Women’s Day 2014: Combating violence against women in Brazil through better access to information

Women’s Day 2014: Combating violence against women in Brazil through better access to information - Civic Space

A group of young girls laugh with each other at a social centre in Candeal.

Lack of reliable and comprehensive information about violence against women seriously hampers good policy-making, restricts research, and compromises the work of women’s rights organizations.

ARTICLE 19 seeks to fight violence against women by improving access to information that will allow better monitoring of domestic violence statistics and participation by women’s rights groups in the planning and evaluation of State-led initiatives. Women need information to take advantage of opportunities to design public policy, practice and expenditure so that their interests may be recognised and addressed.

Improving access to information and freedom of expression is one of the most effective means to strengthen democratic governance. Freedom of information encourages a democratic culture that goes far beyond the checks and balances that formally constitute a functioning democracy. A commitment to access to information demonstrates that a government holds itself accountable to its people, and creates an arena for constructive political dialogue.

Brazil’s rising international status as an emerging economic power contrasts with the day-to-day reality for people in the country: persistent social inequality, discrimination and human rights violations. Endemic political elitism and authoritarianism are reinforced by Brazil’s historical lack of public transparency, widespread corruption and an inefficient public administration. The lack of openness and accountability on the part of the State hinders the ability of groups facing discrimination and violence, like women, to meaningfully engage with public policy.

But this cycle can be broken. According to UN Women, “[t]he empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of women’s social, economic and political status is essential for the achievement of both transparent and accountable government and administration and sustainable development in all areas of life”.

Brazil: Violence against women

Violence against women is a serious problem in Brazil.  According to estimates published by the Brazilian Institute for Applied Research, between 2001 and 2011, fifty-thousand women were murdered in Brazil, mainly as a result of domestic violence.  But this is just an estimate: crucial historical nation-wide data on these cases is missing.

In response to this data gap, as well as to international pressure and a ruling in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, Brazil passed a progressive law on domestic violence that provides not only for more severe penalties to aggressors, but also sets up a series of services, structures and practices whose goal is to prevent and reduce domestic violence. The law – Law on Domestic Violence (known as Maria da Penha Law – Law 11340 / 2006) – is the result of an extensive process of consultation and discussion in which key women’s organizations played a crucial role. Under the law, federal  authorities should create a unified information system that could provide nation-wide data on the number of cases of domestic violence. Yet this basic and essential information is still not available today. Existing estimates are based on overall murder rates of women collected by police authorities, cases taken to the hotline set up by the Federal Government, or perception surveys. Such data is not specifically designed to produce meaningful information that could assist in assessing the degree of enforcement and the impact of the measures established by the Maria da Penha Law.

According to research underway by ARTICLE 19, there are four primary sources of information about violence against women in Brazil:

  • Opinion surveys;
  • Victimization studies;
  • Sectorial studies based on public records;
  • Studies on the ability of public services to provide asisstance to victims or potential victims of violence.

Each of these studies point to gaps in the available data that hamper good public policy-making.

Opinion Surveys

Opinion surveys are carried out by renowned Brazilian survey institutes such as IBOPE, IPEA, Data Senado, Avon Institute, Data Popular, among others. In total, we have identified 15 editions of such studies, which are designed to elicit people’s perceptions about violence against women based on structured interviews. Although very interesting and useful to indicate how much people know about relevant laws, how they perceive the degree of violence in society, its causes and trust in public institutions, these surveys are limited in their scope and number, and do not allow for comparison across studies.

Victimisation studies

Victimisation studies are crucial sources of information that more closely align with victims’ actual experience.  These studies can be used to develop better policy solutions closely linked to these experiences. They also call attention to the gap between reported and non-reported violence: the violence that happens and the violence that reaches public institutions. Victimisation studies are normally more expensive and only a few were carried out at the national level; most others are limited to specific states or capitals. Additionally, most of the existing studies are not specifically about violence against women- they cover violence in general and have chapters on sexual and domestic violence.

Sectorial studies

Sectorial studies based on public records, particularly those of police services (police blotters / reports), judiciary (criminal procedures), and health services are an important source of information for profiling victims and perpetrators and reflect the flow of (or lack of) information among different public bodies. However, national data are limited to specific sectors and are normally based on different criteria for collection of information.  Finally, sectorial studies based on public records only provide information about reported violence. All the cases that do not reach the State, due to shame, fear or lack of information, are not considered in any analysis based on this type of source.

Public services

Finally, another source of information about violence against women is the data collected and made available through studies that assess the performance of  public services to provide attention to victims or potential victims of violence. These studies allow us to understand what services are offered to women, where they are and how many individuals they support, but no information is provided on the actual conditions of operation and impact of the services provided.

ARTICLE 19, working in partnership with women’s rights organizations, have implemented programs to address the inadequacies of these studies. Based on our mutual experience, the most common concerns in relation to access to information on violence against women are the delays in the publication of information and data online; lack of response to information requests by relevant authorities; databanks that do not “talk to each other”, generating data that cannot be compared or crossed; no broad and reliable data at the national level about the number of cases of violence; lack of capacity within public administration bodies to adequately collect and provide information to the public; and poor assessment of the types of information that could actually be useful and effective for improving the State’s response to violence against women.

More comprehensive, reliable and comparable data on violence against women, based on identified needs, are required to foster good public policy and civil society engagement to combat violence against women.

We call on the State to create a unified information system on violence against women, as recommended by the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission set up by Congress to propose recommendations to address the problem of violence against women in Brazil.

For our part, ARTICLE 19 will continue to focus on the collection and dissemination of data on violence against women. Our approach combines research, capacity building of our partners and advocacy at the State and Regional levels to improve information for participation by women and accountability by the State to combat violence against women in Brazil. The women of Brazil deserve nothing less.