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Organizing Against Rape Culture: Lessons from Brazil

Amidst attacks from right-wing governments in Brazil, tens of thousands of women took to the streets to protest rape culture. How are these protests related to the current political climate, and how can this movement inform the struggles of women in the United States and elsewhere?

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Photo from Esquerda Diario

On May 20, in Rio de Janiero, 16-year-old girl went to her boyfriend’s house, where she was drugged and raped by 33 men. Shortly after the assault, the men filmed the girl, who lay on the bed unconscious and bleeding, as they laughed and made lurid jokes. The video was posted to Twitter and sparked a nationwide uproar; the internet exploded with expressions of disgust, indignation and horror.

Women around Brazil responded quickly to the heinous act. A facebook filter reading “I fight against rape culture” began circulating and women organized protests around the nation. The justice system, however, has not only dragged its feet, but has give the rapists the benefit of the doubt while scrutinizing the victim . The Secretary of Public Safety in Rio said that there was insufficient evidence of a crime, so he could not make any arrests . After watching the tape and hearing testimony, the deputy responsible for investigating the case said he was “unsure” if a rape truly took place. The victim said that during the questioning, there was no effort to make her feel comfortable: “I think that’s why women don’t report rape,” she said.

The Secretary of Public Safety and the deputy watched a tape in which a girl lays unconscious and bleeding while men gloat that 33 of them had sex with her- literally a taped confession- and these men have the audacity to question if a rape really took place. If with such overwhelming evidence and with such public scrutiny, the justice system still doubts that there was a rape, what is it like for women who do not have a tape and do not have the country’s eyes on the case? No arrests were made until May 30, days after some of the men were taken in for questioning. To this day, only two people have been arrested in connection with this case.

After a national outcry and a formal complaint from the victim’s lawyer about the statements by the deputy in charge of the case, a new deputy was assigned to the case who affirmed the obvious: a rape took place. Yet, even with this affirmation, almost all of the men involved have not been arrested or charged.

The media, has also criminalized the girl- stressing that she is uses drugs and got pregnant at age 13. They are sure to report that she returned to the scene of rape to retrieve her cell phone, implying that she was not traumatized by the rape since she was able to return to the house where the rape took place. The media alludes to her relationship with drug dealers in the favelas, attempting to paint her as a criminal, deserving of being raped.

The demonization of the victim by the justice system and the media is nothing new, but rather exemplifies the ways in which these institutions are complicit in perpetuating rape culture that affects millions of women every year. Every 11 minutes, a woman is raped in Brazil. This is based on official statistics- the real number is likely to be much higher. Some rapes culminate in femicide. According to official statistics, a woman is killed in Brazil roughly every hour and a half. Some are killed in gruesome and clearly sexist ways, like the young woman who was killed with 15 gunshots to her vagina in early July.

The political context
Although sexual violence against women is nothing new in Brazil, this particular rape takes place in a very specific political context in which there is immense mobilization from youth, women and workers. Yet, at the same time there is currently a superstructural swing to the right with the coup that overthrew Worker’s Party President, Dilma Rouseff. This coup seeks to attack workers and oppressed people- passing austerity measures to make workers pay for the current economic crisis and seeking to limit the rights of LGBT people, women and Black people.

Michel Temer, the coup-President has demonstrated that he will certainly not disappoint his right wing supporters. His cabinet is made up entirely by white men. Temer also appointed a right wing anti-abortion activist to be “Secretary of Women’s Issues”. This new secretary even opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest (which are the only cases in which a woman can get a legal abortion in Brazil), and says that she will not go against any “biblical values”.

Michel Temer has his own gender issues; the Brazilian magazine Veja published an article about his wife, Marcela Temer, who is 43 years his junior. The title read “Beautiful, modest and a housewife,” extolling the virtues of this “traditional woman”. This brought on a huge response from women on the internet- posting pictures that mocking the title and others that changed the words to “Beautiful, combative and from where ever I want!” Many of these women have now taken to the streets against rape culture.

Beautiful, combative and from where ever I want.
Thousands of photos like this one were posted online in the wake of the sexist article in Veja magazine.

Since day one of taking power, Michel Temer’s government has openly supported misogyny. This is even clearer based on the actions of the minister of education who held a meeting to discuss education policy with a celebrity, Alexandre Frota, who joked about committing rape on TV. The meeting was held to receive “suggestions” about Brazilian political education in schools.

Although the right-wing coup makes obvious attacks on women’s rights, women were certainly not well protected before. The Worker’s Party (PT) government paid lip service to women’s rights but did not take any steps to legalize abortion during the 13 years of executive power, leaving women to die from illegal abortions. Furthermore, the PT has a long record of making alliances with the right wing, including naming the right wing coup-mongering Temer as Dilma’s Vice President. This right wing has always been blatantly misogynistic–their current attitudes are nothing new.

The protests

Protest in Sao Paulo

In late May and early June, protests against rape culture were held throughout Brazil. In Sao Paulo, 15,000 people protested–mostly women. In Rio, there were 10,000. At the protests, women chanted, “It’s not my fault,” and counted down from 33 to 0–calling attention to the 33 men who raped the girl. Women also protested against the police, calling for an end to the Brazilian military police and denouncing police cover-up of rape cases. Many carried signs reading “Out with Temer!” In Sao Paulo, youth of the “Faisca” (Spark) movement kicked an effigy of Alexandre Frota (one of the rapists) 33 times and burned it.

These are the latest of a slew of protests concerning women’s issues and gender violence. These include online protests mocking the sexist magainze article in Veja, which exaulted the traditional woman. It also comes after Women’s Autumn–when women took to the streets for months, fighting for the right to abortion and against a law that would further restrict access to abortion.

These protests show that women will not wait patiently at home to see if the justice system will arrest the 33 rapists. Rather, these women express a distrust in the legal “justice” system, while also recognizing that we must fight beyond this specific case–we must fight rape culture.

Protests in Campinas, Sao Paulo

Who is to blame?
Any doubt about the existence of rape culture is dispelled by the 33 men who raped a girl; not all 33 of them are mentally ill, as many mistakenly argue, or simply “bad people.” The 33 men were affected by a culture that objectifies women’s bodies and normalizes rape.

The fact that rape culture exists does not mean that the 33 rapists should not be held responsible for their actions; these men should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Yet, we know that real justice will never come at the hands of the capitalist state. As Andrea D’Atri, Argentinian founder of Pan y Rosas argues, “Fatal sexist violence is not an exception, but rather daily and routine. It helps perpetuate the current social order in which women are subordinate. It is last link in a long chain of violence against women, originated in class society, legitimated and reproduced by the State, its institution and its caste of administrators.” The shameful proceedings in this highly publicized case serve as evidence of this. Therefore, we must fight for much more than just the punishment of these 33 men- we must fight against those responsible for rape culture, a responsibility that should be placed squarely in the hands on the media, the justice system, the government and the church.

The media perpetuates everyday violence to women’s self esteem- profiting from turning women’s bodies into commodities and simultaneously filling women with insecurities about their bodies while seeking an unattainable standard of beauty. The media encourages rape culture by perpetuating the image of women as subordinate sexual objects and goes further by casting doubt on rape victims, investigating and publicizing their sexual histories.

It is clear how the justice system is implicated in rape culture, as is exemplified by this case. The victim is scrutinized, despite a tape that shows her unconscious and bleeding, while prosecutors are still pondering whether a rape took place. The justice system is entirely on the side of the perpetrators–even more so if the perpetrators are white and wealthy, as made clear by the Brock Turner rape case.

The government as a whole (including the justice system) is implicated in rape culture as well. This is clear in a Temer government, whose most prominent female figure is the wife of the president, extolled for her traditional housewife role. Not surprisingly, no women have been appointed to his cabinet. An admitted rapist is invited to official meetings determining the direction of the country’s education system for its youth rather than investigated and placed in jail as a violent criminal. Whether through direct anti-woman, anti-abortion policy or through symbolic meetings and alliances, the government directly perpetuates a rape culture.

In Brazil, the role of the church cannot be played down. The church imposes their value system on Brazilian women by working to keep abortion illegal and costing the lives of thousands of women who die via clandestine abortions.The separation between church and state exists only in name when children often pray in school and politicians are elected to advocate for Christian values. The church perpetuates the vision of women as subservient upholders of sexual “morality” that centers male pleasure in sexual relations and acts. The church puts forth the idea that women are responsible for tempting men into sin and that women do not have a choice about what to do with their own bodies. This brand of Christian morality justifies victim-blaming, feeding the arguments that a sixteen year old girl was responsible for her rape and that she was asking for it because she got pregnant at a young age.

What can we do?

Protest in Rio de Janiero

First and foremost, we must give complete solidarity to the young woman who was raped, seeking justice through punishment for the rapists. Yet we must seek much more than just punishment for these 33 men, who represent an entire rape culture for which the media, the church, the justice system and the government are responsible. Brazilians must continue to express their indignation in the streets, organizing mass protests like the ones that occurred last month. These protests should begin to put forth concrete demands that deal with violence against women.

There should be an emergency plan against violence and women, to help women who have suffered rape and domestic violence, like the one that Nicolas del Caño put forth during the presidential elections in Argentina last year. This includes subsidies for women who experience sexual and domestic violence to take time off work to the the help they need. It also includes health care (which includes psychological health) that is free and public, as well as temporary housing for victims of sexual and domestic violence to get away from perpetrators of such violence. There must also be legal, safe and free abortions for all women, including victims of violence.This plan is by no means conclusive; rather it is an emergency plan that articulates minimum provisions for women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence. This program should be paid for by taxes on the richest in the country.

We cannot allow the state to simply pay lip service to the fight against sexual violence; the commitment must be concrete. Therefore, we must take the streets, we must place responsibility with the state the church and the media and we must demand that the state provide the emergency measures that women so desperately need.

Women in the United States should follow the example of Brazilian women, taking their anti-rape activism beyond the internet and online petitions and into the streets. The Brock Turner case demonstrates the ways in which American women, like Brazilian women and women all over the world cannot trust the government and the legal system to bring justice in cases of sexual violence. Men and women must take the streets against rape culture and against a justice system that insists on taking the side of the rapist while re-traumatizing victims. We must demand real change to support survivors of rape and we must organize real actions to get there.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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