An interview with sexual assault survivor and Olympic swimmer Joanna Maranhão
By 17 years old, Brazilian swimmer Joanna Maranhão had already broken her country’s record by taking fifth place in the 400 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Four years later, the athlete suddenly became afraid of water. Memories of the sexual abuse Maranhão suffered at nine years old at the hands of a former swim coach had come back to haunt her.
In 2008, the Olympic swimmer told her story of assault to the press. Although her former coach sued Maranhão and her mother for slander, the athlete’s story had a great impact on Brazilian society: It helped change how the judicial system handled such cases. In the past, the system gave victims 16 years to initiate legal action against their abuser, but once they turned 18, if they hadn’t already spoken out, they were given only six months to take legal action. Now, in part thanks to Maranhão’s bravery, after a victim turns 18 years old they have 20 years to do so.
Maranhão has continued to succeed athletically — she participated in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympics — but still struggles with the psychological trauma caused by her abuse. While she has weathered a divorce and a suicide attempt, Maranhão still aims to help others through her work at her NGO Infância Livre (Free Childhood), which focuses on stopping abuse before it happens through promoting school sex education lectures. This work is crucial given that 70 percent of the victims of reported rapes in Brazil are children, according to a 2014 report by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA). Over 24 percent of the abusers are the victims’ father or stepfather, and 32 percent are friends or acquaintances, which often prevents victims from speaking out.
A champion both in and out of water, Joanna Maranhão recently told the FBomb about how she copes with being a victim of sexual abuse, what can be done for others facing this situation, and how we can use laws and education to help demolish rape culture.
You were 21 years old when you revealed that you had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of your coach since childhood. How and why did you decide to share your story?
The verbalization [of my abuse] was a whole process. I had built the courage to engage with it through therapy, which I started in 2006, and as time went by I told relatives, close friends, and national squad teammates. By the beginning of 2008, I felt safe bring it up publicly, as I knew doing so would be important to combat pedophilia.
In many cases of sexual assault, survivors are victimized more than once by not being believed or being blamed for the assault committed against them. In fact, your coach denied your allegations. How did you personally handle this and what are your thoughts on why our society treats survivors this way?
I felt hatred towards [my abuser] and those who doubted what I was saying. I’ve been accused of exposing [my abuse] to attract media, and I was sued by [my coach]. Those were dark times where I thought that it would’ve been better had I never touched this subject.
But things started to make sense as his other victims came out and gave testimony alongside me. The work I did through the Joanna Maranhão Law and the Free Childhood Project was often painful, but it also strengthened me.
Your decision to speak out changed the Brazilian law related to how sex abuse committed against underage victims is handled. Do you think this law is enough, or are there other steps that should be taken?
The law is just the beginning. It’s an important, respectful step to [helping] victims, the majority of whom don’t feel ready or educated to verbalize their experiences. But we need more. We can’t think that the law will be enough to bring a cultural change.
You shared your story far before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gained traction. Do you think sharing your story would have been different if you shared it as part of these movements? If so, how?
I have never stopped to think about this. But it also doesn’t matter. We opened a door and it will never be closed again, and this is crucial to fight rape culture.
Of course, these movements are largely based in the U.S. Why do you think such movements haven't taken off in Brazil the same way they have elsewhere?
We are moving towards this way. Some amazing “chicks” are spearheading and have taken the front in such battles.
You now have an NGO: Infância Livre (Free Childhood). What has it been like pursuing this work? How do you think your own experiences shape the work the NGO does?
Working in a NGO strengthens me and helps the process of finding my own balance. Those who have experienced childhood sex abuse are often silenced by their abuser or try to employ violence as a form of reparation. Finding an educational and nonviolent way to combat this crime is a motive of pride and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Do you have any advice for young people who have experienced assault — in terms of speaking out or how to heal?
Everyone [needs] their own time to engage with what happened to them. I believe it is important to go to a psychologist, but not everyone can afford it. It’s crucial that the victim comprehends he/she wasn’t responsible for what happened in any given moment, try to set themself free, and go back to being the owner of their life. It is necessary to understand that it is not something that you will overcome; you will learn to live through this experience.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Sports
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Rape, Sexualized violence, South and Central America