Skip to main content

Manuela Andreoni is a freelance journalist.

Political scandals and the Olympics dominate the news in Brazil right now, but the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, exposed by pictures and videos posted on social media last week, says more about this country and its challenges than any probe into politicians' offshore bank accounts. That an assault like this can happen – in the city that will soon host the Olympic Games – and the response to it revealed the shocking lack of understanding our authorities have of women's rights.

The teenager was raped by multiple men on a dirty mattress in a tiny room, known in the favela Morro da Barao as "the slaughterhouse." The crime came to light after the aggressors themselves, sure of impunity, posted videos and images of themselves handling the unconscious victim, laughing and joking about her bruised genitalia and the fact that "more than 30" men had just raped her.

Social media commentators, some reporters and even police officers were quick to assume the girl was lying about being raped, and that "she was no saint." Little wonder that only 35 per cent of rapes in Brazil are reported, and yet statistics from the Brazil Public Security Yearbook's most recent report indicate that one person is raped every 11 minutes here. One of the gang-rape suspects, Rai de Souza, 22, told a local newspaper that he had done nothing wrong: the girl was "so unconscious," he said, but had consensual sex with him – and he didn't film her, he just "watched and laughed" while his friends did.

The first police officer put in charge of the gang-rape case told a news conference that his team was investigating "if she consented to it," heedless of the shocking video evidence. The victim and her lawyer later told reporters that he asked her if she was in the habit of having "group sex." After many complaints, he was removed from the case but is still considered a "highly competent" member of the police force, according to the Rio police chief.

And none of that should be a surprise: The rape took place against a backdrop of grim news for women. Brazil just ousted its first female president, and the new government's 24-member cabinet is made up entirely of white men – something 74 year-old Michel Temer, the acting president, tried to fix by saying there would be representatives of the "feminine world" in other ranks of government. One such representative, he said, would be his 33-year-old wife, who has his name tattooed on the nape of her neck, as a tribute to their relationship.

Today, Brazil has its most conservative Congress since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. A law that will make it harder for victims of sexual violence to obtain abortions is moving quickly toward approval. The evangelical caucus, with 79 members among the 513 deputies in the lower house of Congress, is the fastest-growing political bloc.

Only 10 per cent of Congress members are women – in fact, the first restroom for women on the Senate floor was built just five months ago. There is a new Brazilian Women's Party, but 90 per cent of its representatives are male. When Senator Helio Jose announced he was joining the party, he said, "What would become of us, men, if it wasn't for a woman, by our side, to give us joy and pleasure?"

These are the people running this country. A nationwide survey from 2013 found that 58.5 per cent of Brazilians think that "if women knew how to behave, there would be fewer rapes." There is a deep-rooted belief that girls who "dress properly," stay at home except to go to church and never have sex won't ever experience sexual violence – even when statistics show that most women and children are raped at home, or in places they consider safe, by people they know and trust.

The reaction to the gang-rape case by feminist groups has been powerful, with thousands taking to the streets to show outrage. Still, it's alarming that they have to repeat any further that rape is never the victim's fault. Brazilian women need a better understanding of their rights, as well as better policing and better laws. But first they need to win the fight for a role in shaping those policies.

Interact with The Globe