'Without the safe house I think I'd be dead'
It’s March 15th, 2015, and the streets of Brazil are full of turmoil and protest once again.
The media say that over a million people have taken to the streets in São Paulo to demand the impeachment of the current president, Dilma Rousseff. But the scene is a little different from the usual popular demonstrations in Brazil, where working rural and urban populations flood public spaces to demand justice where it is lacking.
There are people on the ground, but the protest also extends conspicuously to the skies as occupants of high-rise apartments in prosperous neighbourhoods offer their support by switching balcony lights on and off, by banging pans.
The protestors are trying to make the case that the president was involved, despite any evidence to date, in one of the largest corruption scandals that Brazil has seen. The origins of these accusations are notably from a wealthier, more conservative section of society. Commentators suggest that it has more to do with the economic downturn and the government’s social spending on the poor than any truth in the media-grabbing corruption claims.
We arrive in São Paulo in the middle of these protests to visit the work of NGO Christian Aid’s partners in tackling violence against women. Having only heard about the current political crisis that Brazil is facing (and, most worryingly, how hard-won democratic and social victories are once more under threat because of this), the sight of thousands of people in tumultuous support of the president’s impeachment make it viscerally real.
But we don’t stay here long. The safe house that we’re heading to is a long way from São Paulo. Remote from the centres of power, each mile carries us further into forgotten territories, seemingly out of reach from the long arm of the law and the arenas of political interest.
On the long road into town, we pass mile after mile of soya fields and cattle ranches. These large tracts of cultivated land are why the state is one of the most deforested zones in the Amazon and have been a source of tension between indigenous and migrant populations. Trees nose up forlornly through vast lakes on either side of the road, their bare trunks and branches skinned alive by flood waters that have become increasingly common in recent years.
Other parts of the state have been chewed up by gold and tin mining companies. The spoil created by heavy machinery is then sifted through by hand. This work is done by independent miners called garimperos. Informal settlements grow around these garimpo mines, miles away from the large towns, occupied mostly by the men of the mines and women in the corporate-sponsored brothels.
They eke out a precarious living, with high stakes, tough competition and no respite from the searing heat and boredom. And in this environment, anger and frustrations sometimes boil over, exploding into violence.
Bumping along in the local bus, the small town we’re heading towards is known as the most violent in the state. In 2008, its homicide rate was higher than that of Rio de Janeiro.
Elineide, a 29-year-old reverend, picks us up from the bus stop in an old grey Volkswagen, puts her sunglasses on the dashboard and tells us we’re off to the local shopping mall to get some food. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this feels just a bit too normal.
After spending a few days with Elineide and her team, you soon realise that this is part of what makes the safe house so special. Fran, who we’ll meet soon, tells us:
‘Elineide is just like a mother. Wherever I go, or wherever we go, she’s here with us.’
The grey VW is what she uses to pick women up from the police station in. The grey VW will take them to appointments with the council, pick their kids up from school and perhaps even drive them to the first job interview they’ve ever had. And until recently, the grey VW used to be a motorbike.
Growing up around here, Elineide has been involved with the community since she was a teenager. Helping out on projects through the Anglican church came naturally to her, ‘it just became my path’.
When the church started running a safe house, sparked by the high rates of violence against women in the area and the lack of government provision, it seemed natural that Elineide would also get involved.
And then there was Eliane.
Eliane is Elineide’s older sister. She was stabbed seven times by her husband.
Eliane survived with the support of her family, but her husband fled and the police weren’t interested. At the time, there wasn’t a law protecting women who had been abused by their husbands. Which meant that when men attacked the women in their lives, under the law, that was basically not a problem.
For Elineide, it wasn’t just the violence, but the impunity that enraged her. She had to respond. Her community had to respond.
When the local government recognised that it had a problem with domestic violence in the area, it asked the church to do something about it at a local council meeting.
We can’t do it, can you?
The church leapt at the chance. Five years later and the Casa Noeli dos Santos safe house now regularly takes in women who have been abused by men and have nowhere else to go. Many of these women don’t have an education, a supportive family, or the resources to support themselves or their children. They arrive scared and alone. Just like Fran.
‘Without the safe house, I think I’d be dead’
Fran was just 13 when she started living with João.
‘At first, everything was flowers.’
But two years into their marriage João started to hit her. This grew into 12 years of violence, abuse and fear. Talking to us, Fran describes him as a very dangerous man. She says he always carried a gun.
João had a history of violence. When he was 15, he killed his own violent father to protect himself and his mother. Scared of what might happen to her and her two sons, Fran tried leaving him twice. Then João killed her brother and her father who were protecting her.
Listening to Fran tell this story, my head swims. Your husband hit you for twelve years, and killed your brother and your father?
‘It was the worst time of my life.’
I’m stunned. I quickly realise that I can’t begin to imagine what her life has been like. How is she able to talk to me about this?
Fran says that she tried to report João to the police on a number of occasions, but he had friends there and the police did nothing.
Even as she was trying to report her husband and seek help, he found out through his friends and sent her threatening messages at the police station. At exactly the place designed to protect her from harm, she was abandoned.
Returning home to him, scared for her life and the safety of her children, she was trapped in a cycle of fear and violence.
Fran used to work in the local supermarket. And one day, like countless others, she came home from work and João began to attack her again, mercilessly raining down punches. But this time was different, she’d had enough. All the things that had kept her at home suddenly didn’t matter as much as staying alive. She ran away.
‘I came with nothing, just the clothes I was wearing’
When Elineide welcomed her into the house Fran struggled to come to terms with what had happened. But gradually, over the course of time, she began to talk. She spent time with Lucimere, the house psychologist, and was able to report all that had happened to the police. Her case was so serious, the risk so great, that she stayed in the house for three months under police guard.
João is currently in jail, awaiting trial for 12 homicides.
When women first arrive at the safe house, their immediate needs are met. They and their children are given somewhere to sleep, food to eat. They’re given opportunities to learn new skills, like repairing bicycles, and making fabric flowers; the safe house even has a small vegetable garden. It’s amazing how the small things, like seeing the seed that you planted a few weeks ago grow into a tomato, help to rebuild a life.
But for Elineide and her team, it’s not enough to simply provide shelter, safety and rehabilitation. That doesn’t change the system.
Creating good laws is one thing, but making sure they get carried out is just as important. Legal victories for women in Brazil, such as the Maria da Penha law, give the appearance that the structures that permit gender inequalities are changing. And they are. But whether these laws are observed and enforced often depends on the political will of the state and regional actors, and the resources available to them.
On top of this, barriers of intimidation and fear of the consequences chip away at the courage required to report a crime in the first place. In Fran’s case, the law was there. But at first, it made no difference.
Elineide understands the legal system around domestic violence and she isn’t intimidated by it. She understands that if the laws aren’t enforced, if people are too scared to report what happens to them, then nothing changes.
As well as driving the women to the police station and being there to support them when they report a crime, her team also works within a wider network to improve services — like having a police station just for women — and challenge the judicial system when it fails to uphold the law and protect the vulnerable. Their success in this is having reverberations that go far beyond the remote jungle-bordering state that they call home.
The role and power of religion in Brazil is a force to be reckoned with. Understanding how faith operates, how it influences culture and politics, motivating people to both fight and perpetuate injustices, is crucial in this struggle. Certain parts of the church are often guilty of providing the ideological soil that cultivates a context of unquestioning male dominance, and sometimes, as a result, violence. Meanwhile, other parts of the church are passionately and selflessly providing the training, resources and people to directly challenge this violence and its origins.
It’s clear that engagement with the church in Brazil is vital if we want to challenge inequality and the violence that it produces. Christian Aid’s Brazil programme understands this intimately and operates through deep relationships within the church and faith-based partners in the country. The connection between faith and justice, which is at the core of Christian Aid’s origins and heartbeat, is visible in the justice-led activism and development work of the Brazil programme. In this way, getting the theology right is just as important as improving policy in a context where culture, faith and politics imperceptibly intertwine.
‘Here at Christian Aid, we remain committed to exposing the scandal of violence against women and we will continue to engage with churches in Brazil to change social attitudes in order to protect women.’ - Loretta Minghella, Christian Aid Chief Executive, August 2015
It certainly isn’t insignificant that Elineide, as co-ordinator of the safe house, is also the parish priest. Her experiences in the week — going back and forth from the police station, accompanying women to work or picking their children up from school — impact everything. They’re present in her reading of the Bible, her theology and ultimately in the message that she brings to her community every single week. Ideas of ‘machismo’ and gender roles are not changed by law, and often not changed by rallies or big events. They’re changed through profound, drip by drip, personal encounters with other ways of being. The inspiring individuals on your doorstep. The people you see every day, trying to show that another world is possible.
Since 1985, 92,000 women have lost their lives, often at the hands of a husband, partner or family member.
Incredibly, the safe house helped break the cycle for Fran. The cycle of being beaten and threatened. Of no one listening to her cries for help. Of her two sons copying the behaviour of their father.
‘I’m really happy to know there’s this safe place for me to go to, and I’ve told other people about it too, so they know they can be safe here too.’
At the moment, Elineide is helping her find a new job. But having only completed primary education, she is keen to go back to school. She says she wants to become a police officer. She says she wants to be a defender, because she knows, perhaps more than most, that there are people who need defending.
Making our way back to São Paulo, my thoughts go to Brazil’s current political state, and the attacks on social reforms that threaten the ongoing work of Christian Aid and its partners in the country. After what I’ve seen and heard over the last two weeks, I feel horrified.
The undermining of laws that protect women’s rights and attacks on the constitutionally-promised land titles to indigenous and quilombola communities are a real and serious challenge to the programme’s goals. But looking out on the flashing balconies and banging pans that Sunday in March, the difference in tactics couldn’t have been more different.
It’s one thing to protest for a change that will make you wealthier from the safety and comfort of your balcony, high above the reality of the streets.
It’s quite another to march in person to the police station and directly confront the police commissioner who is breaking the law and hurting your community.
Elineide has a dream. Currently, the safe house is able to help around 150 women a year, but she wants to turn Casa Noeli into a teaching centre and expand what they can do in the face of such vast need.
‘it wouldn’t just be a place of welcome and safety. I’d like to offer courses to train women and give them new skills and knowledge. That way, this house can become a model for others.’