Editor’s Note and correction: After this article was published the institute which released this survey announced a major error in reporting its results.
There are few statistics more jarring than this one: According to a survey released late last week, 65.1 percent of Brazilians think that if a woman is “dressed provocatively,” she deserves to be “attacked and raped.” Here’s another one: 59 percent of the 3,810 respondents across 212 cities said that if a Brazilian woman “knew how to behave,” there would be fewer rapes.
And then there’s this: More than two-thirds of the respondents were women.
News of the Institute for Applied Economic Research survey fueled an existing movement and unleashed a tidal wave of new outrage. It crested with the hashtag #ninguemMereceSerEstuprada — “nobody deserves to be raped” — and crashed across all forms of social media. Many tweeted photographs as emotive as they were triumphant. Depicting women in various states of undress, they juxtaposed sensuality with strength. Some women were topless, expressions austere, clutching a poster condemning the survey’s results.
The survey and the resulting backlash highlight broader tension in Brazilian society over gender equality and the role violence can play in domestic relationships. The findings are, however, in some ways paradoxical. Brazil’s president is a woman. So is the head of national oil company Petrobras. The nation, which will host the World Cup in June, has special police stations that are staffed almost exclusively with women. And according to this telling New York Times article, “there is a general view that holds women as equal, fully capable of excelling in even the most powerful posts.”
But there are also cultural fissures. In 1830, the Brazil penal code eliminated the death penalty for rapists and introduced a qualifier of whether the victim was “honest” or “dishonest.” Rape of an “honest” woman was met with a prison term of three to 12 years. But the rape of a “dishonest” women only meant one month to two years in prison, according to a 1991 Human Rights Watch report.
In 1991, more than 160 years later, problems remained in enforcing sexual assault law. One officer who worked with victims told Human Rights Watch researchers, “Most cases happen because the woman consents, because she wants it. Then she regrets it and comes to play victim, comes [and] reports. Many women create favorable conditions for the crime.”
Today, reports of rape and sexual assault continue to increase in cities such as Rio de Janeiro. According to the U.S. State Department, the number of instances reported there surged from 1,996 in 2009 to 4,796 in 2010, after a federal law was enacted broadening the definition of rape. Then in 2012, the figure in the city jumped up to 6,029 reports of rape, the Institute of Public Safety reports. That’s an average of 16 per day.
To be sure, every country struggles with sexual assault. But recent anecdotes in Brazil have endowed the country with a special distinction.
Once, a man pressed a gun to the head of a 30-year-old woman while he raped her on a bus barreling down Rio’s main avenue. In another shocking instance, a woman was captured and raped inside a transit van while it navigated busy roads. The police only investigated after the same men captured an American woman a week later, in March 2013, and did the same to her in an assault that captured international attention.
The increase in rapes, not to mention the results of the recent survey, has stirred alarm in the highest echelons of Brazilian office. Late last week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff tweeted that the country has “a long way to go on combating violence against women.”
This week, after the local journalist who started the “Nobody deserves to be raped” campaign claimed she had received messages threatening her with sexual assault, Rousseff rose to her defense again. She “deserves all my solidarity and respect,” the president said. “No woman deserves to be a victim of violence, whether it be physical or in the form of intimidation.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post translated “#ninguemMereceSerEstuprada” as “I don’t deserve to be raped.” A better translation is “Nobody deserves to be raped.” This version has been corrected.