Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Police Station of Their Own ; Brazilian Victims of Domestic Violence Seek Assistance from Precincts Staffed Entirely by Women

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Police Station of Their Own ; Brazilian Victims of Domestic Violence Seek Assistance from Precincts Staffed Entirely by Women

Article excerpt

Elaine da Silva loved her husband at the start of their marriage. But four years and too many beatings later, she broke away. When her 3-year-old daughter started telling neighbors, "My dad hits my mum," the two moved in with Ms. da Silva's mother, two blocks away.

Da Silva, who works as a store assistant, agreed to accept 200 reais (about $85) a month in alimony, and she hoped that would be the end of it. But recently, more than a year after she left, she called her ex-husband to ask for more alimony because he had gotten a new job. "He put the phone down and came straight over. He attacked me.... He threw me on the floor in front of my daughter. I tried to get out but ... he blocked my way. I was very scared."

She tells her story from the local women's police station, the only place she could think of where she might get a sympathetic hearing.

"I came here as soon as I could," she says after meeting with a female officer here. "I was too embarrassed to go to a normal police station. But here you meet people [in the waiting room] with the same experience as yourself ... and you realize there are people who feel the same as you do. And it's much easier to speak to a woman."

More than 300 women's police stations have opened in Brazil since the first one was inaugurated here in Sao Paulo 20 years ago. "It's a national phenomenon," says Cecilia MacDowell Santos, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco in California and author of "Women's Police Stations: Gender, Violence, and Justice in Sao Paulo."

It's also grown into an international phenomenon, with at least 10 nations in Latin America and Asia having similar systems for registering and investigating charges of domestic violence, threats, child abuse, sexual assaults, and other crimes often perpetrated against women.

"Why so many in developing countries? The cultural and political context is similar and there is also the economic reason," Professor Santos says. "It is less expensive to have women's police stations than to set up shelters."

Santos and other experts consider the stations a success because they've highlighted crimes that long went underreported. But they caution that domestic violence is still a serious problem, largely because of Brazil's macho culture and the legal system's leniency for male offenders.

Precedent for separate stations

The idea of creating a separate sector for gender-related crimes arose in Brazil at the start of the 1980s. With the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-85) coming to a close and the country's dictatorship loosening its grip on power, female activists were pushing for more recognition from authorities. Special police stations had been set up for Afro-Brazilians and the elderly, and women wanted similar treatment.

"We wanted to create a place where women would feel at ease talking about these intimate problems," says Marcia Salgado, a police chief at one of the first women's police stations and now a media relations officer with the Sao Paulo police department. "Women are not obliged to go to women's police stations - they can take their complaints to any police station. But now they have a choice."

Finally hearing women's stories

When the first station opened, Dr. Salgado recalls, "there was a line around the block.... Women were coming to us to tell us about incidents that took place 20 years earlier."

Everyone knew that violence against women was not uncommon in Brazil, but no one really knew how prevalent it was until women officers started compiling statistics.

In the first year of operations, the number of charges filed by officers in women's stations was more than double the number of charges for similar crimes against women filed by the predominantly male officers in regular precincts.

The women's stations are usually not separate buildings, but floors or areas in existing precincts. …

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