Why have murders of black women in Brazil soared but dropped for white women?

VICE News

SÃO PAULO — Violence has stalked Joana* throughout her life.

After surviving a brutal childhood she had to defend herself and her two children from an abusive husband from whom she eventually ran after he tried to stab her to death. It didn’t stop there.

Struggling to make ends meet in her new home in a violence-plagued shantytown in São Paulo, Joana took in a nephew in order to help pay the rent but he was lured into local drug gangs.

“They wanted to show us who was boss,” the 40-year-old black Brazilian told VICE News, cracking a smile that quickly faded. “They raped me and my young daughter, and threatened to do the same to my son.”

Sitting in a small stuffy room with black mold creeping down the walls, Joana remembered her desperation over five lonely years of near-daily violent abuse.

“No one cared, and the local police were in on the cartel so I didn’t dare talk to anyone,” she said. “You never know who knows who. I couldn’t turn to anyone for help.”

Joana prefers not to see her real name in print as her fear lives on but she, at least, escaped with her life.

A comprehensive report released last week provides a snapshot of the violence that killed an average of 13 women in Brazil every day in 2013 — a 21 percent increase on the numbers a decade before, or a nine percent rise once the figure is adjusted for population increase.

But, according to the 2015 Violence Map: Homicide of Women in Brazil by the Latin American Social Science Institute, the rising number of murders does not impact Brazilian women equally. While the number of black or mixed raced women killed grew by a horrifying 54 percent between 2003 and 2013, homicides of white women fell by 10 percent.

The trend mirrors the figures from an earlier study of all homicides between 2002 and 2012, which reported that murders within the black population increased by 29 percent, while they dropped by 25 percent for white Brazilians. Now the new report suggests that the improvement for white women is smaller than it is for white men, and the butchering of black women is even more alarming than it is for their male counterparts. In both studies the term “black” includes people of mixed race.

“There is evidence of a certain ‘radicalization’ underway in society provoking greater violence, including by the state’s security forces, against a certain profile – young, black, poor and living in periphery communities.” Julio Waiselfisz, a sociologist and author of the Violence Map, told VICE News. “Brazil is seeing more homicides among the wider black population in general, with women particularly badly affected.”

There is no clear answer to the question of why Brazil’s 49 million black women are so much more likely to be killed than their white counterparts — the groups represent 53 and 45 percent of the population respectively — or why black women are even more vulnerable to the surge of violence than black men.

Maria Sylvia de Oliveira, president of Brazil’s Geledés Institute for Black Women suggests it lies primarily in their position “caught where Brazil’s two biggest pillars of oppression meet: institutionalized racism — powerful remnants of centuries of slavery that still permeate Brazil — and the dominant forces of sexism and machismo.”

De Oliveira added that this entrenched discrimination makes opportunities to escape poverty and gain independence, and in turn fight violence, virtually impossible for many.

“Black women are at the very bottom of the social pyramid. A black woman is a non-person,” she said. “It’s the result of poverty, a lack of education, scant access to decent, stable jobs, and years of subordination whereby women are considered property.”

Report writer Waiselfisz, meanwhile, said white women in Brazil have typically had greater opportunities to build the independence needed to escape violence, and a far greater proportion of white families in Brazil are protected by private security, such as the guards who monitor the entrances to apartment blocks in the more upmarket neighborhoods.

The main threat for black and white women alike, however, remains violence at home. According to the Violence Map, 55 percent of female homicides took place in a domestic setting, half of the murders of women were committed by relatives, and 33 percent by current or ex-partners.

Activists say many women who become victims of physical assaults in their own homes are deliberately isolated by the perpetrators of the violence against them.

According to Maria Dejacira Lopes of the Casa de Isabel support network, many are often unaware of their rights, of the social services available. In some cases, she adds, both spouses can fail to recognize that the abuse is wrong and women often only understand they are victims when they seek help from support networks to protect their children. All these obstacles to obtaining help, she says, are more prevalent among black women.

“We help victims from all backgrounds and ages, from teenagers to octogenarians, but around 80 percent are black or mixed race,” Lopes told VICE News. “Given the widespread discrimination that leads to poor education and bottom-rung jobs, the social vulnerability of many black women has deteriorated drastically in recent times and violence is now at an extremely high level.”

Marcus* watched his father repeatedly beat his mother throughout his childhood. He was also a victim of the aggression. The 20-year-old student from Bahia state has left all that behind, though he has failed to persuade his mother to leave the home.

“My father attempted to kill my mother and me on two occasions,” he told VICE News. “I tried to convince her he’s a violent alcoholic and that she should leave him before something worse happens, but still she sticks by him, even today.”

Something worse did happen to his friend’s mother. After years of brutal domestic violence, she was killed by her husband who Marcus, who also prefers to hide his real name, says is still at large six years later.

The Violence Map estimates Brazil solves between five and eight percent of all homicides, compared to around 65 percent in the US. Report writer Waiselfisz says the Brazilian media further compounds the problem of generalized impunity when it comes to the violent deaths of black women.

“If a white woman is murdered the press follows the case closely and demands answers, but if it’s a black women, it isn’t news,” he said, pointing to politically-driven operations to reduce the already relatively low murder rates in more affluent areas.

Police — already notorious for the number of people they kill on and off duty, and the disproportionate number of black people among their victims — are also part of the problem, according to Jackeline Ferreira Romio, who researches social inequality at the University of Campinas.

“As with society, the ranks of Brazil’s police are riddled with racism and sexism, which must be tackled,” said Romio. “Officers must be trained to record crimes against women correctly, and secure women’s trust so crimes are reported.”

The Map of Violence report comes at a time when the Brazilian authorities claim to be tackling the issue, and amid signs of burgeoning discussion of violence against women among the wider public, notably the inclusion of an essay question on Brazil’s “persistence of domestic violence” in a national university entrance exam this year sat by 7.7 million students.

new femicide law passed in March this year imposed tougher punishments for gender-related killings, and other crimes committed against women who are pregnant, under 14, over 60, or disabled.

Special Secretary for Women’s Policies Eleonora Menicucci responded to the Violence Map’s findings on female homicides by saying the new law was “a big step to punish criminals and curb gender crimes” and that the government “has a zero tolerance approach to violence against women” and “works tirelessly to reduce these statistics.”

This Wednesday thousands of black women participated in a march against violence in the nation’s capital Brasilia. Organizer Valdecir Nascimento told The Associated Press that the aim of the march, pictured above, was to draw attention to the “vulnerability and fragility” of Brazil’s black and mixed race women and the discrimination they face.

Experts interviewed by VICE News said they welcomed the new femicide law, and the new debate on violence against women, but unanimously pointed to the all-important question of enforcement.

“The law is fundamental but faces structural limitations, such as a lack of shelters and women’s police stations,” said Eric Gil Dantas of the Brazilian Research Center for Political Sociology. “The next step must be a greater centrality for government policy designed to protect women and greater funding for the related government agencies.”

Some point out that the chances of obtaining sufficient funding face a particularly difficult task getting through Brazil’s most conservative congress for decades that has, for example, repeatedly thwarted efforts to include gender issues in the national curriculum.

The Violence Map’s author Waiselfisz also points out that public resources are under fire as recession bites and the government seeks to cut public spending.

“Resources are being squeezed. It means the government’s plans, although well-formulated, are not being implemented on the scale required,” he warned. “The problem isn’t being overcome, and violence against women isn’t going down.”

It took many years for Joana to get on her feet. She never sought professional help, but her lot now seems to be finally changing.

After saving up for a deposit, she recently moved to a better neighborhood: The matchbox room is crammed with her still unpacked belongings but a photo of the mother and her two children— worse for wear but still intact — has already taken pride of place.

Cradling a cup of sweet, milky coffee in her hands, she beamed as she announced the children are in school and she is making ends meet cleaning houses.

But the 40-year-old survivor clearly remained haunted by the possibility that one of her many past aggressors could one day catch up with her.

“The cuts heal but the scars remain,” she said, tapping her temple. “I honestly don’t know how I’m still alive, but I know others who weren’t so lucky.”

* * *

*The names and details of the victims interviewed for this feature have been altered to protect their identity and that of their families.

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