Latin America Advisor

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How Well Is Brazil Addressing Violence Against Women?

Photo of march in Brazil The Brazilian government has reportedly cut funding for fighting violence against women, but officials have said the government is taking the right actions to address the problem. // File Photo: Marcha Mundial das Mulheres.

President Jair Bolsonaro has cut Brazil’s budget for fighting violence against women by 90 percent, local newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported in September. The resources fell from about $19 million in 2020 to around $1.7 million this year, according to the report. Brazil’s Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights has defended the cut in funds on the grounds that other policy areas are addressing related issues. How well is Brazil’s government addressing violence against women? Are the budget cuts a serious problem, or has the Bolsonaro administration adopted policies elsewhere to address violence against women? What more should Brazil be doing with the issue, and what best practices elsewhere provide good models for policymakers in Brazil to follow?

Nestor Forster Jr., Brazil’s ambassador to the United States: “The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been taking strong actions to fight violence against women and promote feminine welfare. A major result of these efforts has been a nationwide decline of 7.7 percent in the femicide rate. It is worth noting that the general homicide rate dropped sharply, from 30 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017 to 19 today. Furthermore, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights established a national hotline to report domestic violence. This was of particular relevance during the pandemic, when there was an increase in cases of domestic violence. As President Bolsonaro remarked in his speech last month before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Brazilian government has enacted ample legislation in support of women. Another important line of action consists of improving the socioeconomic condition of women. The granting of 400,000 rural property deeds, 80 percent of which went to women, marked an important step toward helping women in situations of economic vulnerability. Brazil’s concern for women extends to neighboring countries as well. Of the approximately 600 Venezuelans crossing the border each day into Brazil, most are women and children who receive comprehensive assistance from government authorities. On the international front, Brazil occupies a leading position in promoting women’s health. The government is proud to be part of the 36-nation Geneva Consensus Declaration defending the right of women to enjoy the highest standards of health.”

Merike Blofield, member of the Advisor board and director of the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies and Nancy Madera, Ph.D. candidate at the National University of General San Martín in Argentina: “Brazil’s government is not addressing violence against women well at all. In addition to budget cuts, Bolsonaro has undermined efforts to fight violence against women (VAW) by deprioritizing VAW coordination institutionally. Folha reports that the budget for the two key federal VAW services—the women’s emergency centers and the VAW hotline—declined from 133 million reais in 2020 to just 20 million reais assigned for 2023. These two first response services are on the frontlines for addressing immediate needs, and countries around the world, including Brazil, have adopted them as best-practices policies over the past two decades. The 24-hour free hotline receives hundreds of thousands of calls annually, providing information, and recording, processing and monitoring VAW reports. It is hard to imagine how the hotline—which costs on average about 30 million reais a year to run—with 3 million reais assigned to it for 2023, according to Folha, will continue functioning. The emergency centers, ‘Casas da Mulher Brasileira,’ are ‘one-stop shops’ that provide legal, health and socio-psychological services to survivors. At present, seven such Casas are in operation. The government has promised to open many more, which will be impossible if the budget cuts are implemented. Cuts in both services will have devastating consequences for women who may have nowhere else to turn. Moreover, there is no way to subsume these services into others that do not focus on VAW or do not have nationwide coverage without a reduction in access and quality of services. Of course, aside from the hotline, the federal government is not the only entity that provides these services. The vast majority of women’s centers and shelters are provided sub-nationally, but demand for services far outstrips supply at every level. The federal cuts will be very strongly felt and sends a terrible signal to women in the country.”

Amy Erica Smith, associate professor of political science at Iowa State University: “Violence against women is a longstanding, pervasive problem in Brazil that is not limited to any single president or presidency. That said, the intersecting trends of drastically declining budgets at the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, plus increasing poverty and insecurity, have combined to produce a dire situation in recent years under Bolsonaro. A December 2021 study by the Brazilian Senate’s research arm found that 86 percent of Brazilian women believed that violence against women had increased in the past year, and that 68 percent of Brazilian women knew at least one woman who was the victim of domestic violence. Beyond budget cuts to the aforementioned ministry, other policy trends are not ameliorating the situation, but rather have further increased women’s insecurity under Bolsonaro. These include declining access to abortion for women who have been raped and who are victims of incest, as well as rapid growth in gun ownership as well as membership in gun advocacy groups known as ‘hunters, shooters, and collectors’ clubs. Addressing violence against women in Brazil will require changes at many levels: improvements in police investigations and the justice system’s prosecution of offenders; reduction in access to weapons; greater equality in women’s access to employment and reproductive rights; and cultural changes in the understanding of women’s social roles and rights. Initiatives such as hotlines to denounce offenders and special police bureaus for women may help, but by themselves they will not be sufficient.” 

Jaimee Swift, assistant professor of political science, and Kristin N. Wylie, associate professor of political science, both at James Madison University: “Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a pervasive problem in Brazil. According to the World Health Organization, Brazil ranks fifth globally in femicides. In 2021, a woman was raped every 10 minutes in Brazil. Global Voices reports that between 2007-2017, the murder rate of Black women in the country rose by 29.9 percent, more than six times the increase among non-Black women. Additionally, data from the National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals revealed that a transgender person is murdered or assassinated every 48 hours in Brazil, the global high. The 2006 María da Penha Law against domestic violence and 2019 Supreme Federal Court ruling making homophobia and transphobia a crime constitute milestones in the fight against GBV. Yet, these statistics demonstrate the limitations of the Brazilian government’s efforts to address the intersectional and multiform violence that overwhelmingly affects women of diverse backgrounds and identities. Particularly in the wake of Covid-19 and the associated ‘shadow pandemic’ of exacerbated GBV, the Bolsonaro administration’s budget cuts constitute a serious problem and signal to the country’s women-identified denizens that their livelihoods, safety and bodily autonomy are not priorities for the current government’s political agenda. The bulk of already under-allocated funds for combating GBV have gone to the #180 hotline for reporting domestic violence, leaving grossly inadequate resources for mitigating the structural conditions underpinning violence and undermining accountability. For best practices, Brazilian policymakers should look to and support civil society organizations across the country that are working daily to end GBV. Readers can learn more by checking out Instituto Marielle Franco, CFEMEA, Criola, and SOSCorpo.”

Debora Thome, associate researcher at the Center for Politics and Economics in the Public Sector Studies (Cepesp) of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil: “Institutions matter, but sometimes when they are fragile, governments matter even more. This is especially true when a far-right president and his group arrive in power, and their power to ruin some good plans and practices has become evident. Since 1985, Brazil has had a National Council for Women, a feminist institution, that was created by law. Among many other responsibilities concerning women’s issues and gendered policies, the council had a strong preoccupation with violence against women. This was not fortuitous: violence against women was one of the first agenda items of the Brazilian women’s movement in the 1980s and, more importantly, it was a subject that converges preferences of women from the across the political spectrum – from left to right. Even when they disagreed on other subjects, fighting violence against women, and domestic violence, seemed to be a path in common. Therefore, from 1985 to 2018, in periods with more or less power – and money available – the National Council for Women and correlated institutions of the state that are dedicated to women’s issues developed and or implemented policies to reduce the high rates of domestic violence and feminicides in Brazil. This includes the creation and promulgation of Maria da Penha Law, a very important law to protect women from perpetrators. During most of Workers’ Party’s time in power, Brazil had even a cabinet dedicated to women’s issues that was responsible for the ‘Policy for women: promoting autonomy and fighting violence.’ With the arrival of far-right President Bolsonaro in 2019, the profile of policies for women has completely changed, and the focus started to be on the concept of ‘family.’ The cabinet came to be called the ‘Cabinet of Women, Family and Human Rights’ and it was led by a female evangelical priest who was a fierce opponent of feminists and women’s rights. In this context, the policy changed its name to ‘Protection of Life, Strengthening the Family, Promotion and Defense of Human Rights for All.’ Programs to protect women were mostly discontinued.”

Pedro A. G. dos Santos, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University: “Brazil has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and the prevalence of this type of crime has diminished minimally during Bolsonaro’s presidency. The budget cuts in 2022 reflect an administration that did very little to address women’s issues more broadly and has no clear plan to address violence against women. Granted, these issues predate Bolsonaro’s government. Former President Dilma Rousseff’s last year in power saw diminished investment and the eventual extinction of the Secretariat for Women’s Policies (SPM), and the presidency of Michel Temer decimated the institutional apparatus supporting women’s issues and cut to almost zero the budget for most initiatives addressing violence against women. While Bolsonaro in 2019 established a new cabinet with the name ‘women’ in it, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights is much more focused on issues related to a narrow interpretation of family than in addressing women’s issues or human rights issues. The budget cuts only highlight that addressing women’s issues is a secondary goal; these cuts are worrisome and a serious problem for whomever is elected president. At a minimum, Brazil should re-establish a cabinet-level institution that focuses solely on women’s issues and can strategize with other cabinets on how to address gender issues, including violence against women. Ideally, the president should make violence against women a priority, allocating resources to a women-centered cabinet as well as to cabinets addressing issues related to health, education and justice.”

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