'Our Olympic Message': Brazilian Women Protest the Country's Sexual Violence

On Monday, Brazilian women took to the streets to protest several high-profile sexual assault cases—including three that took place in the Olympic Village.

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Aug 17 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Ani Hao

In the first few days of the Games alone, two Olympic athletes and one Brazilian security guard sexually assaulted four Brazilian women working within the City of Athletes in three separate instances.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for Brazilian women, particularly working-class women of color. Sexual violence, harassment, femicide—the murder of a woman because of her gender—are of epic proportions in Brazil, and feminist groups in the country say things have only gotten worse over the past decade, due to a culture that blames the victims instead of the aggressors, as well as ineffective public policies.

Read more: We Asked Olympic Officials How They're Handling Sexual Assault Claims

In Rio de Janeiro, numerous feminist groups took to the streets on Monday, August 15, to protest rampant sexual violence in the country. In particular, they called attention to the rapes that occurred within the Olympic Park as well as a high-profile rape case involving Marcus Feliciano, a politician in the House of Representatives and an evangelical pastor representing the Party of Social Christians, who is accused of sexually assaulting a young woman from the same political party, Patricia Lélis. In addition to raping Lélis, Feliciano is accused of pressuring members of his party to bribe and threaten her to withdraw her allegations.

Monday's parade comes on the heels of a year of historic feminist activism in Brazil. In October 2015, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian women—especially young women—marched in the streets across the country and conducted a series of digital campaigns protesting sexual violence and attacks on their already limited reproductive rights in what was dubbed as "The Feminist Spring" (Primavera das Mulheres ou Primavera Feminista). Earlier this year, Brazilian women organized "Feminist June" (Junho Feminista) in order to denounce sexual violence yet again following a case in which 30 men raped an adolescent girl in Rio de Janeiro, but only a fraction of them were imprisoned.

Photo by Ani Hao.

UN Women Brazil official figures show that a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds in São Paulo. In addition, a rape occurs every 11 minutes in the country, according to the 2015 National Forum of Public Security. Brazil only just passed a law defining femicide as a crime in March of 2015, meaning there hasn't been sufficient time to collect official data on all the femicides in the country. However, using data from a separate study conducted in 2013, the nonprofit Mapa da Violência estimates that Brazil is fifth in the world for femicide, having a rate of femicide 43 times higher than the United States: In Brazil, a woman is killed approximately every two hours.

The protesters in Brazil are not alone. Latin America is the continent with the highest rate of femicide in the world, and women across Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, and Mexico have been organizing in unprecedented numbers and in solidarity under the banner "Ni Una Menos" (Not One Less). On Saturday, August 13, 2016, women in Peru organized one of the country's largest protests against rising gender based violence in its history, spread out across various cities.

The protesters hope to challenge social norms that minimize or ignore the reality of sexual violence. "For me, the issue is still the culture," says Luciana Boiteux, a pre-candidate for city councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro, professor of law at UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and lawyer, who participated in the protest Monday evening in Rio. "The law can't end violence against women—our institutions are still producing a culture that has a pre-Maria da Penha logic."

Photo by Fernanda Fioravanti.

Boiteux is referring to the Maria da Penha law, which was considered a victory after its conception because it mandated real punishment for gender-based violence and created the country's first specialized centers to attend women who had suffered violence. However, ten years later, women's groups are declaring that the Maria da Penha law has failed to adequately protect victims of abuse.

"It's been ten years since we've had this law, and we haven't been able to get this law actually implemented, for women to get [full] reproductive rights, the right to their own bodies, the right to go out to the streets and not be afraid of being raped," Boiteux said. "It's not just Feliciano—there are various men who are in and running for political office [who have also committed sexual violence]."

As Boiteux notes, Marcus Feliciano isn't the only powerful example of a politician with an alleged history of violence towards women. Pedro Paulo, who is currently a strong candidate for the next mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has been found guilty of beating his wife at least on two separate occasions. Despite Paulo's record, he's faced little to no public fallout. Globo, the largest media company in Brazil, selected the following headline for an article about Pedro Paulo's history of domestic violence: "'Who doesn't get carried away in an argument?'"

Photo by Ani Hao.

Other protesters agree that, while the Feliciano case is galling, it's far from an isolated incident. "We are here to defend Patricia Lélis, but not just her. We are here defending all of the women that are attacked by these sexist politicians," said Tatianny Araújo from the group Nova Organização Socialista. She further noted that Feliciano mounts political attacks on women as well. "Feliciano creates projects [in the National Congress] that attack all Brazilian women, that attack the LGBTQ population," she added.

"He is someone who silences women, and we are here to denounce him," said Isabelle Ottoni, a representative from Juntas, a national feminist branch of PSOL.

Although the Maria da Penha law has spurred countless women to denounce gender based violence, the Institute of Applied Economics (IPEA) estimates that only about ten percent of Brazilian women who suffer sexual violence actually report it. Many women are hesitant to speak up due to the perception that victims of sexual violence and abuse are unlikely to receive any semblance of justice. When they do speak up, Brazilian women still overwhelmingly feel guilt and responsibility for what they experienced.

Araújo tied the protest to the Olympics and the historic moment in Brazil. "The rapes inside the Olympic Park, the sexist commentary about the female athletes—it's what we go through on a daily basis. This is the Olympic gold that we don't want. We don't want the record for the most sexism, racism, and homophobia," she affirmed. "We are asking for more than medals. We want space, rights, and respect. This is our Olympic message."