Violence against Women: Faith as a possible way to face it in Brazil

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Violence against Women: Faith as a possible way to face it in Brazil

Authors: Ana Claudia Mielke (Journalist) and Sarah de Roure (Christian Aid Brazil Programme Officer)

Em Português aqui:, páginas 149 a 157.

Research done by the Perseu Abramo Foundation in 2010 showed that 40% of Brazilian women had already experienced some kind of violence. Among the interviewed Catholic women, this number reached 38%, and among Protestant and Evangelical women, it went up to 43%. These data reveal that domestic violence not only does not distinguish age, social class, ethnicity or education level, but also does not choose religion, and that the faith they profess does not make women less vulnerable to violence.

As initiatives designated to change this situation, countless international conventions were proposed and adopted by countries and international organisms, e.g. the Convention of Belém do Pará (1994), the Interamerican Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence Against Women (1996), CEDAW (1981), the Palermo Convention (2000) and the Human Rights Declaration. In Brazil, the Maria da Penha Law (2006) and the National Plan of Politics for Women, as well as the Pact to Combat Violence, define the State’s comprehension of the problem and its commitments to overcome it.

In the last 20 years, different entities in Brazil that constitute the broader State (political society and civil society) made a cooperative effort to achieve prevention and combat of violence against women. But even with improvements in public politics occasioned by the governments, especially in the years after 2000[1], the endemic and structural character of this kind of violence (Faleiros, 2007) imposes the necessity of a systematical engagement of civil society’s institutions in the combat of the problem – among them class entities, media, schools and Churches.

Gender Based Violence

The origin of gender based violence (GBV) is connected to the determination of social roles that establishes hierarchies between men and women. The socially suitable roles and behaviors of each gender transform themselves into marks of power relations present in a society structured according to the patriarchate, and to men is granted the authorization to punish any type of diversion (Saffioti, 2001).

Another definition of violence is the proposal by Alemany. In the Dicionário Crítico do Feminismo, the entry is defined as: “The forms of violence practiced against women because of their sex are multiple. They include all the acts that, by means of threat, coercion or force, inflict them in private or public life physical, sexual or psychological sufferings with the aim to intimidate, punish, and humiliate them or to hit them in their physical integrity and their subjectivity.”

Although these behaviors are presented as “natural” or “biological”, they cannot be considered only as biological neither only as social. They are the result of a systematic teaching that operates through culture since childhood and is structured in an exchange between the natural body and the sociocultural order. Another important point is the fact that gender violence, even having its roots in a “gender order” constructed in the patriarchal society, is not its exclusive result, but is imbricated in a complex chain that interconnects gender, ethnicity and class. “If it is true that the patriarchal gender order does not operate alone, it is also true that it constitutes the broth of the culture in which gender violence happens, the cement that constructs several inequalities, inclusively between men and women” (Saffioti, 2001, p. 133).[2]

In societies like the Brazilian one, sexism and racism appear as structuring factors, and the markers of social and racial inequality constitute elements that interconnect themselves in gender violence in a transversal way. It is not by chance that black women are the majority among the victims of domestic violence, making up 59,4%, as shown by the Annual Socioeconomic Report about Women 2104 (Relatório Anual Socioeconômico da Mulher, Raseam).

Domestic violence

Violence against women in the domestic space was always considered a private question, particularised in the couple’s intimate living together. For a long time, this mentality dominated sovereignly the Brazilian culture, legitimating sexism and the domination of men over women and continues to be manifest in the famous popular saying that “nobody meddles with fights between husband and wife” (“em briga de marido e mulher, ninguém mete a colher”).

Disciplining these social roles often turns up as a justification of domestic violence. Phrases like “she did not fulfill her role as a woman”; “she did not fulfill her obligations as a wife”; “she does not know how to take care of the house and the children” have been repeated endlessly to justify the violence employed against women, mainly in the domestic and familiar sphere.

Even if the visibility given to the subject is visibly improving – the press coverage of cases of domestic violence against the woman increased significantly after the passing of the Maria da Penha Law, and also the campaigns of public authorities and social projects to combat this violence[3] – the traits of this same mentality continue being expressed in the everyday life of Brazilian society.

Evidences appear in the study Social Tolerance to violence against women (Tolerância social à violência contra as mulheres) published by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (IPEA) in 2014. 63% of the persons interviewed agreed, completely or partially, that “cases of violence inside the house have to be discussed only among the family members”, and 89% of the interviewed persons agreed that “dirty clothes must be washed at home”.

According to calls answered by the Call Centre for Women – Dial 180, in 2014 485.105 calls were attended, 52.957 of which dealt specifically with reports of violence. In 82,53% of the cases, the aggressions were perpetrated by men with whom the victims maintained affective bond in heterosexual relationships (companions and ex-companions, spouses, partners, boyfriends, lovers).

The fact of being enclosed within four walls and legitimated by a culture that puts the woman as the object of the man’s property makes domestic violence one of the most common modalities of the gender violence committed against women. Physical violence is the most reported type, in 51,68% of the registered cases, followed by psychological violence (31,81% of the registered cases) and moral violence (9,68% of the registered cases). However, we may not underestimate other types like false imprisonment, patrimonial violence and conjugal rape, maybe the violence that is most cruel and most often turned invisible among all the forms of violence suffered in the domestic sphere.

Faith communities and violence against women

During history, religious institutions have not encouraged social changes destined to overcome feminine subordination. To the contrary, they reinforced them, playing the role of producing and reproducing domesticating images of the feminine and the masculine, often justifying violence. For instance, the religious exaltation of martyrdom as constitutive for the feminine identity and the idea that “the man is the head of the house” are some of the discursive assumptions that not only prevent religious institutions from mobilizing themselves for women’s rights but also influence other society sectors not to actualize rights and grant politics (Duarte, 2009). In recent years, the emergence of fundamentalist religious discourses in the Brazilian public sphere opposes the achievement of civil rights historically conquered in religious sectors.

In spite of all this, on Brazilian soil, actions dedicated to the combat of inequalities and gender oppression have been developed by organizations linked to Churches and faith communities. Faith congregations can today play a protagonist role in the reaffirmation of human dignity and respect to Human Rights.

One of these projects is the Religious Network for Protection of Women Victims of Violence. Developed by ecumenical organisation Koinonia, this initiative came up due to the necessity to treat the subject of gender violence in religious communities which traditionally legitimate those acts with a culture of patriarchal faith, albeit the feminine presence is the majority in these spaces. Founded in 2013, it today includes 20 different Christian denominations (historical Protestants, Pentecostals and Neopentecostals, Catholics), eight communities of religions with African roots, a Kardecist Centre and a Gypsy community, all of them in the State of São Paulo.

In small discussion groups (about 30 participants each) set up in the religious communities, they realize debates on violence and on how to proceed and support women who live in such situations. The local religious leaders are challenged to engage themselves and counseled on ways to facilitate the access of the women in a situation of violence to public services in the fields of health, social assistance and justice.

Sandra Duarte, a religious scientist, helps us to understand this experience claiming that “the religious search of many women is also for support for their separation, trying to interrupt definitively the cycle of violence that is no longer bearable. They seek the blessing not only to contract marriage, but also to separate from it – a religious legitimization not to remain in situations of violence.”

Thus, the network functions as a space of assistance and refuge. The participants of the spaces not only are searching spiritual orientation, but also a place to discuss openly sexuality and violence. Besides the groups, cases of violence against women can be reported directly to religious leaders (pastors, fathers, prophets, fathers-of-saint etc.) who take on the monitoring of the case. And the topic already gained space in liturgical leaflets and in posters for awareness rising in the congregations that are members of the project.

Another outstanding initiative was developed by the Christian Aid partner Anglican Diaconia Service for the Prevention of Violence Against Women (SADD). The experience includes gender violence as a topic of Sunday services in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, of home visits, liturgies, theological education and advocacy activities. Thus, a topic formerly silenced is now given space for debate and tackling. The clerics and lay leaders are trained to deal with violence against women and are engaged in the tackling of this violence in their communities.

Beside formation and education activities within religious liturgies, the project is responsible for the establishment of the first “shelter-house” for women in situations of violence in the town of Ariquemes, in the State of Rondônia. The house, Casa Noeli dos Santos, was founded in July, 2011. The town was chosen as the location for the shelter-house because it shows high indices of violence against women. In 2010, 37 women were assassinated in the State of Rondônia, and in 2011, 815 cases of rape were reported.

The attention to and protection of women in situations of domestic violence has gained additional force since the promulgation of the Maria da Penha Law (Law nº 11.340/2006). It not only typified the forms of domestic violence perpetrated against women (physical violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, patrimonial violence and moral violence), but also attributed to town, State and national authorities the responsibility for the installation of public services to face the problem, among them specialised committees, centers of integral assistance and shelter-houses.

The shelter-house Noeli dos Santos was not only the first one to be founded in the town of Ariquemes, it also continues to be the only public service of this kind in the town, a fact that evidences the importance of the measure for the community. Since its foundation in 2011, it already gave assistance to more than 450 women of the region who suffered domestic violence, offering them juridical, psychological and social help. Furthermore, the house offers training for local policepersons, challenging them to participate in the prevention of gender violence, presenting public politics for women and discussing better ways to deal with women who report violence.

Initially, the local Anglican parish intended only to offer assistance to women affected by violence in the town of Ariquemes, but the lack of public services for women in situations of violence led to the foundation of the shelter-house. Presently, the Casa Noeli of the Santos is part of the municipal network for the tackling of violence against women and plays a role of coordination between the public services in the town that deal with attention to women (education, health, social assistance, police etc.). Furthermore, the work of public influence that was not planned at the beginning of the project has proved itself as essential and efficient, promoting the engagement of the women who belong to the team that works there.

An important aspect to overcome violence is the deconstruction of the mentality that domestic violence belongs to the intimate forum of a couple. To this end, it is important to have activities that incorporate the topic of violence in spaces that are open for debate. In the case of the Religious Network Koinonia, some of these activities have a direct impact on the Churches: the Methodist Church of São Paulo is presently developing its own materials of awareness raising on the prevention of violence against women, in Portuguese; and the Lutheran Church, even using various materials provided by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) on domestic violence, started to develop together with the Religious Network a new methodology to deal with the topic in its local parishes.

The Role of the Churches

Especially in Brazil and in Latin America progressive sectors of several religious matrixes played an important role in fighting social inequalities and came to lead some of the main civil rights’ movements (land, housing, water etc.). The public positions of religious groups functioned nearly always as a pendulum that oscillated between moments of commitment with the social transformation or as the main voice of reactionary and conservative opinions.

Unfortunately, the present historical moment is characterized by the second tendency. Presently, there is a strong public incidence of fundamentalist religious discourse with a conservative agenda, occasionally with a reactionary attitude to the progresses and achievements in the field of gender and LGBT rights.

Examples of possible retrograde steps can be seen in the recent polemics about the removal of the so called “gender ideology” from the education plans of towns and States, after what had occurred already in 2014 with the National Education Plan (PNE). Or even in the attempt to approve the Unborn Child Statute that repeats the violence suffered by women in cases of rape, granting the rapist the right to register his paternity of a child generated in an act of extreme violence.

This scenario reinforces the relevance of facing gender inequality as the key question for a development in which faith-based organizations have great potential to develop deep-rooted actions that commit the local Churches and their leaders. In a context of growing conservatism and religious intolerance, it is definitely an important change that some religious congregations seek to offer a secure support structure to those suffering from the inequalities, especially engaging in the tackling of violence suffered by women.

The Religious Network organized by Koinonia demonstrates that in the city of São Paulo some Churches became a secure space for discussing and commenting on violence against women and remitting the question to the local authorities and specialised services, given that the Network is connecting public services with local communities and leaders in order to promote the rights of women. Furthermore, the debate is being turned public and is gaining space in educational and liturgical materials of the different religions that participate in the Network. The same can be said of the booklet on the tackling of gender violence published by the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil and distributed in its nine dioceses all over the country. The Casa Noeli de Santos in Ariquemes, in turn, has caused a significant and long-lasting impact on the lives of the women it has cared for, especially those who had been facing death threats. On the base of social, psychological and juridical assistance, these women are now living in better conditions and have more autonomy to think about new options for their lives.

Thus, the actions developed by the organizations we mentioned here are important in the tackling of gender violence. The Religious Network for Protection of Women Victims of Violence organised by Koinonia as well as the campaigns of the Anglican Service of Diaconia and Development – both in partnership with Christian Aid – have demonstrated an important practical contribution to affirm in public debate a faith committed to transformations in the life of women and men. Talking about violence against women in religious contexts seems to be the most significant and steady contribution of both of the projects, and these initiatives show that faith can be an excellent entrance door for prevention and combat of violence against women.


ALMEIDA, Jane Soares. Os paradigmas da submissão: mulheres, educação e ideologia religiosa, uma perspectiva histórica. In: SILVA, Gilvan Ventura da; NADER, Maria Beatriz; FRANCO, Sebastião Pimentel (ed.). História, Mulher e Poder. Vitória: Edufes, 2006, p. 59-76.

BRASIL. PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICA. Secretaria de Políticas para as Mulheres. Relatório Anual Socioeconômico da Mulher – Raseam. Brasília: SPM/PR, 2015.

BRASIL. PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICA. Secretaria de Políticas para as Mulheres. Balanço 2014 – Disque 180 Central de Atendimento à Mulher. Brasília: SPM/PR, 2014.

DUARTE, Sandra de S. A casa, as mulheres e a Igreja. Gênero e religião no contexto familiar. São Paulo: Fonte Editorial, 2009.

FALEIROS, Eva. Violência de gênero. In: TAQUETTE, Stella R. (ed.). Violência contra a mulher adolescente/jovem. Rio de Janeiro: Eduerj, 2007, p. 61-65.

NUNES, Silvia Alexim. O corpo do diabo entre a cruz e a caldeirinha: um estudo sobre a mulher, o masoquismo e a feminilidade. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2000.

SAFFIOTI, Heleieth I. B. Contribuições feministas para o estudo da violência de gênero. Cadernos Pagu. Campinas, n.16, 2001, p. 115-136.

[1] Among them are the establishment of the Secretariat of Politics for Women at the Republic’s Presidency (SMP/PR) in 2003; the foundation, in 2005, of the Call Centre for Women – Dial 180, a service of public utility that advises women in violence situation on their rights; and, more recently, the inauguration of the first unit of the House of the Brazilian Woman in the town of Campo Grande, capital of the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, as a part of the programme “Woman, Living without Violence”.

[2] Heleieth Saffioti argues that, on one hand, the “gender order” cannot be considered the exclusive root of gender violence committed against women, but nevertheless it may not be understood only as a variable in the comprehension of this violence.

[3] Among more recent initiatives, we emphasise the Campaign “Violence against Women – I make a call”, organised by the Secretariat of Politics for Women at the Republic’s Presidency (SMP/PR) and propagated in the main Brazilian radio e TV stations since 2014. According to the 2014 Balance of the Call Centre for Women – Dial 180, 62% of the women who called knew about Dial 180 from the media, and TV was responsible for 47% of the demand for Dial 180 in 2014, twice the amount of the previous year, showing the positive outcome of the Campaign.

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