Brazil Marks International Women’s Day with Law on Gender-Based Violence

International Women’s Day is not only a time to reflect on the gains achieved by the women’s movement, but also to consider all of the work that still remains to achieve gender equality. When thinking about the long path to women’s rights, it’s gratifying to see countries make strides, as was the case with Brazil last week. Last Monday, Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, approved legislation that imposes harsher penalties for those who harm or kill women and girls, a crime commonly referred to as “femicide.”

With the new law, offenders could face up to 30 years of jail time. Femicide will now be defined as any crime that involves “domestic violence, contempt or discrimination against women” and will be considered aggravated murder punishable by 12—30 years of prison, thus intensifying penalties that used to range from only 6 to 20 years. The penalties are more severe if the woman is pregnant, recently gave birth, under the age of 14, over the age of 60, or disabled.

Rousseff signed the law the day after International Women’s Day, which was also the kick-off for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) here in New York at the UN. A major theme at this year’s CSW is the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Although that landmark conference aimed to achieve gender equality and highlighted violence against women and girls as one of 12 critical areas of concern, gender-based violence remains alarmingly high around the world.

The situation in Brazil exemplifies the endemic violence women continue to face. A study by the Instituto Avante Brasil found that between 2001 and 2010, an estimated 40,000 women were killed. In her remarks, Rousseff noted that 15 women are killed every day in Brazil. She affirmed that  the country has “an obligation to combat this violence that has its origins in intolerance,  discrimination and machismo.”

The new legislation builds on the country’s much-touted 2006 “Maria da Penha law,” named after a woman whose husband attempted to murder her and left her paraplegic. Prior to the law, domestic violence was considered a low-level offense with a maximum sentence of one year. Additionally, the law established special courts and stricter sentences for offenders, as well as shelters for victims.

Yesterday’s  new legislation goes even further, but implementation is crucial. A law is only as good as its enforcement. And those directly involved in determining the cause of a crime, be it the police or public prosecutor, need to undergo training and sensitization to ensure they recognize these crimes as femicide, as was done after the roll-out of the Maria da Penha law. Brazil joins several other Latin American countries in enacting similar legislation, including El Salvador, which has one of the highest murder rates of women in the world.

Guaranteeing women a life free of all forms of violence is both essential and fundamental  to achieving gender equality. The new legislation is an important step forward to help Brazil combat violence against women. Twenty years after the Beijing conference, we still have a long way to go, but actions like that taken by Brazil this week are important markers of progress.

A note on the image: across the world red shoes have been used to symbolize and protest violence against women.

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