campaign at a national level to end gendered violence.
Transforming the Community from Within
Women who do not have their own income are statistically more vulnerable to gender-based violence. In the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Maré – the largest and most populous set of favelas in the municipality – women often have only limited education, and are marginalized from formal employment. They are also usually heads of their household, juggling childcare, finances, work, and other family responsibilities.
Research from Cathy McIlwaine of King’s College London suggests that at least 41 percent of women in Maré have experienced gender-based violence. And this figure is likely to be an underestimate, given there are many forms of violence which women in the community don’t necessarily recognize as gender-based violence. As Michele, a woman from Maré explains in the Women Resisting Violence podcast, “The majority of women in Maré only see violence as something physical. We say things like: ‘That’s just how it is; all men do it’. We trivialize and accept the situation.”
This is where the Women’s House steps in. A subsidiary organization of the NGO Redes da Maré (Networks of Maré), the Casa das Mulheres was created by Eliana Sousa Silva to improve the lives and living conditions of women in Maré and their families – many of whom are survivors of gendered violence.
The Women’s House helps women in different facets of their lives, running vocational training courses where they can learn hairdressing assistance (certified by L’Oreal), cookery and advanced gastronomy – ensuring they spend time away from the home and gain some financial independence. All women who take vocational courses here are also required to take classes in women’s rights.
For Michele, it’s essential that women in her community understand what gender-based violence is. “I began to understand this from doing the courses on gender at Maré de Sabores,” she explains.
Alongside these courses, the Women’s House also offers the services of lawyers, social workers, and a psychologist, which are often called on when a woman encounters issues when taking a course. Julia, the activities coordinator, explains in the podcast: “The idea is that a woman who arrives at the Women’s House has access to a whole range of options to tap into.”
During the pandemic, amid neglect from Bolsonaro’s government, the Maré Network and Women’s House rapidly responded to the changing needs of the women it supports. Many of their services were transferred online, which has “permanently revolutionized” their services, according to Eliane, and the Buffet Maré de Sabores, which functioned as a catering company-for-hire serving people outside of the community, instead turned their attention to Maré.
Michele, a Sabores chef and instructor on the cookery course, explains: “We started providing food for the most vulnerable people in Maré, and in doing this we also managed to maintain our salaries. It was very rewarding.”
The Casa das Mulheres is filling in a gap where the state refuses to support women. Eliana, the director tells us in the podcast:
“The state’s response to gender issues is very weak—I would say almost non-existent—in the sense of reaching those who need them. Women suffer generally from the patriarchal power structure, […] Black and Indigenous women have very specific historical demands and we are very, very far from public policies coming anywhere near helping these women.”
Yet despite the transformational work of this pioneering women’s house, change is also needed from above for women’s lives to improve. Julia states that “If Black women in Brazil are the ones who suffer the most from gender-based violence, it is these women that have to be there drawing up public policy, instead of the way it is currently being done.”
Migrant Women in London Step Up to the Challenge
6,000 miles away, across the Atlantic, Brazilian and other migrant women in London are also standing in for the lack of public services designed to help women who’ve experienced abuse. Through their campaigns and lobbying, they are challenging legislation, too.
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, from London’s Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), coordinates the Step Up Migrant Women Campaign – a coalition of more than 50 organizations that support and advocate for migrant women with insecure immigration status who have experienced gender-based violence.
One of the campaign’s public speakers is Gil, herself a survivor of abuse. Gil fled home and approached UK police for emergency help, which she was denied, because of her immigration status. Despite being led to believe by her partner who had dual status, that she could enter the country as a tourist and later acquire the correct papers, time passed, and Gil became undocumented. “He used my lack of status to be abusive, basically,” Gil explains in the third episode of the podcast.
Thankfully, Gil found the Latin American Women’s Service (LAWRS), who provided frontline services like much-needed counseling, integration activities, confidence building exercises, and legal advice for housing, debt, and employment rights.
After experiencing LAWRS’ services and becoming part of their community, Gil now works with the organization, becoming a key campaigner with Step Up Migrant Women and even giving evidence in UK Parliament during a debate on the new Domestic Violence Act 2021.
LAWRS’ work, much like that of Redes da Maré in Rio, is informed by women’s needs – as well as academic research. These grassroots organizations constantly adapt to support women’s changing needs, for example, in response to rising numbers of deadly police raids, intensification of domestic violence over lockdowns or rising racism under new governments.
Migrants in Action (MinA) is another group that LAWRS works with to address women’s needs. A community theater group in London, MinA was established by and for Brazilian women who have experienced gender-based violence. They provide a safe space where women can, through theater techniques, build the confidence to share their experiences, collectively identify different forms of violence, and heal. Carolina Cal, the group’s artistic director, says in the podcast, “We believe every woman has something to say, we just need to ensure a safe space to listen.”
It is clear that this work is vital for Brazilian women in London: research by Cathy McIlwaine found that 82 percent have experienced gendered violence in their lives, with half of them experiencing violence in London.
Reinterpreting McIlwaine’s research into gendered violence, the group’s new project ‘We Still Fight in the Dark’ uses applied arts workshops designed for improving wellbeing and developing community healing. Women in this project have composed poems and songs about their experiences of violence and created a multimedia performance with Brazilian artists to increase awareness of the issue in the UK and online.
“We connect as immigrant women […] together we are stronger”, the group says.
But despite the powerful healing and lobbying of these grassroots groups, they can’t fight this issue alone. Support must be provided from above. Whilst these organizations continue to help their communities, they are continually calling on the governments of Brazil and the UK for formal support. MinA will be creating a policy toolkit, to demonstrate that by combining aid services, artistic therapy, digital campaigning, theater techniques, professional education and litigation support, real change can be made.
Redes da Maré have collected a wealth of data throughout the pandemic and through their support work, used for lobbying. Julia, the coordinator of the women’s house says, “If Black women in Brazil are the ones who suffer the most from gender-based violence, it is these women that have to be there drawing up public policy”. The group continues to raise awareness and support for this case.
Step Up Migrant Women have been in the courts presenting evidence on the damaging effects of prioritizing immigration status over safety, especially for domestic abuse and slavery victims. Sadly, a review published 15 December, 2021, makes clear that the Home Office insists current data sharing practices between the police and the HO are essential in “protecting those most vulnerable” and enforcing the UK’s immigration laws. LAWRS tweeted:
“Orgs working with victims can’t in good faith collaborate with police to encourage victims to report without making it very clear what the risks are. Based on our experience, this model will not work as migrant victims of domestic abuse and modern slavery will not trust the police.”
Until they can safely co-operate with authorities, LAWRS will continue to fill this shocking gap in services for migrant women, just as the Casa Das Mulheres does in Rio. To stand by these groups and support their campaigns, please listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts, share it and leave a review.