Bolsonaro’s new gun law could put Brazil’s women in the line of fire
São Paulo, Brazil—On January 15, Brazil’s newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree loosening restrictions on gun ownership in the country that leads the world in firearm deaths, as of 2016. Already, women's rights advocates and policy experts fear that, in addition to a potential rise in violence overall, women will become the main targets.
“It is estimated that, in 2016, about half of the women killed in Brazil were victims of firearms and, of these, about 25 percent were murdered [in their homes],” said Elaini Cristina Gonzaga da Silva, director of the Orbis Center for Studies in Law and International Relations and a law professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). “By focusing on the use of a weapon to defend ourselves against those who come from outside the house, we forget that the weapon is often used [by and against] those who are inside the house itself.”
Letícia Bahia, co-founder of the feminist site AzMina and a consultant for the United Nations Foundation, told Women Under Siege, “Women are killed at home almost three times more than men. In half of the cases, the crime is committed with a firearm.” Responding to the decree, she said, “Some people think that firearms could save these lives, but it is clear that women will come off worse in a fight… Violence and aggression are, historically, the attribute of masculinity.”
According to Relógios da Violência (Clocks of Violence), a data project designed by the Maria da Penha Institute to visualize country statistics on violence against women, a woman is the target of a firearm in Brazil every two minutes. In a country where gender-based violence is already at staggering levels, fears that easing gun possession will only increase domestic violence seem closer to being realized.
In 2003, Brazil’s Senate approved the Disarmament Statute, a federal law that prohibits the carrying of weapons by civilians except in cases where there is a proven need, and only upon registration with the Federal Police. Bolsonaro's decree loosens these restrictions, in particular, by expanding the definition of “necessity” and by instructing the Federal Police to presume “truthfulness of the facts and circumstances affirmed in the declaration of effective necessity”—that is, the need to possess a firearm should be taken for granted, regardless of whether the inquiring individual lives or works in an area with a high crime rate.
“[Bolsonaro] wants to compensate for his [waning] popularity with an agenda sharply based on criminal populism,” Renato Roseno, state representative in Ceará for the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and rapporteur for the Ceará State Committee for the Prevention of Homicide in Adolescence (CCPHA), told Women Under Siege. “Criminal populism has this dual task: On the one hand, it responds to the public’s desire for security in a structurally violent society. On the other, it extends control over social dissidents. Bolsonaro’s decree does not deal with any of the structural causes [of violence] and will [only] cause an increase in incarcerations.”
If this decree is only a political power move to placate the public’s need for security, its shallow address of crime has serious consequences. “The decree … is part of an elected government's public security plan that focuses more on [addressing] some types of conflicts deemed ‘relevant’ than on building peace for society as a whole,” da Silva added.
The struggle to address domestic violence
The decree authorizes the possession of firearms in the household, as well as in commercial establishments, which advocates fear could make stories like Maria da Penha's more common. In 1983, Maria da Penha was shot by her husband, Marco Antonio Heredia Viveros, while she slept. Viveros told police that da Penha was shot by one of four intruders who had broken into their home. After she was discharged from the hospital, Maria returned home, where she continued to suffer abuse by her husband up until his second attempt to kill her: when he tried to electrocute her while she was taking a shower.
Nineteen years later, her husband was finally convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to eight years in prison, ultimately serving only two of those years behind bars. In 2006, Lei Maria da Penha, or the “Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence,” was passed, which increased the sentences for abusers, established special domestic violence courts, and required the authorities to open 24-hour shelters for abused women.
But the law’s impact remains impeded, as rates of domestic violence and femicide continue to climb. In fact, in 2017, Brazil came in fifth place in a world ranking for violence against women (and fourth in the Americas) after femicide rates increased by 6.1% over 2016.
A lack of access to justice
There are only 461 police stations nationwide that specialize in handling cases of violence against women, referred to as “women’s police stations.” Established over 30 years ago by the government of São Paulo, they gained greater importance after the Maria da Penha Law was enacted, but much still needs to be done to expand the system. In some states, such as Roraima and Acre (with populations of approximately 500,000 and 790,000, respectively), there is only one women’s police station.
The majority of women must still rely on their nearest available-police station, where many have found themselves mistreated, their complaints often not even recorded, let alone investigated. And if women didn’t find it difficult enough to have their reports handled with care, they may have an even harder time finding justice. In Brazil, only six percent of homicide cases are ever resolved.
Women victims are ultimately left to absorb the consequences
“The universe of firearms is predominantly male,” says Bahia. “That does not change with a decree. Firearms will remain in the hands of men, and if reporting a violent partner is already difficult for any woman, imagine [what it’ll be like] for the woman who knows that her partner has a gun at home.”
“Unlike with male victims, most women are killed, threatened, and raped at home, [after a history of ongoing violence]. It is not an outburst and a death, an outburst and rape, or an outburst and a threat. [We’re talking about] situations that take time, that undermine the confidence and strength of the woman,” Cecília Olliveira, contributing editor at The Intercept Brazil, covering crime, public security, and drug policy, told Women Under Siege. “A weapon inside the house, in a scenario with a strong person and a weakened one. Who wins?”
Olliveira recalled last week's brutal attack in which a woman was beaten in her home for nearly four hours by a man she had met online and invited over for dinner. Carlos Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a Rio de Janeiro city council member, responded to the attack in a tweet saying, “If this woman had the means to defend herself… a legal firearm would solve this nonsense.”
“The victim was asleep at the time of the assault,” said Olliveira. “Carlos [has obviously] forgotten that his father, a military man, trained—and awake—was robbed,” referring to a 1995 incident in which Bolsonaro was robbed while carrying a revolver, which was taken, along with his motorcycle, by the two assailants. “They don't rely on studies or analysis. It is pure and simple lip service.”
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: gun violence, Brazil, Femicide, Domestic violence