Maria Cristina, a psycholgist, leads a therapy group for abused women in Rio de Janeiro.




In one exercise a box is passed round. When they have looked inside they describe the "very important" person hidden inside. The box contains a mirror.
The Therapist
An armed guard sits in the entrance to CIAM (Centro Integrado de Atendimento à Mulher) in central Rio. In the waiting room, a group of women of varying ages are chatting together. They know each other quite well by now. Many of them come here every week for help and support, while others are less regular visitors.

Is your family more important than you yourself?

Maria Cristina D’Almeida Marques
Runs group therapy sessions and offers counselling to abused women.

“Someone who lives in a violent relationship loses track of time and appointments – in fact, of everything that’s going on around her,” says therapist Maria Cristina D’Almeida Marques. “A woman who is the victim of violence focuses on the man and his demands.”

CIAM is a national centre for women in Brazil who are the victims of violence. Psychologists, social workers and lawyers all work here, offering support and contact with women’s shelters.

Cristina calls in the women, who sit down on chairs arranged in a circle. The meeting starts at 10 and will end by 11.30 at the latest. The rules are taped up on the walls. ‘Respect the person speaking. Keep everything you hear to yourself. Switch off your mobile phone. Do not talk about religion.’

The topic for today’s discussion is self-respect. Cristina produces a small box with a ladybird on the lid. She says that inside the box, there is a picture of a very important person. She is going to pass the box round, and everyone will open the lid in turn and look at the picture. Then she will say what she thinks of that person, without saying the name.
”What if I don’t know who it is?”
“Then say so.”
The first person to open the lid breaks into a big smile:
“Yes, I know this person. I’m a big fan. She’s a warrior, a fighter.”
“Have you got anything negative to say about her?”
“Yes, perhaps that she’s too nice. People don’t respect her.”

She’s a warrior, a fighter.

After a while, we all realise that the box contains a mirror. The women describe themselves in the third person, in different ways:
“I’m trying to get to know her, but she’s a bit confused right now …”
“Well, what can I say? She wants to help other people so much that she forgets about herself. I don’t actually know her very well.”
“But you’re finding out,” smiles Cristina.

There is a newcomer in the group, a young woman in a checked dress. She was here once before, two months ago, but on that occasion she did not say anything. Now she is more determined. She has reported her husband to the police and this time she is not going to withdraw her report. She looks at her reflection and says:
 “The person in this picture is trying to be a good person. She believes nothing is more important than her family. ”

Everyone has held the box and talked about her own reflection. Now the floor is open for discussion. Cristina turns to the woman in the checked dress:
 “When you say ‘nothing is more important than her family’ - does that mean that your family is more important than you yourself?”

The only person I can rely on is myself, not my family or my husband.

Other members of the group join in:
“I think I’m the most important person. The only person I can rely on is myself, not my family or my husband.”
“Every family has one central person who controls all the others. If he doesn’t feel good, it affects everyone else.”

The young woman in the checked dress begins to tell her story: 
“We’ve been living together for ten years, most of the time abroad. Now we’re here, and he doesn’t feel at home. He’s not Brazilian.  And yes, he’s violent. I think he’s sick. We’ve got a two-year-old daughter. I don’t want her to see what her father is doing to me.”
“You’ve taken an important step,” says one of the other women in the circle. “But don’t say he’s sick. That means you think there are medicines he can take, or that you can cure him.”

Cristina adds: “Of course there are psychological explanations for violence, sometimes, but most men know exactly what they’re doing. And is it your responsibility to deal with his problem? It takes time to build up a violent relationship, and it can take time to break it down. Don’t ask too much of yourself. Make a plan for getting out.”

Now I do all that without him – and I do it better.

A blond woman in her forties leans forward and looks deep into the young woman’s eyes: “I was married for 15 years. I thought I needed my husband so I could work, study, cook – even breathe. Now I do all that without him – and I do it better. I’ve become a much better mother since I stopped building my life on trying to protect myself against his mood swings.”

The young woman in the checked dress begins to cry.
“Thank you.”