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Why sexual assault goes almost unpunished on Brazil’s public transport

Three arrests in 48 hours in São Paulo reignite debate over women-only carriages Groping women on trains or buses does not fall under specific category in penal code

Marina Rossi
Male passengers eye two girls on the São Paulo metro system.
Male passengers eye two girls on the São Paulo metro system.BOSCO Martín

In the space of just over 48 hours, three men ended up at a São Paulo police station this week on suspicion of sexually assaulting women on public transport.

On Monday, Aquino Adilton Santos, 24, was arrested while traveling on train line number seven, after being accused of ejaculating on a woman’s legs. According to Brazilian press reports, Santos argued that “the train was very full” and that he “could not wait” to get home. The victim, a 30-year-old appraiser, not only suffered from trauma but also dislocated her arm after she tried to resist the man.

On Wednesday, Bruno Rome Perroni, 24, was arrested and charged with videotaping women with his cellphone pointed up their skirts, while Eduardo Ferreira Nascimento, 26, was taken to a police station for indecently assaulting a 33-year-old woman. Both young men, who were at a subway station when the incidents took place, were immediately released with charges, given that this type of crime is considered a minor offense under Brazilian law, according to police commissioner Cícero Simão Costa.

In Brazil, there is no legal term for such crimes and these offenses do not fall under a specific category in the penal code. Often defendants are let go with a slap on the wrist, which may include performing volunteer community service.

Facebook has taken action over groups on how to abuse women on crowded public transport systems

So far this year, São Paulo’s metropolitan police have detected 20 such crimes committed on subway lines and bus routes. While at least a dozen women have come forward to press charges against their aggressors, an unknown number of victims remain silent.

“These are common incidents, and people know that they occur more frequently than is reported in the press or with the police,” explains psychologist Oswaldo Rodrigues Jr, who specializes in issues relating to sexuality.

The number of websites and internet chatrooms where men can share their experiences has also risen. Facebook has taken action to eliminate groups dedicated to such stories and advice on how to abuse women on crowded public transport systems. On Wednesday, the São Paulo police announced that it was investigating at least 30 such groups that were organized online.

Sexual harassment on trains has interfered with the day-to-day tasks of many women in Brazil. At the Estação da Luz train stop in downtown São Paulo, events promoter Mariane Santos Lima, 24, explains that she has sometimes has to change clothes before taking the train in order to avoid attracting the attention of men. “It always happens,” she says.

I always see incidents of men rubbing themselves up against women”

When taking the light-rail route from Luz to Francisco Morato, which takes about 50 minutes, Elisângela da Silva, a 34-year-old company manager, has her own strategy so as not to be disturbed. “When I get on, I try to lean against the wall so that no one is behind me,” she says. “I always see incidents of men rubbing themselves up against women.”

Recent cases have reignited the debate about whether women-only train cars or buses should be introduced. In Rio de Janeiro, there is a so-called “pink car” exclusively for women that has been in existence since 2006 and operates at peak hours. Nevertheless, a report in the daily Record revealed that men do not respect the regulations and sometimes use the female coach.

Opinions are divided over the use of women-only public transport. By operating only at peak hours, women are left open to attacks at other times. In addition, a woman who does not enter the female-only carriage may be viewed as being open to harassment. Still, the creation of such female-only coaches can also be seen as a setback for a modern society, implying that men and women cannot coexist in the same physical space without some type of sexual abuse occurring.

For Gabriely Santana, a 21-year-old student who uses the metro frequently, women-only coaches are not the answer. “That is not the problem; the problem is a lack of education,” she says, while waiting for the train at the Consolação station.

A woman who does not enter the female-only carriage may be viewed as being open to harassment

Eliane Lanar, a 56-year-old teacher, also agrees. “A car exclusively for women is no use because when we leave the train, we still run into these guys on the street,” she says. “The car protects us here, but out there?”

For Rodrigues, the psychologist, the question asked by Lanar is very important. “The wagons may alleviate the situation of some women, but not all of them. And it certainly does not alter the tendency of these men to find their ways of obtaining sexual pleasure. Life goes on outside the metro and trains.”

Two bills have been introduced at the São Paulo state assembly to address the problem but they have been stonewalled, and neither of them were drafted by women. In other states there are similar initiatives, but they were also introduced by male legislators. State Representative Eduardo Porto, for example, is the author of a bill aimed at creating women-only cars in Recife in northeastern Brazil. In that city, some 28 women were raped on public transport lines between 1998 and 2012, according to the NGO SOS Corpo.

Police advise that victims should immediately seek help from the authorities. In São Paulo, there is a 24-hour police station at the metro subway stop Barra Funda, and in some cases a complaint can be filed online. “The idea is to have a witness,” explains commissioner Costa.

Psychologist Wânia Pasinato believes that women should also act at the time of the assault. “The only way is to point the finger at the subject’s face, at the moment when it happens, because afterwards he can just disappear into the crowd and he will be impossible to find. You have to embarrass that individual. Today it is the victim who is afraid and ashamed to react.”

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