Brazil beset with paralysis over gang-rape case

Brazil is bracing for nationwide protests after the video of a 16-year-old girl who had been gang raped was shared on social media, and the victim faced a backlash. Donna Bowater reports from Rio de Janeiro.

Paloma Oliveira had never organized a protest before. When the 24-year-old university student tried to arrange an anti-rape demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on Facebook, she initially made it a restricted, private event by accident.

But after graphic images were shared online last week showing the stripped and naked body of a 16-year-old girl after she had been gang raped, Oliveira felt she had to do something.

Shocked and revolted, she was unable to watch the clip in which a man assaults the unconscious teenager’s bleeding body while a voice boasts that she had earlier been raped by “more than 30” men.

“Look how it is. Bleeding. Look where the train passed,” a voice is heard saying.

But she was inspired by the immediate public response to another high-profile rape in Delhi, India, in 2012.

“It’s a society in which women have much less representation than we have in Brazil. It surprised me,” Oliveira said. “It’s not acceptable that we are quiet. It’s a brutal crime.”

And she was far from the only one moved to action.

Within a few hours, thousands had shared her event and last Friday, crowds filled the steps in front of the city’s state legislature, despite it falling between a public holiday and the weekend.

Among the messages were: “Mess with one, mess with all,” and “It was 33 against all of us.”

Everyday violence

Oliveira said the turnout was a sign that women wanted to voice the violence they faced every day.

For many Brazilian women, the gang rape of the teenager was an emblematic, not an isolated, crime.

“All of us know that we are victims of different violations and we don’t talk about it because it has become natural,” Oliveira added, revealing she had suffered physical violence from her own relatives.

“People want dialogue. The more we talk about it and share what we suffer, the more it will improve.”

Human rights lawyers pointed to statistics from the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, which showed six women are raped every hour. The real number is likely to be higher, given estimates that only 35 percent of offenses are ever reported.

But the recent case also highlighted an entrenched culture of rape and misogyny that allowed for the violation of women while blaming them for it afterwards.

Despite video and photographic evidence of the teenager’s abuse while unconscious, she faced a backlash on social media including death threats, attempting to undermine her victimhood with allegations that she was a gangster’s moll who regularly traded sex for drugs.

She was even publicly discredited by the initial lead investigator of the case, who raised the possibility that the incident might have been consensual.

Following criticism of this approach, the investigation was removed from police chief Alessandro Thiers, and put in the hands of Cristiana Bento.

At a press conference on Monday, Bento confirmed that the video footage proved the girl had been collectively raped.

“It’s my belief that there was a rape,” she said. “She was the victim of sexual abuse and she’s being victimized and judged here. This girl should be looked after.”

Police have identified seven suspects so far, some of whom were questioned and released last week. Two have since been arrested, while the others are now wanted and considered fugitives.

The victim herself gave an anonymous television interview on Sunday in which she said she sympathized with the number of women who felt unable to report sexual assaults.

Bento said on Monday that the girl was now afraid to say more to police out of fear of reprisals.

‘Rape is part of society’

Meanwhile, Simone Quirino and Lucas Sada, lawyers with the Institute of Human Rights Defenders (DDH), said the case could have been prejudiced because it was handled by the cyber crimes department and not a department that specializes in young or vulnerable victims.

“We believe the initial management of the case says a lot about the profile of Brazilian institutions,” they said.

“It is very clear that there was not the necessary reception and care taken to avoid the deepening of the trauma caused by the sexual violence.”

However, Quirino and Sada also suggested that demonizing and arresting the suspects before there was sufficient evidence would not help tackle the underlying issues behind rape culture.

“The idea that the rapist is not human but a monster is convenient. It works like a dividing wall that separates us from rape culture and the rapist, but it shouldn’t,” they added. “Violence against women affects all areas, spaces and social classes, while disproportionately affecting poor, black women, made more vulnerable by racism from society and institutions.”

A series of even bigger protests will take place simultaneously in cities around the country Wednesday under the banner: “For all of them.” Some 25,000 have backed the demonstration in support of all victims of sexual violence in Rio alone.

Laura Nunes, one of the organizers, said: “My expectation is that many people will attend and that this mobilization will have an impact and encourage changes, because we need them to happen urgently.

“This case has served to show how Brazilians are extremely chauvinistic as to fabricate horrible comments and blame the victim.

“This is absurd. Nothing, nothing justifies rape.”