Thursday, March 03, 2011

Brazil: Women in "Pacified" Favelas Claim Their Rights

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Women in "Pacified" Favelas Claim Their Rights

By Fabíola Ortiz

RIO DE JANEIRO, (IPS) - The peace imposed on the more than 200,000 people living in the Complexo do Alemão group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro by Brazil's military police is helping to pave the way for the recognition of basic human rights.

The problems most readily associated with the city's overcrowded shanty towns are drug trafficking and armed gangs, while the frequent episodes of violence against women have remained hidden and received little attention from the authorities.

Women "could not speak up and had no one to turn to. There was a lot of aggression. Violent husbands who beat their wives can be found in any society, but because this is a closed community, laws and protection are all the more vulnerable," 34-year-old Sheila Santos de Andrade told IPS.

Police Inspector Celia Silva Rosa, in charge of looking after women victims of violence or abuse, told IPS that "before pacification, there were very few complaints from women in poor communities.

"Many victims were afraid of reprisals from drug gangs. The perpetrators of the violence would threaten to report them to the local drug lord," she said.

In December, a police team spent a week at the Complexo do Alemão, taking down complaints, mainly about physical injuries and threats, Rosa said. "The week we were in the favelas many cases were reported, and two aggressors were even caught in the act. Women are starting to claim their rights," she said.

Andrade is the head of a women's association in Complexo do Alemão that is attempting to continue the Mulheres da Paz (Women of Peace) project, carried out jointly with the Justice Ministry.

"People here think they are above the law, and violence used to go unnoticed. The prevailing idea was, 'if I am a victim of violence and I live in a favela, it's hard for me to lodge a complaint,'" she said.

Andrade has experienced violence in her own life. Her 13-year-old daughter was shot during a street gun fight in 2007, when the police carried out a major operation against criminal gangs. Bullets that pierced the wall of their home wounded the girl. According to the police, 19 men were killed in the operation, although human rights organisations claim there were many more fatalities.

"I was a victim of the war, and my daughter was shot and wounded. That marked my life," she said. Her dream is that one day, everyone will have a constructive aim in life, and the army will no longer be needed to guard the streets.

The pacification force of 1,700 soldiers has occupied the Complexo do Alemão in the north of Rio for nearly three months. Every two hours, military police patrol the streets, on foot or in vehicles.

"Everyone thinks this is an enforced peace. What we wanted was peace without police action, a dream that may come true one day," Andrade said.

But if the military police were to leave now, "I couldn't guarantee that the violence would not return," she acknowledged. "As this new generation grows up, children will learn to live in peace."

Fabiano de Carvalho, spokesman for the pacification force, said there were many similarities between the structure and tactics used by Brazilian troops since 2004 in the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, and those used in the favelas.

The troops are expected to stay in Complexo do Alemão until October, when they are due be replaced by Pacifying Police Units (UPP), made up of community police officers who are newly recruited and specially trained, including in human rights.

Like Andrade, Anatalia dos Santos and Elaine Moreno belong to the Women of Peace group who are regarded as important community leaders.

Their life histories share the common themes of violence, difficulties and loss.

"We are leaders in the community; we embrace vulnerable young people and get them to take courses to learn a trade. Women of Peace mentor them, so that they realise the value of studying," said dos Santos, who wants more attention for unemployed youth.

Dos Santos is one of 150 women in the favela participating in the Justice Ministry's National Programme for Public Security and Citizenship (PRONASCI).

Women of Peace are tasked with identifying at-risk young people aged 15-29 and putting them on employment training courses, mentoring them along the way.

"At first we were scared of what the community would think of us because we were working for a government social project. I was afraid to walk down the streets," said dos Santos, who took up this social work in 2008, before the pacification actions and community policing had even begun.

The women were afraid they might be taken for police informers.

"I really enjoy helping people," she said. "I always wanted to work in a social programme, teaching people about their rights and encouraging them to change their lives."

Almost 40 percent of the crimes committed in Rio took place in the Complexo do Alemão, which was known as the city's "Gaza Strip", a reference to the violence in the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel.

But a lot of other things happen here, too. Teenage pregnancy, for instance, is a stressful problem for many girls and their families.

Moreno has lived in Fazendinha, one of the favelas in the Complexo do Alemão, for over 20 years. She confirms that it is very difficult to get an appointment with a gynaecologist.

"There aren't enough doctors. It isn't easy to get an appointment at the health centre, nor to get information about family planning," Moreno said.

She finds it satisfying to help someone who "doesn't know what to do, and be able to show him or her a way forward."

In her view, local people are free of the tension they used to live with, and can now demand their rights.

"Under effective rule of law, children can grow up without seeing drug traffickers lazing around, drinking and smoking. Now they live in safety. No one could get used to what was happening before," she said. (END)