BRASILIA — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has come out in support of Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, the national soccer star accused of raping a model in Paris last month, which activists say could further discourage victims from coming forward to report sexual violence.
The soccer player, who is commonly known as Neymar Jr., is “going through a hard time,” Bolsonaro told reporters last week. “But I believe him.”
The president’s remarks on the ongoing case sent shockwaves across Brazil, a country where experts say reporting rates for sexual crimes are lower than they should be.
Najila Trindade Mendes de Souza, a 26-year-old model, waived her right to anonymity to file her complaint against Neymar, 27, who has vehemently denied the allegations and accused her of blackmail.
They both say that Neymar paid for de Souza to fly to meet him in Paris in May after they’d exchanged several messages.
“I was prepared to engage in a consensual act,” de Souza said during an interview with the SBT channel. “But it became rape as soon as he began acting violently, when he did not comprehend that we could not go any further because we didn’t have a condom.”
Bolsonaro dismissed the incident as: “This woman travels to a different continent, a bunch of stuff happens, and then she gets back to Brazil, and she wants this to happen.”
After Bolsonaro showed his support for Neymar last week, the hashtag #EstupradaDeTaubaté (#TaubatéRapeVictim) began trending on Twitter in Brazil, a reference to a woman from the city of Taubaté whose case gained notoriety in 2012 after she falsely claimed to be pregnant with quadruplets. Thousands of posts used the hashtag to try to discredit de Souza’s allegation.
In 2016, 49,497 cases of rape were reported across Brazil, according to the country’s 11th annual Report on Public Safety. But the true figures are believed to be much higher — somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 cases, according to a study by the Institute for Applied Economic Research and the Brazilian Public Safety Forum.
Bolsonaro’s own track record on women’s rights and LGBTQ rights has been abhorrent. Legal experts told HuffPost Brazil that siding with a man accused of sexual assault before the investigation into the allegations has even been completed indicates that the president is indifferent to survivors of sexual violence.
“The message [that Bolsonaro is sending] is that Brazil does not reject violence against women. It reinforces the idea that women should not complain or draw attention to certain issues,” said Mônica Sapucaia Machado, a professor at the Brazilian School of Law.
Flavia Biroli, a political scientist and professor at the University of Brasília, said that the president downplaying a report of rape contributes to “naturalizing violence against women in a country where it is occurring at an alarming rate and on a daily basis.”
Bolsonaro himself was accused of incitement to rape while serving as a congressman in 2016. Two years prior, he had told fellow Congresswoman Maria do Rosário, “I would never rape you because you do not deserve it.” That case has been on hold ever since Bolsonaro was elected president.
The president’s comments contribute to victim-blaming and misconceptions about what consent is, experts say.
“Either sex is consensual, or it’s rape,” Biroli said.
“Any attempt to make light of this clear delineation is contributing to the justification of the brutal violence of rape and the dehumanization of women,” she added. “This is the understanding present in national and international law. It is based on the assertion that women are individuals who are free to make decisions and whose decisions must be respected.”
Machado said too many people look for “justifications” to excuse sexual violence.
“Once again, it’s the same assertion about a woman’s position, as if questions of ideological, religious and moral character were the foundation of the right [of a woman] to not be treated violently,” she said.
Machado also called Bolsonaro’s stance a break from Brazil’s history of aligning with international organizations that promote women’s rights.
“It’s troubling that our country is abandoning the position of those who defend equality, fight for an end to violence, and want to build a safe country for women ― instead becoming a country that questions women’s claims when they report,” she said.
The president’s comments also may leave the door open for other public officials to behave in a similar fashion.
Congressman Carlos Jordy, a member of Bolsonaro’s party, introduced a bill that would increase jail time for falsely reporting crimes such as rape by up to one-third. He said the bill “serves to discourage rash behavior that may jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”
Jordy’s tweet in defense of the bill was retweeted by the president’s son Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro.