“I begged them to stop, but it was no use. They hurt me even more. Little by little, more of them showed up, until I realized there were 10 men abusing me. They said they would kill me if I screamed, that they would throw me into the sewer.”
This account by Claudia (an assumed name), a 34-year-old sales clerk and mother of three, made headlines in a few local newspapers in Rio de Janeiro in late October.
She is the latest known victim of gang rape in Brazil, a common crime, but one that few women have been prepared to report to the police.
Many victims are conflicted, some feeling that they somehow deserved it; others are ashamed to tell anyone about it, while others are afraid of getting killed.
Just as poor women are hostages to poverty, so middle and upper-class women are victims to morality Cristina Fernandes, psychologist
When a case does make it into the media, Brazilian society expresses shock, but the subject remains taboo and is rarely discussed.
Last year, there were 45,460 reports of rape in Brazil, or 125 a day, according to the Brazilian Public Safety Forum, which says that only an estimated 10% of victims file a report.
As the world observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Friday, the figures are a stark reminder of the titanic task up ahead in countries like Brazil.
High rate of gender abuse
Brazil has a specific law penalizing the murder of women, and another piece of legislation against gender abuse. Yet it also has a rate of 4.8 homicides for every 100,000 women, the fifth-highest in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Figures from 2013 (the latest available year) show that 4,762 women were assassinated, and that in a majority of cases (50.3%) the crime was commited by a relative, while in 33% of cases the killer was a current or former partner.
After an ex-boyfriend shared videos of a sexual nature, Claudia became a sex toy for all the drug traffickers in her neighborhood, located in a poor area outside Rio.
She would be stopped on the street and forced to perform oral sex. The last time, her harassment turned into a gang rape by 10 minors who threatened to penetrate her with branches. Her ordeal only ended when the police showed up.
She was taken down to the station inside the same patrol car as two of her rapists, and her life went to pieces. She was forced to leave her home and become part of a victim protection program.
“I never wanted to file a complaint out of fear of what is happening to me right now: seeing my own life devastated,” she says.
According to a survey by the Datafolha Institute, 30% of Brazilians agree that a woman who dresses provocatively should not complain if she is raped.
In Piauí, a state in northwestern Brazil, there have been three reported cases of gang rape since May of last year, evidencing a deeply entrenched rape culture.
In the most egregious case, five minors and a man aped four young women, then pushed them down a 10-meter ravine. One of the victims, a 17-year-old girl, died.
These crimes have taken on a new dimension ever since the rapists began filming themselves and sharing the images online. That is how the world found out that a 16-year-old girl had been raped by 30 men in a Rio shantytown. The video was shared in social media, and the victim filed a complaint. It was not the first time this had happened to her.
30% of Brazilians feel that a woman who dresses provocatively should not complain if she is raped
“The visibility creates some debate, but the victims find life hard afterwards. It is true that ever since that episode, a lot more women have got in touch with us and they find it easier to identify the abuse,” explains Cristina Fernandes, a psychologist and leading figure in the treatment of sexual violence who personally treated the young woman.
The police commissioner in charge of that case, Cristiana Bento, has already investigated three other gang rapes that never made it into the news. She says that many victims are not even aware of the abuse.
“There are young women who do not realize that they are victims of a barbarous crime. It is part of their lives,” she says. “Often, in the favelas, the drugs boss picks girls out, and families cannot do anything about it. They lay down the rules, and anybody who rebels pays with their life.”
It is also becoming clear that this type of violence and the fear of coming forward are not limited to the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
“It cannot be associated just with poverty,” notes Fernandes. “Any woman will have trouble seeking help. Just as poor women are hostages to poverty, to militiamen or to drug traffickers, middle and upper-class women are the victims of morality and so-called proper conduct. They are all scared of ruining their own lives, and they keep quiet.”
English version by Susana Urra.