Women’s Day: Maria da Penha (Brazil) | 8M: Women’s Day

The most extraordinary thing about the Brazilian Maria de Penha is not that in the seventies she was a pharmacist with a master’s degree, nor that she survived the two times that her husband tried to kill her. What is truly extraordinary is that, unlike most women who have named a law, she is alive. The law Maria da Penha against gender violence is already 15 years old; The woman who fought for two decades to get justice has just turned 77. And she is still very active. She created an institute that also bears her name and this month she does not have a single slot in the agenda.

Let it be known that the perpetrator of this horror story is called Marco Antonio Heredia Viveros. He only served two years in prison. He is free.

María Da Penha usually says that her three daughters were the great incentive to embark on the legal fight so that her abuser would be punished. The abuses she suffered followed a classic pattern. They went from bad to worse—with honeymoons in between, like the one that brought the third baby into the world—until one day he shot her in the back while she slept. Mrs. Da Penha never walked again. Back home in a wheelchair, her husband tried again: he tried to shock her in her shower. Relatives and friends helped her run away from her, making sure to leave everything tied up before her so that she would not be reported for abandoning the home and lose her daughters. It was 1993.

After the first trial and the first conviction, he remained free. Da Penha wanted to at least leave a testimony of that hell and wrote a book: I survived… I could tell (I survived… and I can count). The first trial was annulled, there was a second. He was sentenced to 10 years for attempted murder, but he did not serve either. The Brazilian institutions turned their back on him, he went unpunished.

Unexpectedly, a possibility arose. One day in 1998, a group of foreign human rights activists appeared on a visit to Fortaleza (Ceará), the city where Da Penha was born and still lives, and suggested that he go to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. How did you find out about the case? “Because a deputy gave them the book,” says Conceição de Maria, co-founder of the Maria da Penha Institute and one of his closest collaborators.

Thus a formidable international legal battle arose. The Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil) and the Latin American Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (Cladem) proposed that the Brazilian jointly sign a complaint before the IACHR. (A path similar to the one traveled by other famous court cases, such as those that legalized abortion or interracial marriage in the United States).

They won the lawsuit. In 2001, the IACHR concluded that batterers of women systematically went unpunished, and Brazil was convicted of negligence and omission. “The first recommendation was to change the law because the State was in collusion with the aggressors,” says De Maria. That decision gave way to the norm by which Maria da Penha has become synonymous with the fight against sexist crimes in Brazil. The case was about to prescribe when his aggressor finally entered prison, after almost 20 years unpunished.

The rule, which Congress unanimously approved in 2006, “represented a watershed, it came to inhibit aggressors by treating them more harshly. And its preventive dimension is also fundamental”, explains the co-founder of the institute. The letter of the law is considered one of the best in the world, as Brazilian feminists like to remember, because it goes beyond punitive measures. It foresees that the courts of violence against women can be coordinated with police stations and shelters, but also emergency measures to protect victims and multidisciplinary teams so that they do not have to report the details of the aggression a thousand times before different instances or prevention programs among many other provisions.

The challenge is the implementation of an exemplary law in a country where 1,319 women and girls were victims of femicide in 2021, according to the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. That is, one murdered every seven hours. And as in so many places, the pandemic left thousands of women trapped with their executioners. “The public policies provided for in the law are concentrated in the (state) capitals and large cities. The interior, on the other hand, is neglected”, says De Maria, who emphasizes that in order to achieve effective compliance with what is stipulated “almost everything goes through political will”.

The impact of the Maria da Penha law has reached the proverb. The classic claim that In a fight between husband and wife, it is better not to put a spoonwhich rhymes in Portuguese, has been updated with Better yes put spoon, thanks to a persevering survivor and activists with strategic vision.

Maria da Penha has spent years telling this story in all kinds of forums, the only good thing about which is that she turned a personal hell into a collective triumph to protect all Brazilian women. “At the end of her presentations, some woman always comes up to tell her, Mrs. Maria da Penha, the law saved me,” says her collaborator.

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