FORTALEZA, Brazil — Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes was fast asleep when her husband shot her and left her a paraplegic. Four months later, he made another attempt on her life by trying to electrocute her. Maria survived yet again.
In thousands of homes across Brazil, women like her are subjected to extreme abuse by their husbands every day. Every 15 seconds, a woman is assaulted; every two hours, a woman is murdered. Sixty-five percent of attacks happen behind closed doors. In the past three decades, at least 92,000 women have succumbed to domestic violence.
Maria de Penha, a pharmacist, beat these dismal odds. She fought a decades-long battle against domestic violence, and her efforts finally resulted in legislation named for her. The Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence is considered one of the most comprehensive laws in the world, giving the government the power to arrest, prosecute and punish perpetrators of violence against women.
“I met my aggressor when I was doing my master’s at the University of São Paulo,” Da Penha recalled. “He was a student from Colombia and was popular with my friends. When I went back to my hometown, Fortaleza, after completing my degree, he accompanied me. We got close and I married him. That was when he applied for Brazilian citizenship and as soon as he got it, he started showing his true colors.”
It was in May 1983 that her husband, Antonio Heredia Vivero, a teacher, first attempted to kill her. “I was sleeping when I heard a shot, a very loud noise, in my bedroom,” she said. “I tried to move but couldn’t.” Neighbors rescued her and rushed her to a hospital. She was under intensive treatment for nearly four months.
“When the police questioned my husband, he told them that four thieves had broken into our home and that he had fought them off,” she said. “I came back home because at the time I had no inkling that he was the shooter. But when he kept me in forced confinement for more than 15 days and tried to electrocute me, I knew I could not continue with that relationship.” She got a legal separation and, with her three daughters, returned to her parents’ home.
In January 1984, she filed a case of attempted murder against her former husband. That was when her battle for justice began. It took seven years before he was sentenced by a jury to 15 years in prison. The conviction was overturned on appeal. In a new trial, Vivero was sentenced to 10 years but remained at large.
“I decided to write a book on my experiences and the contradictions in the legal proceedings,” she said. “This work, ‘I Survived: I Can Tell My Story’ [“Sobrevivi: Posso Contra,” in Portuguese], was noticed by two nongovernment organizations, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights and the Center for Justice and International Law, which invited me to submit a case against Brazil to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.”
While Brazil did not respond to her petition, the Inter-American Commission later criticized the government for not taking effective measures to prosecute and convict perpetrators of domestic violence. In October 2002, Vivero was arrested and sentenced to just over six years on two counts of attempted murder, but he has served only two.
Meanwhile, from 2002 to 2004, several nonprofit groups created a consortium to draft an improved domestic violence law. On Aug. 7, 2006, the Maria da Penha Law was approved.
“This law is here to not just protect women from domestic violence but to prevent it and also punish the aggressors,” said Da Penha, who is wheelchair-bound and working as a coordinator of studies for the Association of Relatives and Friends of Victims of Violence in Ceará state in northern Brazil.
“We need more women’s police stations, centers where survivors can seek preventive help and shelters for those who have walked out of their homes. In addition, we have to make sure that speedy trials happen in these cases so that justice is not delayed. It took 19 years and six months for my case to finally wrap up.”
The Maria da Penha Law has given new impetus to the women’s movement. The central thought that every woman has the right to live her life free from domestic violence has been widely publicized throughout Brazil through lectures, courses and training conducted within communities, schools, universities, businesses and institutions.
“Women are still being murdered within their own homes by those who should be protecting and loving them,” Da Penha said. Before the law, she added, although domestic violence was a crime it was considered a low-level offense. That reality has changed, but more resources are needed, she said, particularly for women living in small towns, where patriarchy still has a stronghold and there are not enough women’s police stations or shelters.
“The law talks of setting up special courts and stricter sentences for offenders, besides other prevention and relief measures, in cities that have more than 60,000 inhabitants, but what about those living in small cities?” she said. In a sense, she feels that it’s not a law but a change in attitude of people that can bring about lasting change.
The beginnings of a transformation are visible. On the fifth anniversary of the law, the National Council of Justice of Brazil published data showing positive results: more than 331,000 prosecutions and 110,000 final judgments, and nearly two million calls to the Service Center for Women.
Brazil has started the Women Living Without Violence program, with $265 million in pledges to integrate public services and create women-friendly policies.
“In a society fuelled by machismo, there is bound to be a lot of resistance to change,” Da Penha said. “But I believe that through our work, we can motivate fellow citizens to fight for women’s rights. We are not silent anymore.”
(© Women’s Feature Service)