The woman behind Brazil's domestic violence law: 'I can't give up the fight'
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By Jo Griffin
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazil must do more to ensure its landmark law on domestic violence combats the crime in a country where statistics show a woman is killed every two hours, said Maria da Penha, whose own fight for justice led to a law named after her 10 years ago.
Da Penha, a biopharmacist in northeast Ceara state who was left paraplegic in 1983 after her husband tried to kill her, has shared her name for the past decade with the law praised by the United Nations as world leading on gender violence.
The Maria da Penha law toughened sentences for offenders and set up specialized courts, police stations and shelters for women in cities of more than 60,000 people.
It also gave judges the powers to grant protective measures, like restraining orders, making domestic violence visible.
In March, Brazil's National Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) credited the law and linked programs with a 10 percent drop in homicides of women at home over the decade.
But activists say other data suggests gender violence is still rampant. In 2015, the Forum for Public Security estimated a rape occurred every 11 minutes in Brazil while another group, the Map of Violence, said a woman was killed every two hours.
Da Penha, 71, said there was still a long way to go with smaller cities still lacking the new special services for women.
"Unfortunately, in the majority of districts women at risk of domestic violence have nowhere to go to make a complaint," Da Penha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email interview.
Since 2009, the Maria da Penha Institute has teamed up with universities to train people working with domestic violence survivors so their work is not "compromised by macho attitudes".
But changing a wider culture of machismo is not easy.
"It's clear that we all agree there must be an end to gender violence, but what are we doing to achieve this? How many of us still go along with old sayings such as, 'no one should interfere in a fight between husband and wife?'," she said.
In Brazil, Da Penha is revered for her work on women's rights. Former President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, who passed the law in her name, was among those to congratulate her publicly on its 10th anniversary last month.
But it is her personal story and long fight for justice that has made her an emblematic figure for supporters around Brazil.
In 1983 her then husband shot her while she slept, leaving her paralyzed. When she returned home after four months in hospital, he tried to electrocute her while she took a shower.
Her case against him languished in court for two decades and he eventually served just two years in jail for his crime.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights criticized Brazil for not doing enough to prosecute and convict perpetrators of domestic violence and in 2006 the Maria da Penha Act was born.
That international intervention was necessary then shows the extent of Brazil's negligence of gender violence, Da Penha said.
"We need to act to change perspectives on this patriarchal and macho culture that violated and still violates millions of women in (Brazil)," said Da Penha, adding education was vital.
Nevertheless, a lot of progress was made under President Dilma Rousseff, who has just been impeached, she said.
She cited a 24-hour "Disque Denuncia" hotline to receive and report calls about domestic violence, and the 2015 law that criminalizes femicide.
But Da Penha said women's rights activists must get behind implementation of the law to ensure tolerance of violence ends.
"I never imagined that my struggle, which began with a lot of pain and suffering, would end up where it did ... To have the law named after me is also a big responsibility, since it does not permit me to stop [my work]," she said.
(Reporting by Jo Griffin, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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