The tail of a salmon and the words of a girl are the slipperiest things on the planet.
“The number of cases reported to the police is growing by the day.”
Who: Maria Da Penha
What: Brazil’s new law on violence against women bears her name. She herself runs an institute to spread information about the law.
“I woke up when the shot hit my back. I knew straightaway it was him.”
Despite yet another attempt on her life, it took 19 years and six months before Maria Da Penha’s husband was convicted. That was six months before her case would have fallen under the statute of limitations, the time limit within which a crime must be tried or written off.
The new law turned attitudes towards violence against women in Brazil upside down. Previously, all cases of violence against women had been treated as minor offences, and the punishment for wife-beating might be a small fine, or being ordered to donate some food to a charitable organisation.
Under the Maria Da Penha Act, the perpetrator can be arrested immediately, the punishment has been made more severe, protection orders have been introduced, and there are now specialised courts which handle cases of violence against women. There is still a lot to be done; the legal system in particular is frighteningly slow, but a lot has happened. The number of cases reported to the police is growing by the day.
There is still a lot to be done; the legal system in particular is frighteningly slow, but a lot has happened.
But what happened on that night 28 years ago?
“The neighbours heard the shot and came running,” says Maria Da Penha. “They found me in bed and my husband in the kitchen, with his pyjamas tied round his neck like a rope. I was taken to hospital, and my husband told the police that we had had a break-in, and that the burglars had shot me and tried to strangle him.
I was very seriously injured and spent four months in hospital. I’ve been in a wheelchair since then. Two of my discs are completely destroyed.
When I got home, the police had found some inconsistencies in my husband’s story, but they didn’t know that I had come home and that they could question me. My husband locked me in the house. He even stopped me from meeting my parents and sisters. I didn’t dare leave, I was afraid he’d say that I’d run away from home, and that would mean I’d lose custody of our daughters.
My husband had tampered with the electricity in the hot water boiler, and there’s no doubt I would have died as soon as the live water hit my wheelchair.
One day he offered to push me to the bathroom for a shower. The water was streaming down in the shower, and he was just about to push my wheelchair in when I reached out a hand to feel the temperature – and got an electric shock. I grabbed hold of the walls of the shower, and using every ounce of strength I possessed, pushed myself backwards and screamed. Our home help came rushing through and helped me.
My husband had tampered with the electricity in the hot water boiler, and there’s no doubt I would have died as soon as the live water hit my wheelchair.”
Maria Da Penha’s husband spent a total of three days in custody while the investigation took place, but that was all. He was charged after about a year, and the trial started another eight years later. He was found guilty, but started to appeal, year after year. When he was finally convicted, after all that time, it was only six months before the crime would have been written off, and he was sentenced to two years imprisonment. But that was before the Maria Da Penha Act was introduced.
Maria Da Penha now runs an institute which works to spread information about the law and prevent violence against women.
Maternal deaths: 58 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.18
Abortion legislation: Abortion is not legal. It is only allowed if the woman’s life is at risk or if she has been the victim of rape or incest.
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: 41,532 women were murdered in the years 1997-2007. That implies 10 women every day. The majority were murdered by men they knew. In the first six months of 2010 over 40,000 incidents of violence against women were reported.