Brazil has the seventh-highest rate of violence against women in the world, with a woman assaulted every 15 seconds and one murdered every two hours. Since 1985, 92,000 women have lost their lives, often at the hands of a husband, partner or family member.
Fran, a timid and quiet 25-year-old, lives in the violent city of Ariquemes in Rondonia, northern Brazil, where many women like herself have been saved thanks to the support of a small safe house, Casa Noeli dos Santos. ‘Without the safe house, I’d be dead,’ she says.
And she’s not alone.
Casa Noeli, supported by Christian Aid, is a small house with two bedrooms, an open living room, kitchen and vegetable plot, was opened in 2011 to house women who fled from violent men.
Supported by the Anglican Service of Diakonia and Development (SADD),* it is one of just a few safe houses in this vast country, where only 2.5 per cent of cities offer this kind of service.
It can house 10 women and their children at one time, serving a population of 150,000 people from 8 different cities.
Pictures drawn by the children who’ve sought refuge with their mothers here adorn the painted walls; colourful throws cover the sofas and photos of smiling women are pinned on a noticeboard. It could be anyone’s home.
Still, the padlocked front gate and electric fence across the top of the high perimeter wall tell a different story. Fran, a mother-of-two, came to Casa Noeli a year ago to escape her violent husband, who is now awaiting trial for 12 homicides – including the murders of Fran’s father and brother.
Sadly, Fran’s story is not unique. Reverend Elineide Ferreiro Oliveira, 29, who has managed Casa Noeli since it opened, also has her own story of violence to tell. Her sister Eliane, 35, was stabbed 7 times by her ex-husband when she asked for a divorce over 15 years ago. Thankfully, she survived. Eliane now works alongside Reverend Elineide and the home’s psychologist, Lucimere.
Each week, the team welcomes women who have nowhere else to go, and who come here on recommendation of the police or the social services. The women are given psychological support and are shown how to access the basic state benefits they are entitled to.
Each woman stays a maximum of three months, and continues to receive care and support afterwards, so there has never been a problem of overcrowding.
The women are often financially reliant on their partners, forcing them to stay in violent relationships, but Reverend Elineide and her team provide opportunities to learn new skills, such as baking and handicrafts, so they are able to make their own money.
When Fran first came to Casa Noeli, she had just the clothes she was wearing. Now, although she’s unsure of her future until her ex-husband appears in court, she is in a safer and more secure place.
‘Elineide is just like a mother. Wherever I go, or wherever we go, she’s here with us,’ she continues.
Fran is taking positive steps towards a new life and hopes to leave Ariquemes and make a new life somewhere else. ‘The safe house is a special place, and it’s because of this house I’m alive. If I didn’t have the house I would be in the same cycle, being beaten, threatened. The house is very important to break the cycle.’
‘Despite the failure of the justice system, I encourage women to stand up for themselves and report these crimes, because then they’ll find Elineide,’ she adds.
Legislation is in place to protect women like Fran, including the Maria de Penha law that was introduced in 2006 to punish perpetrators of violence against women.
In March, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff launched a zero-tolerance policy towards violence against women and girls, and the Brazilian Congress changed the penal code to include ‘femicide’ – defined as any crime that involves domestic violence, discrimination or contempt for women, which results in their death.
However, the legislation is often poorly implemented, leaving many women reluctant to report domestic violence.
Officer Danubio Gurgel, who works at the local police station, matter-of-factly admitted that although on paper women have protection, and legislation has helped to raise awareness of the issue, in practice the law doesn’t always work.
He said: ‘Brazil is a very violent country. Violence against women is part of that, and our legal system isn’t being implemented properly.’
‘Brazilian society is very macho, but since the law came into play, things have started to change. Men still believe that women are their property, and this happens in all parts of society, from lawyers to manual labourers.’
Reverend Elineide knows that what is really needed to address the problem is a huge shift in attitudes towards women and greater protection of their rights.
‘The new law could make things better, although it will take a while to implement,’ she says. ‘They have to treat violence against women more seriously. But even in the court system, there are some judges or lawyers who say when a husband and wife fight, we have no right to intervene, it’s a private matter. Many people think violence is normal – it’s not.’
In the meantime, it is the tireless work of safe houses like Casa Noeli that are offering vulnerable women the chance to protect their children and get their lives back on track.
*supported by Christian Aid, which works to end poverty with some of the poorest people in around 50 countries, through local partner organizations. This year, Christian Aid Week runs from 10-16 May in Britain. For details of how to donate, go to caweek.org.