Advancement of Women

In Brazil, innovative seminars help combat domestic violence

In Brief: 
  • Since 2001, the National Forum on Human Rights Education has taken a leading role in fighting domestic violence
  • It has produced a series of seminars for law enforcement officials and social workers
  • The seminars are distinctive for their participatory methods and an emphasis on human rights and the equality of women

BRASILIA, Brazil — Without doubt, domestic violence is a global problem, affecting women in every country. According to the World Health Organization, as many as one in four women in the world have suffered violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Brazil is no exception. A recent government-sponsored study found that 10 women are killed in domestic violence every day in Brazil — and that some 41,500 women were murdered by partners between 1997 and 2007.

The government has in recent years sought to curb such violence. In 2006, it passed the so-called “Maria da Penha law,” which greatly strengthened penalties against perpetrators and improved protective measures for women. The law was named after Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes, who fought a 20-year battle for justice after she was shot in the spine by her husband and became paraplegic.

As part of its effort to implement the law and fight domestic violence, the government has funded a series of training seminars to help police, social workers, and officials in the legal system to better understand the law and improve their response — and a number of Bahá’ís have been closely involved in this effort.

In 2001, a group of Bahá’ís helped to found the National Forum on Human Rights Education, a coalition of NGOs and individuals dedicated to promoting human rights generally. As part of its work, the Forum has organized a series of capacity-building seminars on combatting domestic violence.

With support from government grants, those seminars have been praised for their distinctive approach, which stressed a learning mode that focused on the sharing of information among the various participants, and which also emphasized human rights and moral values.

“The seminar helped me to identify problems and take new ideas and concepts to strengthen the network of care to the victims of violence,” said Vanessa Motta, a lawyer with the Referral Center for Women Victims of Violence in Rio Branco, Acre.

Principle of equality

The seminars not only examined international treaties and national laws but also stressed the importance of understanding the equality of women and men as a moral and spiritual principle.

“One goal we had was to frame the issue and have discussions around the theme of the equality of women and men,” said Mariana Pereira, a Bahá’í who has served as the Forum’s project coordinator.

That emphasis on equality opened the door to deeper understanding of the issue for many participants.

“It is clear that one of the problems of discrimination against women is related to moral values rooted in society for many years,” said Terezinha Pionti, an attorney with the State Council for Women Rights of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Community-based effort

“It is clear that one of the problems of discrimination against women is related to moral values rooted in society for many years.”

–Terezinha Pionti, State Council for Women Rights of Mato Grosso do Sul

Ms. Pereira said the effort to fight domestic violence was in part inspired by the Bahá’í teachings on the equality of women and men.

Early in the decade, she noted, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Brazil, the community’s national governing council, wrote two letters to the community discussing the issue of domestic violence.

In 2001, Bahá’ís sponsored an initial seminar on the issue to train legal workers in Brazil about domestic violence. It was undertaken in partnership with the Tahirih Justice Center, a US-based, Bahá’í-inspired NGO dealing with women’s issues.

In 2006, Bahá’ís worked with the Forum to organize another seminar to train prosecutors, judges, and lawyers for the protection of women involved in domestic violence. More than 100 legal officers from around Brazil participated in the seminar, which was held in September 2006 with funding from the newly established federal Special Secretariat for Women. It was the first national seminar on the issue after the Maria da Penha law was passed.

The success of that event led to two more seminars in 2007, in Recife and São Paulo, also funded by the federal Secretariat, with a grant of US$35,300.

“The Special Secretariat for Women was particularly supportive of this initiative because, of all the organizations working with women and domestic violence, the Bahá’í community was one of the few that had thought to target representatives from the judicial system,” said Catherine Honeyman, who did a special report on these and other activities for the Bahá’í community of Brazil.

Recife and São Paulo were chosen because of their relatively high level of domestic violence. “In Recife that year, there were more than 60 women murdered as a consequence of domestic violence,” said Ms. Pereira.

Some 122 professionals in the legal system participated in the Recife seminar, and 175 in the São Paulo event.

Each covered the following topics: understanding the cycle of violence and aggression; national and international legislation, especially the Maria da Penha law; the role of the legal system in protecting women; and the discussion of good practices that can be applied countrywide.

In 2009, when the Bahá’ís and the Forum organized another series of seminars, coordinators tried to incorporate what they have learned from previous events. Among other things, they sought to create an atmosphere where different regional practices could be shared and new partnerships could be forged.

“Working to combat domestic violence requires, above all, a philosophical change in how we understand and relate ourselves with others and with their differences.”

— Fernanda Mendes, Referral Center for Women, Salvador, Bahia

“Brazil is a very big country, and we found that there were different practices in the south and different practices in the north,” said Ms. Pereira. “So networking and exchanging experiences was really important.”

The seminars in 2009 were held in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul; Manaus, Amazonas; and Florianópolis, Santa Catarina.

Ms. Pereira said the seminar in Manaus was distinctive for the involvement of indigenous women, who are not covered by the Maria da Penha law because they are under federal jurisdiction. “For the first time, we could hear what they had to say, of the difficulties they faced,” she said.

Participants in the seminars have praised their wide-ranging, integrative approach. “Working to combat domestic violence requires, above all, a philosophical change in how we understand and relate ourselves with others and with their differences,” said Fernanda Mendes, an attorney with the Referral Center for Women in Salvador, Bahia.

“Mainly, it is necessary to avoid the stereotypes that surround us. On the other hand, we must put an end to the culture of violence and also question the male/female values that are so settled and fixed in our society, by trying to leave behind this duality,” she said.