Skip to main content

Lessons From Brazil’s Approach to Tackling Sexual Harassment

The Maria da Penha Law has been seen as a turning point for the fight against domestic violence in Brazil.

In 1983, Maria da Penha, a Brazilian bio-pharmacist, was shot in her sleep by her husband. Miraculously, she survived, and, two weeks later, he tried to electrocute her. Penha’s case languished in the Brazilian courts for two decades. Her husband remained a free man, while her injuries resulted in her becoming a paraplegic.

Her story, however, brought outside pressure. In 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights pressured the Brazilian government to prosecute and convict perpetrators of domestic violence. This was the first time that an international human rights organ looked at the issue of domestic violence. The resulting Maria da Penha Law increased the punishment for those who perpetrate violence against women, and it offered protective measures to victims.

The Maria da Penha Law was seen as a turning point for the fight against domestic violence in Brazil. Before the law, people “weren’t even aware of this expression: domestic violence. You just had a bad husband,” da Penha said. Since the creation of the law, the number of complaints has gone up by 600 percent, and the number of female homicides has gone down by 10 percent. Today, the law is known by 98 percent of Brazilians.

Such a nice ending to a terrible tale, right? But here’s the flip-side: While da Penha’s story changed the lives of women in Brazil, Brazilians still think about and understand violence against women in very narrow terms.

We need only look at the news for a recent example. Being sexually assaulted in Brazil is one of those episodes that’s woven into almost every woman’s life — at one point or another, it’s bound to happen. Earlier this month, for instance, Jose Mayer, a Brazilian actor famous for his roles in soap operas, made the news. Not for his acting skills, but for being accused of sexually assaulting a female costume designer, Susllem Tonani. At first, Mayer denied Tonani’s accusations, urging people not to “conflate fiction with reality.”

This violence, which had allegedly been going on for eight months, began with compliments, escalated to crass language, and culminated with Mayer touching Tonani’s vagina. According to her, it was eight months of “feeling uncomfortable, or giving half-hearted smiles.” She told him that she didn’t welcome his advances, and that he wasn’t allowed to touch her. “You are older than my father. You have a daughter who’s my age. Would you like someone to treat her like this?” Apparently none of that mattered to Mayer, because verbal threats, in the minds of many Brazilians, don’t count as “real” violence.

Fear of judgment, backlash, or plain questioning over whether your story is true are just some of the barriers that victims of sexual assault face when they go through the devastating mental calculus of determining what to do after experiencing some act of aggression. These fears transcend class, culture, and income. Yet when violence is associated solely with physical harm, conversations centered around other, often less physical types of violence against women tend to be brushed aside as harmless jokes. In short, more often than not, emotional abuse and harassment tend to go unnoticed and ignored.

But Tonani’s story didn’t end there.

Mayer, her aggressor, eventually admitted to sexually assaulting her. In a public statement, the 67-year-old actor, who’s revered by millions of Brazilians, said he made a mistake with his “actions, words, and thoughts.” He added: “Sadly, I am indeed a product of a generation who learned, wrongly, that invasive and abusive sexist attitudes can be disguised as jokes. They can’t.” Mayer was widely praised for apologizing for the “mistake” he had made. Coverage of the story rarely portrayed his actions as a crime. And, so far, his punishment for sexually assaulting his colleague has been suspension from Globo, the television network he works for. It’s still unclear what’s going to happen next, or if anything will be done at all.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some change — Tonani’s story has, slowly, brought to light the flawed ways in which Brazilians talk about violence. On social media, the hashtags #MexeuComUmaMexeuComTodas (“If you mess with one, you mess with all of us”), and #EuViviUmRelacionamentoAbusivo (“I lived an abusive relationship”) have been used by women as a way to share their stories of assault — both physical and verbal. Women have begun to share stories of sexualized violence: catcalling, unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate “compliments,” threats at the workplace. An outpouring of support ensued. Tonani’s story made news internationally. Brazilian actresses wore T-shirts with the words #NoMoreHarassment.

That’s a start. But much more is needed.

And Brazil, of course, is not the only example of how much work still needs to be done to change the way societies think about and understand violence against women. The numbers don’t lie: Half of women in cities in Latin America have faced at least one instance of sexual assault in their lifetime; in India, women are afraid to come forward to report crimes of sexual assault; and, in the United States, every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted.

In Brazil, projects like “We Need to Talk About Harassment” have successfully brought the conversation about sexual assault and violence to larger audiences by letting victims, from a gamut of backgrounds, share their stories and make one thing clear: In order to fight sexual assault and violence, we need to talk about it. And that’s not always an easy thing to do.

Maria da Penha is now 72 years old. Her story and tireless work to fuel awareness of domestic violence against women have changed the lives of Brazilian women, and for the better: They have begun to speak up and to report instances of sexual assault and violence. They have begun to break the silence — because, at last, there’s a burgeoning culture that incentivizes women to do that. But a conversation about how we think about and understand sexual assault and violence shouldn’t happen only during one month of the year. We have a long way to go — no woman’s journey in fighting against sexual crimes should be as long or harrowing as da Penha’s.

This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.