Even with renewed laws, Brazil struggles to protect women amid rising femicide

Women marching in Rio de Janeiro to raise awareness of femicide rates in Brazil: “It's for women's lives. Sexism kills,” Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, used with permission.

This story is part of Global Voices’ special coverage on gender-violence in Latin America.

While Brazil's murder rate declines, femicide — the killing of women as a result of domestic violence or on account of gender, usually by a man and very often her partner — is on the rise.

In 2019, the overall murders of men and women in Brazil dropped 19 percent in comparison to 2018, but femicides had a 12 percent increase, according to an analysis by news outlet G1 based on official data by state governments.

Brazil ranks fifth in femicide rates worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and the staggering numbers have been called “alarming” by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

But the explanation recent increase might lie with a recent legislative change: In 2015, Brazil added the crime of femicide to its penal code. Femicide is now an aggravating factor in murder cases, with even harsher penalties when the victims are pregnant, disabled, and under the age of 14 or over 60.

The executive director of the Brazilian Public Safety Forum, Samira Bueno has been analyzing the data on violence for years for the Atlas of Violence, a long-established annual study of violence in Brazil published the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea).

According to Bueno, the law has encouraged law enforcement to distinguish femicide from overall homicides, naturally leading to an increase in crimes framed as such. Speaking with Global Voices via telephone, she said:

Nesse contexto de morte violenta de mulheres, o número de fatos enquadrados como feminicídio também aumentou. Ou seja, o número de mortes é um número absoluto, mas o número de feminicídio é variável porque depende da interpretação que se dá no momento de registro da ocorrência. Aumentar esses números é um aspecto positivo e que revela envolvimento e conscientização por parte das autoridades.

In this context, the number of deaths is an absolute number, but the number of femicides is variable since it depends on the interpretation given by investigators when the crime occurs. To see these numbers growing is a positive aspect and shows engagement and awareness by the authorities. 

However, there has also been an actual increase in all crimes related to gender-violence, such as bodily injury resulting from domestic violence and rape. Bueno also points:

A maior parte dos crimes de feminicídio decorre de violência doméstica, que está aumentando. Por isso o assunto tem se tornado central no Brasil. A violência de gênero continua sendo o ‘calcanhar de Aquiles’ em termos de política de segurança pública.

Most crimes of femicide stem from domestic violence, which is on the rise. This is why the issue has become central in Brazil. Gender-based violence is still our “Achilles” heel in terms of public security policy.

 Bueno considers this a very peculiar moment in Brazil’s history:

Nós nunca tivemos tantas leis abordando violência contra as mulheres. Foi um avanço importante, mas precisamos ter a clareza de que leis penais não mudam comportamento. 

We have never had so many laws tackling violence against women. It's an important progress, but we need to have the clarity that laws don't change behavior.

Three facts about gender-based violence in Brazil

According to Bueno, there are three key points concerning gender violence today in Brazil:

Black women are the leading victims

Between 2007 and 2017, the murder rate of black women grew 29.9 percent compared to 4.5 percent of non-black women. Over 65 percent of all women who were murdered in 2017 were black, according to the Atlas of Violence. Bueno notes: 

Raça e classe são elementos fundamentais pra entender violência de gênero. As negras têm menor escolaridade, vivem em áreas mais periféricas e tem mais dificuldade de acessar instrumentos públicos. Tem salários mais baixos que mulheres brancas com a mesma escolaridade.

Race and class are key elements to understand gender-based violence. Black women have less education, will likely live in the outskirts, which makes it harder for them to access public services. They have lower wages than white women with the same education.

The overlapping of gender pay inequity and racism also makes the group the most financially vulnerable in the country: They earn on average BRL 1.394 (around 300 US Dollars) a month, which is less than half the average for white men, BRL 3.138 (697 US Dollar). She adds:

Quando tem crescimento na violência letal contra a mulher, ele é puxado pelo número de vítimas negras; quando há redução, ela se verifica mais entre mulheres brancas.

Whenever we see a rise in the number of deadly violence against women, it is among black victims. Whenever we see a decrease, it is among white women. 

Inadequate federal support 

Brazil had a record number of 263,000 cases of women injured due to domestic violence in 2018 and 54,000 victims of rape. However, the funding for the Women’s Secretariat, which manages a program to support victims, was reduced from US$25 million in 2015 to US$1,1 million in 2019 according to an investigation by Grupo Estado.

President Jair Bolsonaro said in February that efforts to fight gender-based violence do not need more money; what is needed is “a change in attitude and behavior” as well as more “awareness”.

The Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves has been the government’s spokesperson on issues related to gender-based violence. An attorney and evangelical pastor, Alves is known for her conservative stance on women’s rights and gender identity, often grounded on her religious beliefs.

Early in 2019, she said that “boys must wear blue and girls must wear pink”. In February 2020, Alves promoted abstinence as a strategy to avoid teenage pregnancy, ignoring that many cases result from rape: according to a study by the Ministry of Health, between 2011 and 2016, 16,680 teenagers from ages 15 to 19 years were raped, of which 2,387 ended up pregnant.

Meanwhile, a bill that would grant victims of domestic violence financial support has been stalled on the Chamber of Deputies for seven years.

More guns, less safety

One of the first campaign promises delivered by Bolsonaro was to ease gun rules, which could lead to more deaths due to domestic violence. According to Bueno, weapons used in femicides are “whatever the perpetrator can find in a moment of rage.” 

With the president's executive orders, marksmen, hunters, and collectors are now allowed to transport loaded weapons; the limit on ammunition purchases was raised from 50 to 5,000 cartridges for permitted guns, and the process to import a gun or transfer ownership was simplified.

According to the Atlas of Violence, the number of femicides that happened both inside the victim’s residence and by a firearm has increased since 2015. An award-winning study conducted by Ipea researcher Daniel Ricardo de Castro Cerqueira predicts that an increase of one percent in the number of guns in the country will lead to a two percent increase in homicides.

O cenário da violência já é preocupante; uma maior circulação armas de fogo pode ser devastadora.

The scenario is worrisome in and of itself; having more guns circulating can be devastating.

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