A Rio de Paz protest at Copacabana beach, with 420 pairs of underwear -- the number of women raped every 3 days in Brazil according to organizers -- scattered among large photos of women with a handprint covering their mouths. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)

Dispatches from Rio: Rape in Rio de Janeiro

This is the first of several pieces we will run about the city of Rio de Janeiro in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics.

On May 21, 2016 a sixteen-year-old girl was gang-raped in a favela in the Eastern zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During a party in the favela, a group of male acquaintances drugged the girl, took her to an abandoned house, and sexually assaulted her over a period of two days. Several of her attackers filmed the assault. They then began sharing the videos online.

After the rape, the girl did not go to the authorities. She only reported the rape after a specialized police division in charge of digital crimes discovered the images. The police chief, Alessandro Thiers, asked the victim — among other questions — if she had the “custom” of having group sex. After the questioning, the victim’s lawyer asked for Thiers to be taken off the case, as the adolescent felt “threatened.” In a later interview, the victim said that “[Thiers] tried to incriminate me, as if it was my fault I was raped.” Soon after the lawyer’s request, the case was transferred to a specialized division in charge of crimes against minors. A female police chief, Cristina Bento, took over the case.

The victim received death threats from drug traffickers during the investigation. The entire family entered into a government protection program and left the state. Seven men are being charged for the crime, including four for rape, two for circulating the videos online, and a drug trafficker for giving his “blessing” to the rape. Two of the seven men have been arrested and five remain at large.

The Brazilian Public Reacts

The news has shocked the Brazilian public — and the world. One Brazilian reporter likened the assault to the brutal 2012 gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi. Many have stood in solidarity with the victim. In early June, the NGO Rio de Paz staged a visible demonstration of outrage on Copacabana Beach. Feminists across the country have organized loud protests decrying the rape — and rape culture in general.

Unsurprisingly, however, many Brazilians have blamed the victim, stating that the sexual assault was her fault for being in a favela controlled by drug traffickers. Others don’t believe she was raped at all. Extra, a tabloid newspaper famous for printing scandalous headlines, had to print an open letter in response to the misogynist and violent comments left online. It discredited the arguments used by its readers to blame the victim, comments like “She’s no saint, she got what she was looking for,” and “it was an orgy, not rape.” Even after another video came out in which the drugged victim was seen pleading for her attackers to stop, many Brazilians continue to condemn her.

One suspect currently in custody, Raí de Souza, charged for videotaping the rape and circulating the images online, summed up much of public opinion when he told the police: “That [where the victim was] is an area belonging to the drug traffickers. It’s not her place. She was wrong to be there.”

Other Brazilians have stated that because the 16-year-old girl has a 3-year-old son, she was “clearly” used to engaging in “illicit” sexual activities, and thus she couldn’t have been raped. The age of sexual consent in Brazil is 14. As Cristina Bento stated to reporters, this was not the first time the young victim had been raped.

Mais de trinta engravidou (More than 30 Got Her Pregnant)

One point of contention in public debate has been the number of alleged attackers. Originally, the victim told the police that she had been raped by over thirty men. Cristina Bento, however, said the police only had evidence indicating seven persons. Bento stated that the trauma of the event and the victim’s unconscious state contributed to her confusion about the event. But Bento reiterated that the discrepancy did not make the rape any less real — or violent.

In fact, the victim might have based her understanding of the events on what her attackers had said. In one audio clip from an attacker’s phone, he tells his listener “More than thirty got her pregnant. Do you understand or don’t you?” Peels of laughter ricochet in the background. The police later determined that the attackers were referencing a popular funk (Brazilian hip-hop) song by MC Smith called “More Than 20 Pregnant.”

In response to the media attention to his lyrics, Smith has denied that his songs are misogynist or violent, arguing that he just “tells the truth” about life in Rio’s poorest neighborhoods. Perhaps it is not surprising that Smith doesn’t believe the victim was actually raped. “No one raped her, no. I live in the North Zone [a poorer area of the city]. If she had been raped, everybody would have killed [the guys]. That is my opinion. There are diverse opinions here.”

Blaming the Victim — Written into Brazilian Law

The victim-blaming by both the public and even the police isn’t surprising if we look at the legal history of rape in the country. Both Brazil’s first Criminal Code of 1830 and its revised 1890 Penal Code punished rape differently depending on the woman who was sexually assaulted. If the victim was a “public woman” or a prostitute, her attacker faced a lesser sentence than if he had raped an “honest woman.”1 In other words, a woman’s previous sexual activities and her supposed sexual promiscuity was written into Brazilian law. The law changed with the passage of the 1940 Penal Code, which omitted any reference to a woman’s previous sexual history. In 2009 the law was amended so that both men and women were defined as capable of being active or passive subjects. Before, only a woman could be raped.

Despite changes in the law, this case makes clear that legal and cultural understandings of who can be raped, what counts as rape, and how the law should treat unwanted sexual assault continues to blame women for previous sexual activity. The anti-rape protests and the attitude of the investigator Cristina Bento demonstrate that ideas are shifting. But perhaps not enough.

The events are horrible. The victim has told reporters that she feels “like trash,” that she hopes no one ever has to go through what she went through. But unfortunately, what this girl experienced is not rare. In 2015, in the state of Rio de Janeiro nearly thirteen women were raped per day — one every two hours.2 Not every case makes the news like this one did. Not everyone’s sexual and personal life is dragged through the media mud, ridiculed and judged. Yet what this young woman went through perhaps is far from exceptional. Rather, it is the rule.

Notes

  1. Sueann Caulfield, In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in Early-Twentieth Century Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 40. Return to text.
  2. Andréia Soares Pinto and Orlinda Cláudia R. de Moraes, eds, Dossiê Mulher 2016 (Rio de Janeiro: Instituto de Segurança Pública, 2016), 17. Return to text.

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