Amid the environmental crisis of fires and deforestation in the Amazon in July, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared the country was “a virgin that every foreign pervert wants to get their hands on.”
The president also defended Brazilian soccer player Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior when he was accused of rape this summer, telling journalists that “everyone would love to spend an afternoon with a prince, especially you women.” A couple of months prior, in April, Bolsonaro said Brazil could no longer be a country that supports gay tourism, but that “anyone who wants to come here to have sex with a woman, feel free.”
Similar kinds of comments have been made in the legislative arena as well. At the height of a crisis with Brazil’s Social Liberal Party, a senior representative in the party declared, “We are just like any betrayed wife. She gets beaten up, but she goes back to her comforts.”
The minister of justice, Sergio Moro, said during a ceremony observing the 13th anniversary of the Maria da Penha law, a statue adopted to criminalize violence against women, that men may “feel intimidated by the growing role that women play in our society.”
“Because of that, some of us unfortunately resort to physical or emotional violence to assert an alleged superiority that no longer exists,” he said at the event honoring the Maria da Penha law in August.
And violence against women in Brazil is off the charts. According to the 2019 Violence Atlas, 4,963 Brazilian women were murdered in 2017, the highest number in 10 years. The murder rate for Black women grew by almost 30%, and by 4.5% for women who are not Black. The rate of women murdered with a firearm in their own home increased by 29% between 2012 and 2017.
The number of rapes in Brazil is estimated to be between 300,000 to 500,000, with the variation due to underreporting. In 2018, according to data from an annual report on public safety, the country reached the highest number of cases ever recorded since monitoring began in 2007. There were 66,000 victims that year, or 180 a day.
Domestic violence experts told HuffPost Brazil that such speech has a symbolic impact, and it makes it harder to implement the real changes Brazilian society needs to fight sexism and violence against women.
“Those statements are super sexist because they are connected to a deeply patriarchal and racist society, and they are not only contrary to common sense, they create resistance to policy made for women,” said Lourdes Maria Bandeira, a professor of sociology at the University of Brasilia. “They create resistance to fighting violence against women. They create resistance to believing women who report crimes to the police.”
Bandeira was one of the drafters of the country’s femicide law, which redefined the crime of killing women for being women and increased punishments for it, and she was part of the consortium that created the Maria da Penha law.
“The use of that kind of language, even from the perspective of joking about it or just trying to be funny, is a disservice to Brazilian women,” she said.
To Beatriz Accioly, an anthropologist and researcher specializing in studying gender and violence against women at the University of São Paulo, such language represents the mindset of a large portion of the population and indicates the need to “keep working to create effective public policies and to change the mentality, recognizing how unacceptable those circumstances are.”
“It is important for people to understand this as a symptom, and not necessarily a cause [of violence],” she said. “Those people represent a way of thinking that is very common and powerful.”
She also said it is detrimental for politicians not to separate the personal from the political.
Something Bolsonaro said earlier this year about French first lady Brigitte Macron is a perfect example. In August, someone created a Facebook post comparing Brazilian first lady Michelle Bolsonaro to Macron. “Now do you get why Macron is after Bolsonaro?” the caption under the picture read.
Bolsonaro replied, “Do not humiliate the man hahaha,” giving the impression that he agreed with the suggestion that his wife’s beauty was the reason French President Emmanuel Macron was “after him” during the G-7 summit, which was taking place at the time.
Even in the wake of the negative fallout from the episode, Bolsonaro said he would not apologize to the first lady of France because he had done nothing offensive. The comment, however, was later deleted from social media.
Heloisa Buarque de Almeida, an anthropology professor at the University of São Paulo, said these kinds of comments are not surprising but very complicated.
“Bolsonaro was elected despite having used rhetoric that could be considered misogynist for a long time,” she said. “It is worth remembering that he is expressing misogyny or machismo that is socially acceptable.”
Buarque de Almeida noted that this kind of language gained symbolic power with Bolsonaro’s ascent to the presidency.
“It is a very serious matter that the leader is proud of his ignorance and brutality, and one thing is certain, his policies can have much worse effects — such as, for example, loosening restrictions on the possession of firearms, which certainly should lead to an increase in cases of femicide as well as other kinds of violence,” she said.
Bolsonaro issued eight decrees this year expanding the right to carry and possess firearms. Thaylize Rodrigues Orsi, a representative of the Ministry of Justice, said during a public hearing in October that there has not been any evidence that loosened restrictions lead to increased violence against women.
However, the 2016 Map of Violence demonstrates that the Disarmament Statute, which tightened laws around registering, owning and buying firearms, had saved an estimated 160,000 lives since 2003.
“The biggest problem is that legitimizing misogynistic sentences reinforces the brutal gender inequality,” Buarque de Almeida said. “We don’t know if that has a direct impact on violence against women, since it’s very difficult to measure growth rates in violence and to know its causes. Violence always has many causes.”
“It’s worth remembering that it’s nothing new, but unfortunately part of a pattern that is connected to social inequality, as well as rights inequality,” she added.
“They sanction the violent practices that already exist in society through their rhetoric.”
Experts note that in spite of the difficulty in drawing a direct line between that language and changes in public policy, the actions of the executive branch need to be examined.
“It seems to me that what has the greatest impact on inequality and gender-based violence — against women, but also against LGBT people — is the dismantling of social and preventative policies as well,” Buarque de Almeida said.
Rosane Borges, who holds a doctorate in communication sciences and language in São Paulo and also conducts research on race, agreed.
“They sanction the violent practices that already exist in society through their rhetoric,” Borges said.
“Reinforcing those points of view that are based on preconceptions and stereotypes turns them into pure dynamite,” she added. “And violent actions need to have some institutional discursive imprint. That is why people must be very careful with what they say about one another.”
She said the press also plays a fundamental role when it publishes this language without including data or context.
“Although [the press] may have to report what [politicians] say, they also have to shape public opinion,” Borges said. “So, it’s essential that they make space for other voices, and demonstrate, through indicators and numbers, how femicide is also a product of the way language is used, because counterbalancing that institutional rhetoric is a fundamental role of the press.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.