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Spotlight on: Domestic Violence:
Seeking Government Accountability
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Around the world, across geography, language, race, religion and culture, domestic violence is all too often defended in the name of law, culture, tradition, or just life. The numbers are staggering. In the United States, a woman is battered every 15 seconds.1 In India, 40 percent of adult women reported physical assaults by a male partner.2 In Sweden, one of every six murders is committed by a man murdering his partner.3 In Nicaragua, nearly thirty percent of women reported partner abuse.4 In South Africa, one women is killed approximately every six days by her male partner. (People Opposing Women Abuse) 38 percent of Korean women reported battering by their spouse in the past year.5

Inadequate government response to domestic violence occurs with striking regularity around the world. Domestic violence claims are frequently ignored, trivialized, and dismissed by police, by prosecutors and by judges. The situation in Brazil, like many other countries, is one in which domestic violence is against the law, but in practice is regularly tolerated. In Brazil, according to San Pablo Catholic University, only 2 percent of criminal complaints for domestic violence against women lead to conviction of the aggressor. The following case is illustrative of the state response to domestic violence in Brazil.

Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes suffered years of violence perpetrated by her husband Marco Antonio Heredia Viveiros. On May 29, 1983, he shot his wife while she was sleeping. As a result of the attack, Ms Fernandes sustained serious injuries including permanent paraplegia. Two weeks after she returned from the hospital, Mr. Viveiros attempted to kill Ms. Fernandes by electrocuting her while she was bathing.

In 1984, the Public Prosecutor filed charges against Mr.Viveiros. The case languished for eight years before Mr, Viveiros was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, reduced to ten since he had no prior convictions. Through a series of appeals and the extremely slow action of the courts, another four years elapsed before, in 1996, a second trial was ordered in which he was again convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Further appeals have followed and today, nineteen years after the near fatal attack, the perpetrator is still free and the courts have not yet issued a final ruling. Ms. Fernandes, on the other hand, requires full time nursing care, medication, and physical therapy. She receives no financial support from her ex-husband to cover these costs nor does she receive the alimony stipulated in the separation order. In a years time, any punishment will be barred by the statute of limitations, and if this happens, the perpetrator will enjoy total impunity.

Ms. Fernandes may finally be able to get justice. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), one of the two entities established by the Organization of American States for the protection of human rights, reviewed the failure of the Brazilian legal system to rule on this case in a timely manner. Now, in a landmark ruling, the IACHR is holding the government of Brazil accountable for its judicial tolerance of domestic violence in the case of Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes perpetrated by Marco Antonio Heredia Viveiros.

The Commission determined that, "The failure to prosecute and convict the perpetrator under these circumstances is an indication that the state condones the violence suffered by Maria de Penha, and this failure by the Brazilian courts to take action is exacerbating the direct consequences of the aggression by her ex-husband....(t)he condoning of this situation by the entire system only serves to perpetuate the psychological, social, and historical roots and factors that sustain and encourage violence against women."

This ruling recognized that Brazil has a responsibility under international law to take effective action in prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of domestic violence. Moreover, the decision explicitly recognized that Brazil's inaction in domestic violence cases represented a pattern of discrimination. The Commission said what many activists for women's rights know to be true: government inaction in domestic violence cases creates a climate conducive to the violence.

The Brazilian legal system failed Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes, as it fails many other women and girls who are victims of violence. No woman should wait eighteen years for a ruling in a case of attempted murder. No perpetrator should be allowed to operate with such impunity that he remains free for nineteen years while his case languishes in court. Now the IACHR has intervened to tell the Brazilian government that it is accountable for its role in perpetuating violence against women by allowing batterers to act with impunity.

The Inter-American Commission made recommendation to the government of Brazil calling on them to finalize criminal proceedings against Mr. Viveiros, and to make the necessary reforms to address the bias in the legal system against domestic violence victims. Unfortunately, throughout the process of the Commissions consideration of this case, the Government of Brazil did not respond and failed to participate in any way.

Please write to the Minister of Justice in Brazil calling on him to implement all of the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission and in particular to complete criminal proceedings against Mr. Viveiros for assault and attempted murder and to compensate the victim. Express concern that Brazil did not participate in the proceedings of this case and note that Brazil has an obligation to protect victims of domestic violence and to prosecute perpetrators.

Please send letters or emails to the following address:

Jose Gregori, Minister of Justice
Esplanada dos Ministerios
Bloco 1
70064-900-Brasilia-DF
samico@mj.gov.br

In order to find out more about domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, please contact Equality Now.

Notes
1. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
2. (UNFPA)
3. (UNFPA)
4. (UNFPA)
5. (Family Violence Prevention Fund)

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