Preventing the murder of women in Brazil

17th March 2021

Author: Fiona Macaulay (University of Bradford, UK)

Sarah Everard left her friend’s house to walk home. She never arrived. The news of her abduction and murder – by a police officer, no less – has been a chilling reminder to women across the country of their everyday experience of fear of male violence. Women and girls are routinely sexually harassed on the street and on public transport. When women leave the house they engage in personal ‘security work’ that men cannot even imagine: texting a friend, carrying housekeys interlaced between their fingers, paying for an unnecessary taxi, constantly checking their surroundings.

Women’s fear is of sexual assault, but not just that. It is also fear of being murdered, because if an assailant has chosen to abduct or rape, he is capable of anything. Murders of women by strangers are relatively rare: sexual harassment and assault are not. Cities are not designed with women’s safety in mind, and the criminal justice system has become indifferent to prosecuting these crimes, as historically low conviction rates attest.

Women are also not safe in their own homes. On average two women are murdered every week in the UK, mostly by partners or ex-partners. That figure has not changed in years. Many of those women have either not reported prior abuse to the police out of fear of escalation. Some had reported abuse and stalking to the police, but not been taken seriously or given the protection they need.

The murder of women by men for reasons of misogyny, revenge, control or sexual gratification is a global problem. In Latin America it is at epidemic levels and known as ‘feminicide’. Most countries have now passed laws making it a specific crime. But little has been done in the way of investigation, prosecution and prevention. In Mexico, when women protest at the lack of government action, as they did on 8 March this year, the riot police tear-gassed them.

But the story is changing in Brazil – the continent’s largest country with the highest number of feminicides. There, women’s groups, police, prosecutors, NGOs and media outlets have worked together to highlight how many murders of women are hate crimes, rooted in discriminatory attitudes. They have set up ‘feminicide counts’ online, detailing each murder and ensuring that the victim’s life is not erased as ‘just another number’. Special feminicide investigation units have been set up, which has improved the prosecution success rate to over 90 per cent. The courts have introduced fast track procedures to get feminicide cases to trial within a year, so that the families of the victims get justice and support.

Police forces have also designed a very effective and innovative feminicide prevention strategy. There are now around 300 police patrols across Brazil dedicated to supporting victims of domestic abuse. They are named after Maria da Penha, whose attempted murder inspired the country’s 2006 domestic violence law. Now, when a woman reports domestic abuse to the police, she can request an emergency restraining order. This is immediately enforced by the local Maria da Penha police patrol, which visits her at home, referring her to support services and explaining her rights. The patrol explains to the abuser that he will go to jail if he violates the stay-away order, and sometimes requires him to wear an electronic tag. The patrols continue to visit and support the victims over weeks and months. Their presence discourages men from stalking and murdering their ex-partners. The feminicide rate for women enrolled in the programme is virtually zero.

This shows that when society and criminal justice institutions take women’s insecurity seriously, then well-designed and targeted interventions can increase women’s trust in the police and courts and reduce victimisation. It is a matter of political will.

The UK needs to pass the Domestic Abuse bill, as a matter of urgency. It has been pushed to one side for too long, as if women’s safety was of secondary importance.

The UK also needs to urgently address the appallingly low conviction rate in rape cases. As campaigners have noted, the UK has effectively decriminalised rape.

Book: Transforming State Responses to Feminicide: Women’s Movements, Law and Criminal Justice Institutions in Brazil

Author: Fiona Macaulay.

Available from Emerald on 21 April 2021.