Brazilian women's lives shattered

Interview with Debora and Nalva, whose sons were killed in May 2006

© Amnesty International

17 April 2008

Women in Brazil are finding themselves left to pick up the pieces following criminal and police violence in shanty-towns.

Stories of urban violence in Brazil tend to focus on young men. Though men make up the bulk of the victims and perpetrators, the stories of women who are forced to live, bring up their children and fight for justice in Brazil’s lawless shanty-towns, are often ignored.

Brazilian cities have long suffered high levels of both criminal and police violence. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Brazil are often dominated by drug gangs. The government’s response has been a series of ever more confrontational crack-downs, involving police operations which target not just criminal gangs, but entire communities.

Backdrop of violence
Women in these communities live in a climate of constant insecurity. Far from providing protection, the police often subject women to illegal searches by male officers and abusive and discriminatory language and intimidation, especially when they attempt to intervene to protect a relative.

Women who fight for justice on behalf of their sons or husbands end up on the frontline of change, facing further threats and harassment. One woman told Amnesty International, “We can’t go on living under these conditions. We live in fear."

Women are also at risk from drug chiefs and gang leaders. They dispense punishment and protection and use women as trophies or bargaining tools. Growing numbers of women are becoming involved in the drug trade. Many of these women end up in Brazil’s overcrowded, unsanitary prison system, subject to physical and psychological abuse – and in some cases rape.
The knock-on effects of crime and violence reverberate through entire communities, severely affecting the provision of basic services, such as healthcare and education. If local clinics fall within the territory of a rival gang, women can be forced to travel miles to see a doctor. Maternity services, crèches and schools can be closed for long periods because of police operations or criminal violence. Healthcare workers and teachers are often too scared to work in crime-blighted neighbourhoods.

Stopping the violence
Women who spoke to Amnesty International gave very clear messages of what is needed:

  • a police force which protects them and their families and provides genuine security
  • equal access to justice, irrespective of social class;
  • protection so they can continue their struggle to defend human rights;
  • social and economic support when a relative is injured or killed by police or criminal violence.
The Brazilian state has introduced some positive initiatives, including strengthening the protection of women suffering from domestic violence. But long term policies are urgently needed to tackle the broader issues of the impact of violence on women in excluded communities.

Action needed now
The Brazilian federal government must act to integrate the needs of women into the new public security plan, the National Public Security and Citizenship Programme (Programa Nacional de Segurança Pública com Cidadania, PRONASCI)

Read more:

Brazil: ‘From burning buses to caveirões’: the search for human security (Report, 2 May 2007)
Brazil: ‘They come in shooting’: Policing socially excluded communities (Report, 2 December 2005)

Brazil: Picking up the pieces: Women's experience of urban violence in Brazil

Index Number: AMR 19/001/2008
Date Published: 17 April 2008
Categories: Brazil

This report provides a glimpse of what life is like for women in many parts of Brazil today. In socially excluded communities women live out their lives against a backdrop of constant criminal and police violence. The report focuses on the largely untold stories of women struggling to live their lives, to bring up their children and to fight for justice amid police and criminal violence. It highlights some of the patterns of human rights violations against women in particular.

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