Brazilian Women’s Spring: the deconstruction of rape culture and the fight against gender-based violence

2015 was a year of tremendous environmental, political and economic cost for Brazil; Latin America’s largest economy faced its biggest environmental disaster to date, the potential impeachment of a democratically elected president, and the most significant currency devaluation in decades. Nevertheless, in spite of such turmoil, Brazilian society began challenging old paradigms that have been intrinsic to the country’s culture, namely sexism and misogyny. While 2015 was turbulent in many aspects, women were in the spotlight, transforming their harsh reality. By fiercely ensuring and fighting for their civil rights, women became one of the most important advocates for cultural transformation in Brazil.

image001 (1)Primarily through social media women have found effective ways to defy rape culture and challenge the status quo surrounding sexuality. Founded by journalist Juliana de Faria  in 2013, the NGO Think Olga is a feminist initiative that engages men and women to debate gender equality and women empowerment. With over 100,000 followers on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, Think Olga has revolutionized the use of social media in Brazil, and most importantly, raised awareness about the importance of confronting the misogynist and sexist discourse in the country.

In November 2015, Think Olga started what became known as the Masterchef revolution. When men started posting inappropriate comments about a 12-year-old girl who participated in the popular cooking TV show Masterchef, the feminist group created the hashtag #MeuPrimeiroAssédio (my first harassment). Women across Brazil began sharing their first exposure to harassment during adolescence or even childhood, reaching over 90,000 mentions on twitter. According to Juliana, who I interviewed in January 2016, Internet provides a powerful platform for minorities whose voices are neither heard nor represented by the mainstream media. “It creates awareness and connects people with similar experiences, giving them strength to fight for change,” she added. In another interview, Gisele Truzzi, an attorney specializing in digital law and head of Truzzi Advogados, notes “even though this is only a spark, it has been strong enough to stamp the covers of magazines and bring the debate to the public agenda.”

One of the main issues tackled by women in social media is regarding Brazil’s systemic rape culture. According to the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), over a half million people, eighty-nine percent of which are women, are sexually abused yearly – however, only ten percent of cases are reported to the authorities, often due to the fear of victim blaming. After thirty-three men raped a sixteen-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro this past May, investigators focused on why the victim was assaulted instead of acknowledging the gang rape. Due to a tremendous social media mobilization in which almost 800 thousand Facebook users across Brazil changed their profile on support of the campaign “eu luto pelo fim da cultura do estupro” (I fight to end rape culture), the main television networks in Brazil were pushed to seek accountability to the victim. Since a female investigator took over the case, 7 of the 33 accused have already been indicted as the others are still under investigation.

Brazilian women are not alone in the fight against rape culture and violence against women. In India, a rape takes place every twenty minutes. In South Africa, 500,000 rape cases happen each year. Regarding gender-related homicides, the United Nations reported Mexico as one of the leading countries in Femicide. Recently, two Argentine backpackers were killed in Ecuador leading global headlines to report that solo female travelling could have facilitated the girls’ murder. In solidarity to the victims, women throughout the world were on a mission to deconstruct the victim blaming discourse by tweeting the hashtag #viajosola and raising awareness on the alarming reality caused by gender-motivated violence.

There is still a long road ahead for the world to give gender-based violence the attention it deserves. However, some significant progress has been made in the past decade on women’s rights in Brazil. In May 1983, biopharmaceutist Maria da Penha suffered murder attempt twice by her husband causing her permanent damage such as paraplegia. For two decades, she fought for justice while her husband remained free. After pressure from the human rights court, Brazilian government enacted a law to stop domestic violence. Since 2006, the symbolic law   named after Maria da Penha changed the tragic reality of several women across the country and have shown positive results: Over 300 thousand prosecutions, 100 thousand final judgments, and millions of calls to the Service Center for Women only few years after its establishment.

For International Women’s Day in 2015, President Rousseff approved a new law on Femicide that offers women greater protection. Both laws set tougher punishment towards perpetrators and have put Brazil as the first Latin American country to adapt to the United Nations protocol for investigation on violence against women. Despite Dilma Rousseff’s mistakes, the now ousted President has become a symbol of female resistance and strength after being tortured and electrocuted by militaries during the dictatorship period. Brazilian women have just won a battle against lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha who has just stepped out of office. Since he proposed a bill that violated women’s rights, women played an important role contributing to his resignation. Inarguably, women are promoting a brave cultural transformation that can lead the country towards a bright future. Women’s empowerment is more than just the fight for women’s rights. It also contributes to the growth and development of the country and, as a result, leads to a more just and equal society for all.

Sabrina Fantoni is a journalist born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil. She is a second year in the Master’s of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University concentrating in development. She has worked with corporate communication and is a summer Intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas Program (CSIS) in Washington DC. In her first year as a Graduate Student, she was the Latin American representative for Georgetown Women in International Affairs. She is interested in Politics, foreign policy, gender issues and development, but mainly passionate about music, dance, soccer, literature and Latin America.

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