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BRAZIL: Pilot Project Helps Men Abandon Violence

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 21 2009 (IPS) - Some men interpret an overly long glance from another man as “a gay thing,” others as “a provocation” to fight – ideas that are part of the “machista” mindset that a government initiative in Brazil is trying to break down.

Men talk about violence. Credit: Courtesy of SerH Nova Iguaçu.

Men talk about violence. Credit: Courtesy of SerH Nova Iguaçu.

As a new tool in the fight against gender-based violence, the men are taking part in a reflection group at the Service for Education and Accountability for Men Committing Gender Violence (SerH), in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu, a poor district in Rio de Janeiro.

The pilot project, which is to be extended to 78 municipalities around the country, is the first example of a public policy that engages men in seeking a radical social solution to violence against women.

The initiative is a response to demands by non-governmental organisations like the Instituto Papai (Daddy Institute), which encourages participation by men in new roles in the family, in support of gender equity. “It’s no use promoting initiatives like this one if they are not reinforced by public policies,” Jorge Lira, co-director of the institute, told IPS.

The reflection groups are, in fact, promoted by the Special Secretariat for Women’s Policies, attached to the Brazilian president’s office.

The aim of the groups is “to help men to question the values and ideas underlying acts of violence, whether physical or psychological, against women and family members,” Fernando Acosta, head of SerH and creator of the initiative, told IPS.

In 2007, 5,760 women a day were assaulted in Brazil, and most of the attackers were men, according to a study by SerH. The Perseu Abramo Foundation determined in 2001 that a woman is beaten every 15 seconds in this country of over 190 million people.

The reflection groups seek to develop “alternative ways of relating that are capable of avoiding and preventing violent behaviour within the family,” Acosta said. Men who have committed acts of violence are sent to the rehabilitation centres by domestic and family violence courts, and children’s and juvenile courts, as an alternative to prison.

These men are “sentenced” to reflect on what led them to assault a woman. But the compulsory nature of the orders is frowned on by some sectors of the women’s rights movement.

“It’s like treatment for drug addiction. No one should be forced to undergo treatment,” Myllena Calasans, adviser to the non-governmental Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), told IPS.

Acosta said that the groups do not constitute treatment, although in practice they may have a therapeutic effect.

“It isn’t therapy, but taking masculine psychology or subjectivity into account is a basic and integral part of the work, because that is the way men think, and above all, act and feel, which is what we are questioning in the groups,” he said.


Psychologists, sociologists and social workers lead group meetings and workshops aimed at “constructing an alternative concept of masculinity that is different from the culturally dominant ‘machista’, patriarchal and homophobic masculinity,” Acosta said.

The expert referred to an interview IPS held with a participant, Rogerio*, who confided that he had cried for several nights after being convicted by a judge for attacking his sister.

“If he told this in the group, some of the others would probably laugh at him and make jokes, and he would be discriminated against for crying. And we would in fact use this event to reflect collectively on the idea that men cannot cry at difficult times, in order to prompt them to analyse the situations in which they exercised violence,” Acosta said.

The men’s groups were his idea, after he found that working only with women did not curb the violence. When a couple separated, the aggressor would repeat his violence with his new partner, while the battered woman would often find a new companion who was also violent.

He also came to the conclusion that most violent men are afraid of women, and attack them for that very reason. Some “men fall back on violence when they feel their masculinity is threatened, either because they are afraid of women, or because they cannot fulfil their role as a provider, or due to some problem related to their sexuality,” the expert said.

“Anything that questions their dominant masculine identity creates fear, and therefore violence,” he summed up.

This was visible in the men’s group meeting in which IPS participated. Rogerio said this was the first time he “had a dialogue with himself,” and that “the strategies for getting to know myself and for opening up” were positive.

“How to look at other men, how to converse with them, how to react when someone insults you: Is it a good thing to react aggressively when someone else offends you?” asked Rogerio, discussing the guidelines for a new masculinity.

Paulo Sergio*, a 54-year-old painter who will only admit to “giving a little tug” on his wife’s hair as the reason he “ended up at the police station,” recalled his own violent childhood. He saw his mother barely once a month, and when they were together, “she beat me every time someone in the neighbourhood told her tales about me.”

This is another factor to be taken into account, Acosta said. Seventy-five percent of aggressive men were victims of domestic or social violence, or witnessed violence in their family home. Among examples of social violence he pointed to police brutality, commonly used against poor young Brazilians, especially if they are black.

None of this absolves a man from responsibility for his actions, which the police must combat and the courts must judge, he said. “Our role is to get the men to take responsibility for the violence they committed, because when they face up to it they are able to change,” and interrupt the cycle of violence, he said.

“We are not on the side of either men or women. We are in favour, and I hope this is quite clear, of equity between men and women. We are against violence between men and women and, mainly, against the violence that men have historically inflicted on women,” he said, in response to criticism from Brazilian women’s organisations.


CFEMEA’s Calasans admitted that the women’s movement “is very divided” on the rehabilitation centres. Personally, she agrees with involving men in the process of change, “so long as resources and attention are not taken away from women’s issues.”

One fear is that the men’s groups may divert funds from Special Secretariat for Women’s Policies projects specifically aimed at women, although the Secretariat has announced that the centres’ costs of 600,000 dollars will be financed by the Justice Ministry.

But the main concern of women’s organisations is that this new alternative penalty may eliminate the criminal responsibility of aggressors. Calasans said that judges could decide to send abusers of women to the centres instead of to prison, based on the argument that their violence was due to mental problems or addictions.

The Maria da Penha Law, which stiffened penalties for domestic violence in September 2006, provides for prison sentences of between three months and three years for those who inflict injuries.

The CFEMEA adviser said that out of 150,000 prosecutions under the law, nearly 42,000 were criminal cases and only 19,800 were civil suits. In addition, 88,972 restraining orders were served, mainly injunctions for the aggressor not to approach within a certain distance of the victim, or evicting them from the joint home.

“Some judges think that men abuse women because, for instance, they are unemployed, and then turn to drink or drugs, when in fact the women’s movement believes that violence is part of patriarchal culture,” Calasans said.

The head of SerH agrees. “Violence against women is based on a patriarchal and ‘viriarchal’ (male superiority) model of masculinity, which stems from abuse of the power that we have. On the basis of this model we practise violence, especially against women because culturally we believe that we are superior to them,” Acosta said.

“The work done in the groups is for men to perceive that, as men, we suffer from something called emotional selectivity, that is, feelings like love, sadness, fear or loss are socially and culturally forbidden to men,” he said.

“We try to encourage the men to get in touch with these feelings, and having done so, to question the other emotions that are socially permitted to them, such as violence, aggression, rage, anger or hate,” he said.

Acosta said that when they perceive that one of the participants in the groups may fall back into violent behaviour, or shows signs of a serious emotional disturbance such as bipolar affective disorder, he is referred to mental health services. But he stressed that no more than six percent of the men in the groups “suffer from a severe mental or emotional disorder.”


Cecilia Soares, the state government of Rio de Janeiro’s head of women’s rights, supports the project on certain conditions, for instance that it should be integrated into the network of services for women.

“It’s no use setting up services to get men to stop being violent, if women don’t also have an opportunity to work on how to give up the role of victim. The origin of the problem is not a sick relationship between couples, but a place socially created by women, who see no other way of being a woman than to be submissive,” she said.

To break this pattern, women also need help. That is, in fact, the function of the Women’s Care Centres that support victims of violence with legal, psychological and cultural advice, individually or in groups.

Guided by a facilitator, the women tell their stories, pour their hearts out, listen to each other, praise one of their number who has come in “looking prettier,” laugh, or hug someone who is crying. Their common theme is the man who abuses them.

One of the women, Maria*, told IPS a story typical of many others.

At long last, she said, she managed to end a 20-year marriage to a man who under the definition provided by the current law is guilty of “psychological violence.” “He humiliated me, insulted me, called me a whore, belittled my looks, called me ‘fat old thing’ and said I should kiss his feet for having married me,” all spiced with yelling and blackmail, Maria described.

Like many other women, Maria stayed married because “we’re brought up to be the pillar of the home, and to forgive and put up with everything.” It was her son who gave her the strength she needed to change, when at the age of 17 he began to be aggressive towards her, just like his father.

“If I didn’t teach him that was wrong, he was going to be just like his father with his own partner, and I wanted to show him that a woman must be respected at all times,” she said emotionally.

This is one way of breaking the dominant masculine pattern internalised by women themselves, and preventing that model from being reproduced in the next generation, said Soares.

Such a deeply-rooted model is difficult to overturn in a generation, but it is starting to crumble with the support of the Maria da Penha Law, named in honour of a Brazilian woman who was left permanently paralysed after a second failed murder attempt by her husband.

The law’s recommendations include creating “rehabilitation and education centres for men committing acts of violence,” like those established by SerH.

Calasans of CFEMEA said the new law establishes that gender-based violence is a violation of human rights, and makes other forms of violence punishable by prison sentences, such as patrimonial or economic violence, which is the restriction or denial of access to shared or family property.

Acosta said the measures contribute not only to “interrupting violence” against women, but also violence between neighbours or work colleagues, and road rage.

Over 90 percent of the men, who must participate in 20 group meetings over five months, in addition to an initial month of interviews, make progress. “We construct, with them, a new non-violent masculine identity, with an active commitment to non-violence and to a culture of peace,” Acosta concluded.

* At the request of those interviewed, surnames have been omitted.

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