Brazil struggling with sex abuse crisis against underage girls

More than half of rape victims in the country were under the age of 13, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, with four such assaults taking place every hour

Naiara Galarraga Gortázar
Una niña en un parque de Sao Paulo, Brasil
A park in São Paulo. More than half of all rape cases reported in Brazil were against children under the age of 13.Lela Beltrão

Often the cases appear as a few words in the local press: “Man and woman arrested over the rape of a 13-year-old girl.” A police statement adds that the victim’s uncle had been raping her for the last six years, with the full knowledge of the girl’s mother and grandmother. In this case, arrests took place on May 5 in Pinheiros, a city of 77,000 people in northern Brazil, but neither the age of the victim nor the circumstances of the crime are unusual. The most recent statistics from the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (FBSP) are shocking. Every hour, four girls under the age of 13 are raped in Brazil. More than half of the 66,041 victims were under that age, according to the 2019 report.

These cases hide the true scale of the issue as they are the ones escalated to the police or medical specialists. Much abuse takes place hidden from view and protected by family omertà. “Sexual violence against children is shrouded in a pact of silence,” says Marcia Bonifacio, the head of a team of psychologists at São Paulo City Hall who provide support to schools for problematic students. Their disruptive behavior often hides a life of sexual abuse and other forms of violence at home.

Sexual violence against children is shrouded in a pact of silence
Marcia Bonifacio, psychologist for abuse victims

The psychologists have seen cases of a four-year-old girl who masturbates four times a day in class, a 10-year-old girl who starts to show signs of pregnancy, or the seven-year-old boy who pressures classmates into performing oral sex. “It’s a very perverse circle with few happy endings,” says Bonifacio. Brazil’s patriarchal and macho culture is plagued by taboos about sex, but at the same time promotes precocious sexual activity. The victims do not follow any pattern of age, race or social class, but their aggressors are almost always family members or close family friends. “I have never heard of a case perpetrated by a stranger,” explains Bonifacio. Fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and older siblings, however, are common.

The Brazilian Penal Code considers any sexual relations with a child under 14 to be statutory rape, and further considers them as rape of a person considered “vulnerable” (unable to consent due to age, illness or incapacity). As it is not uncommon for the mother of the child or other relatives to be complicit, the abuse can extend through childhood. Often the victim will be blamed for destroying the family or leaving it without an income if they complain and the aggressor is the main financial provider.

Marcia Bonifacio en la secretaría municipal de Educación de São Paulo, Brasil
Marcia Bonifacio, who leads a team that helps schools detect cases of sexual abuse.Lela Beltrão

Unfortunately, cases can start extremely early. “When they are between zero and six years old the victims have little understanding of what is happening, they may even perceive it as a game, as a sign of affection. They feel pleasure and they have no boundaries – frequently the aggressor requires them to keep it a secret,” explains prosecutor Renata Rivitti. However, this ignorance can stretch into a child’s teens given a lack of information and sex education.

Bonifacio recalls the case of a 13-year-old from an evangelical family. The girl discovered in science class that what her father had been doing to her since she was eight years old and got her first period was sex. With no television, cellphone or internet, she had simply not heard of it.

Hospital cases

Detecting abuse is the first step, and in the case of young children, this is usually discovered according to their behavior at school. When they are older, they often tell someone they trust, but the most serious cases come to light at hospital. A further difficulty once abuse is exposed is protecting the victim without re-victimizing them, and prosecuting the crime. The child will have to repeat their testimony to different services, the police and doctors. They will face intense scrutiny and have to undergo a thorough forensic examination. Many end up far away from their relatives, neighborhood, school and friends, and blame themselves for speaking out. Some retract their accusations because the price paid for speaking up is too high.

Rivitti says she encourages information sharing with victims, to make them aware of what abuse is and how it works. “Then they will know how to explain it, and they will have to be believed,” she says. They try to identify a family member who will protect the girl at home and separate her from the rapist. If he is providing for the family then they try to seek extra financial support.

Getting a case strong enough to bring before a judge is another major difficulty in Brazil. It is usually the child’s word against the adult’s. The worst nightmare of those fighting child rape is that the court will acquit the accused. “We simply cannot deliver the lamb to the wolf with a judge’s approval,” Rivitti says.

Given the complexity of the challenge, Luciana Temer runs the Liberta Institute, which seeks to raise awareness with documentaries to break what she terms “the perverse circle of the normalization of abuse.” Also on board is one of the most famous men in Brazil, Globo TV presenter Luciano Huck, who is politically influential.

As it is not uncommon for the mother of the child or other relatives to be complicit, the abuse can extend through childhood

Rivitti is trying to replicate the model she created in Jacareí, a city of 235,000 inhabitants in Brazil’s interior, at the São Paulo state level. This works by coordinating educational, social and health services to better protect victims, leading to higher rates of detection and rape complaints, fewer witnesses in trials and more convictions. She works with a network of 70 other prosecutors.

With schools closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, the team Bonifacio leads had to pivot online to create an outlet for children to denounce violence. They created a website that received 200 complaints in nine months. Of these, 56 were for sexual violence.

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