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RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Law Still Not Saving Women’s Lives

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 17 2009 (IPS) - Rosemary Fracasso, a 37-year-old mother of two teenagers, was murdered by her ex husband with a machete. During the attack he cut off her fingers and arms and left her heart visible through a gaping chest wound.

The people of Guaira, a city of 37,000 people located 450 kilometres from Sao Paulo, were shaken by the brutality of the crime.

The law on domestic and family violence against women enacted in September 2006, known as the Maria da Penha Law, which increased the severity of penalties for crimes of violence against women and established measures to protect them against further violence, failed to save Fracasso.

The police station where Fracasso, four days before her death, reported the physical abuse and threats received from her ex husband, did not apply the protective measures in the law, such as preventive custody or a restraining order, which could have saved her life.

Fracasso endured beatings, had a television set thrown at her and had her clothes burned, her sister recounted. “It was a premeditated murder, born of a mixture of jealousy, alcohol and an uncontrollably violent temper,” said Silvia Regina Fracasso.

Since the 1980s, Brazil has made considerable progress in creating institutions aimed at halting “machista” violence against women.

The first Police Station for the Defence of Women was created in 1985. Shelters for battered women and specialised judicial instruments followed, until finally the Maria da Penha Law entered into force.

What is lacking is effective enforcement of the law and the proper functioning of the bodies and mechanisms it created, activists, victims and their families complain.

A survey carried out in 2006 by the Patricia Galvao Institute found that 54 percent of respondents said services for battered women were not working properly. Nearly the same proportion, 51 percent, said they knew women who had suffered or were still suffering abuse at the hands of partners.

Machista violence is epidemic in Pernambuco

Violence against women has reached the dimension of an epidemic in states like Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil, where 53 women were murdered in the first 63 days of this year, according to monitoring of reports in the press and to government and non-governmental bodies.

Recife is the capital of this small state where 282 women were murdered in 2008 and 273 in 2007 – an average of four women killed every five days.

Thirty-two-year-old Taciana Barbosa de Carvalho was murdered in 2008. She was eight months pregnant when she disappeared. Her partner, a member of the military police, was accused by several witnesses of murdering her and throwing her body into the sea. He was expelled from the force and is in custody awaiting trial.

He killed Taciana because she refused to have an abortion, according to Fátima Barbosa, her mother, who has been taking an active part in the marches, vigils and other demonstrations organised by the Pernambuco Women’s Forum (FMPE).

The Forum is a coalition of dozens of social organisations that have been fighting discrimination and violence against women, especially murders, for 23 years.

Street demonstrations are organised by the Forum nearly every month, and are the principal means of protesting and fighting against machista culture in Pernambuco, Barbosa told IPS.

“The Forum women gave me strength and support” after Taciana’s murder, she said. They held three demonstrations to protest her daughter’s death.

On Mar. 6, several hundred women took to the streets of Recife again under the slogan “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls” – this year’s International Women’s Day (Mar. 8) slogan.

The Maria da Penha Law and other steps forward, like the women’s police stations, are not enough. More concrete policies are needed to increase effectiveness, Joana Santos, who works in informal education and is the coordinator of the Pernambuco Women’s Forum, told IPS.

Pernambuco, which has a population of nearly nine million, has only four women’s police stations and two battered women shelters, she pointed out, adding that the services provided lack the quality of “dignified care.”

“Integrated action” by the state is needed, with real respect for human rights, an end to discrimination against women by the police and health services, even if a woman has had an abortion, and judicial bodies that are more capable of enforcing the new law, Santos said.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil unless the pregnancy is life-threatening to the mother or the result of rape.

Law named in honour of abuse victim

The Maria da Penha Law on violence against women is named after a woman who was left paraplegic by a bullet fired at her by her husband in 1983.

The perpetrator, Marco Antonio Heredia, a Colombian-born economist, simulated a break-in at their home in order to carry out the murder attempt, and then tried again to electrocute Maria in the bathroom.

In spite of the evidence in the case, which led to Brazil being condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it was not until 2002 that Heredia was put behind bars for the attempted murder he committed 19 years earlier.

Getting him jailed was the result of the mobilisation of civil society, which is actively calling for the effective application of this law and other institutions created to fight violence against women in Brazil.

In Sao Paulo, there are already more than 4,000 Popular Legal Promoters (PLPs), women who volunteer for weekend training courses to learn all about defending women’s legal and human rights.

Ironically, Silvia Regina Fracasso, a history teacher, was actually taking one of the courses when her sister met her brutal death at the hands of her ex husband in March 2007.

The training is broad and is not limited to the question of violence, but covers the political and social rights of women and the defence of children, the elderly and disabled people, said Fracasso, who now passes on her new knowledge to her primary and secondary school pupils.

Women who know their rights and are familiar with the law contribute to the observance and enforcement of the Maria da Penha Law by the police, judges and other authorities, she said.

The goal of the PLP courses and their trained graduates is to “empower women and encourage them to speak up and fight for respect for their rights,” according to Maria Amelia Teles, the coordinator of the project and head of the Sao Paulo Women’s Union (UMSP).

The PLP movement can boast of a number of victories, like a court in the city of Sao Paulo specialising in gender violence, and the recognition of rapes committed at work as accidents in the workplace, for which compensation and other rights can be claimed.

Mass education and training of PLPs also creates a movement that puts pressure on police, the justice system and health and social services, obliging them to treat women better. The UMSP coordinates the PLP programme in the capital city and 20 other municipalities in the state of Sao Paulo, and its courses are also under way in the state of Amazona.

This is a civil society action programme that pressures for more resources and better public policies for women, and it should be recognised as a public service while remaining non-governmental and independent, as incorporating it into the Brazilian state would lead to ineffectiveness, Teles said.

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