The Maria da Penha Law and Indigenous Women in Brazil
Brazil is often touted as the land of three races, an exotic mix of Africans, European colonizers and indigenous tribes, all come together to form a “racial rainbow.” However, even as Brazil constantly brags about its diversity, one of those three groups is consistently left out of most conversations: indigenous people. Because so many indigenous living in Brazil are geographically–as well as linguistically and culturally–isolated from the rest of society, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to benefitting from government support and protective legislation. This is particularly true for indigenous women, who often need this help the most.
The most current example of this is in the fight for land rights that is taking place in Brazil. As more and more indigenous people are forced off of their land and “lose access to environmental resources that guarantee their security and food sovereignty,” women “are most penalized, because they are generally responsible for feeding their families” (MayaRose). Lack of food and land security often leads to drug and alcohol abuse, particularly among men, which contribute directly to the high levels of domestic violence in indigenous communities. Indigenous women have a 1 in 3 chance of being raped within their lifetimes. So what kind of government protections are available to them?
This brings me to the Maria da Penha Law, a major step towards combatting domestic violence in Brazil. The law was named for Maria da Penha Maia, a bio-farmacist who fought for 20 years to see her ex-husband and abuser (who, in addition to extensive abuse, tried to kill her twice, leaving her parapalegic) condemned. Her case reached the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of American States, and she finally won, bringing about the law in her name. Before this, domestic violence was treated more like a domestic dispute, and payed off through fines. Abusers faced little retribution.
The new law called for the following set of actions in response to domestic violence:
- removal of the abuser from the home, and protection of the children
- the abused woman now had the right to recover her goods
- should the woman want to take back her accusation, she would have to do so in front of a judge, helping to prevent the common practice of threatening a woman back into silence
- the law now specified the forms of violence that exist
This law has been lauded as an important move for women, but it has also been heavily criticized as ethnocentric, and not taking into account the diversity of experiences and lifestyles of Brazilian women. How do we apply a law like this and keep in mind the indigenous right to self-determination? How do we reconcile internal law (indigenous practices) with external law (the Brazilian state)?
And how can indigenous people even access the resources mobilized by the law when they don’t have geographic access to a police station? Oftentimes, tribes are located hours away (by car, if you can get a hold of one) from any city where they could report abuse. Also important for consideration is that in indigenous tribes, domestic unity is not limited to the sharing of living space. Other members of the community are implicated when an abuser is removed from the tribe, as they lose an able-bodied member who can help collecting and cultivating food.
At best, this is a complex issue, one for which I have no clear answer. In the article “Mulheres Indígenas, Direitos e Políticas Públicas” (Indigenous Women, Rights and Public Politics), the authors argue that in order to provide combat domestic violence in indigenous communities, there must be a balance between internal law (indigenous law) and external law (state law). Indigenous’ right to self-determination must be respected to an extent, with the resources of the Brazilian state available to those who seek them out. I would agree with this argument with one exception: geography, language, cultural norms and finances act as huge barriers to access for indigenous women. Therefore the Maria da Penha law needs to address all of these factors in order to empower all Brazilian women to seek out safety and protection from abusers.