Brazil’s legal protection of women’s rights has been praised by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as ‘unprecedented’ and an ‘influential model’ to be imitated by all nations. While the Brazilian Constitution says that everybody must have the same basic rights, other laws provide prison penalties and fines for any situation of sexist behaviour, including the use of pejorative terms against women.
The law of the land also provides special police stations only for women, offering them specific services such as psychological counseling for victims of domestic violence, hospital treatment for victims of rape, and investigation of any crime against women.
Despite the written law, it is well known by everybody that violence against Brazilian women occurs with frequency. A 2004 document released by the UN-Habitat reveals that Brazil has one of the highest levels of incidents described as rape, attempted rape, and indecent assault against women in the world. The report also states that such violent crimes are usually underreported, and the perpetrators unlikely to be punished.
A 2001 study of 61.5 million women carried out by the Perseu Abramo Foundation found that every year 2.1 million Brazilian women are victims of physical violence. This means that every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in Brazil. It also reveals that 6.8 million Brazilian women have suffered from beatings by their partners, relatives, and other acquaintances.
In 2004 alone, explains Health Minister Saraiva Felipe, 189,000 Brazilian women over the age of 10 had been admitted to hospitals with fractures, dislocations, and traumas to various parts of the body, including the skull.
The vast majority of criminal complaints related to violence against women in Brazil have been suspended without final conclusion. A 2002 document of the World Organization Against Torture (WOAT) explains that only 2% of such complaints have led to any conviction. As for those few cases resulting in conviction, the WOAT complains that the punishment for first-degree murder and rape were ‘very light’.
According to Norma Kyriakos, a Brazilian lawyer and former attorney-general of São Paulo state, “instead of giving him [the criminal] community service [or jail sentence], judges [often] propose he pays for a basket of food or other goods for a charitable institution.
And so the man keeps doing it because he knows that’s all he’ll have to pay… Women today are still afraid to go to the police because they are afraid of their attackers… They know that when they are finished here with the delegada [i.e.; female chief police] or judge they are on their own again”.
A case which serves to illustrate the current situation occurred in 1983. The case is about a woman who was left paraplegic after suffering several murder attempts by her husband. After waiting more than 15 years for any judicial decision, she then filed a lawsuit against the country with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. In 2001, members of this commission judged the government of Brazil guilty of negligence, omission, and tolerance with respect to domestic violence against women.
In relation to the working rights of women, the 1988 Constitution explicitly forbids any salary differentiation between the sexes. Actually, the basic law actually provides ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of working women, granting them special constitutional rights such as three months’ paid maternity leave and protection against dismissal for pregnancy.
In practice, however, the Organization of American States (OAS) reports that women bearing children have been dismissed in Brazil regardless of legislation to the contrary. The report suggests that some employers have illegally required ‘proof of sterilization’ as a pre-condition for women to be employed.
Finally, the OAS maintains that even the government itself openly recognizes that the average salary of women is 54% below what is normally paid to male counterparts possessing similar levels of education and qualification.
The constant violation of women’s rights highlights the prevalence of a ‘macho’ culture where Brazilian men are expected to ‘prove’ their ‘masculinity’ by treating women as mere sexual objects. A major problem for the application of these rights is associated with the extra-legal, sociological fact that many men in Brazil “believe they have the right to physically dominate their partners, and many women accept a submissive role”.
This ‘macho’ culture may help to explain the proliferation of sexual violence, unstable unions, adultery, and illegitimacy, as factors that might naturally lead to the widespread violation of women’s rights.
Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitutional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is: email@example.com.