Femicide in Brazil: Inter-American Condemnation

Femicide in Brazil: Inter-American Condemnation

. 8 min read

Femicide, the killing of women based on their gender, has been a pressing problem around the globe, but it has been a growing concern in Latin America due to the higher rate in recent years. In 2021, over 4,000 women died from gender-based violence in Latin America. This can be attributed to multiple factors, especially a weak justice system regarding the rights of women and a reluctance from governmental agencies to implement policies and training programs to educate citizens and governmental employees about femicide.

The federal government in nearly every Latin American country has taken little legal action to condemn femicide or slow the rate of the murders. For example, in Brazil—despite femicide cases increasing 39 percent from 2019 to 2020—the sentencing and case filings for this crime have only increased 24 percent. Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, had cut funding to combat gender-based violence, while other government entities such as the Chamber of Deputies stalled the passage of legislation to help domestic violence victims. Due to the governments’ lack of urgency and failure to implement change, international legal institutions have been brought in to help condemn and combat femicide in Latin America.

International organizations—such as the United Nations Humans Rights Office and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR)—have officially condemned the legal impunity that femicide offenders have in Latin America. Both organizations have created protocols and model legal implementations for federal governments in the region to adopt.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights

One of three regional human rights tribunals—with the others located in Europe and Africa — this institution was created to apply and interpret the American Convention, an international treaty that asserts the rights and liberties of individuals that must be respected by the governments of each state in the region. The court has the authority to supervise judgements, resolve cases, and order provisional measures based on certain rulings. Recognizing the powers of the IACHR and the insufficient efforts of individual domestic governments, the women of Latin America have turned to this international entity to address femicide. Although the IACHR has not heard femicide cases from every country in the Americas, it has heard a pressing case from Brazil: Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil.

Background: Femicide and Anti-Femicide Legislation in Brazil

Brazil has one of the highest femicide rates in the region, with about 3.5 per 100,000 women falling victim to this gender-based violence. In 2019, the IACHR issued a statement regarding femicide in Brazil, emphasizing the role of deeply rooted sexist values both in fueling this violence and in obstructing efforts to slow the rate of it. For example, in Brazil, only 56 percent of women are part of the paid workforce because men believe that they should stay home despite their wishes to work. The report also highlighted the complications with ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation intersectionalities surrounding the violence. Acknowledging all these factors, the IACHR urged the federal government of Brazil to strengthen prevention and protection measures to eliminate discrimination against women.

With pressures from outside organizations, Brazil has implemented some legislation to protect female-identifying citizens. The largest effort to condemn gender-based violence was the Maria da Penha Law, which was passed in 2006 to prevent and prosecute domestic violence across all racial backgrounds with an emphasis on providing equal human rights to both women and men. Since 2006, new laws such as the Law of Femicide (2015), which indicates the exact punishments for different acts of femicide, and Law 14.188 (2021), which explains the punishments for any form of domestic violence against women, have been implemented to criminalize femicide and psychological gender-based violence.

Despite these efforts, femicide and other forms of violence against women have persisted at alarming rates across the country. Femicide has actually increased in Brazil since UN and IACHR statements were released in 2019 and has been under-reported for decades. The official government data from 1980 to 2019 were 28.62 percent lower than the actual number of femicide victims. This discrepancy is due to poor reporting measures that are required by the government. The deaths of these women are often classified by “undetermined intent,” which may write off the deaths as suicides or non-femicide murders. With authorities reporting these reasons as the causes of death, the number of femicides goes under-reported. Furthermore, in specific areas—such as the more conservative areas where gender-based violence is more common or in regions that have a higher Black population—there are fewer accessible means of reporting sexual assault or domestic violence. With these obstacles and poor reporting regulations, the government is unable to fulfill its promises to condemn and combat femicide.

The Case of Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil

With femicide on the rise, the case of Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil was brought to the IACHR in 2021 to settle a case of gender-based violence in the region. This case is significant because it addressed the power of government officials from a legal accountability standpoint, while also seeking justice for the family of Marcia Barbosa de Souza. In 1998, the state deputy at the time murdered her, and her family ultimately brought the case to the IACHR because of the prolonged period it took to  process the crime. The case was filed in Brazil during the year of the murder (1998), but the entire process did not conclude until 2007. With the trial taking over nine years, the investigation being unresolved, and an overall discriminatory delay in the criminal proceedings, the case was brought to the IACHR to address the poor procedural tactics of the case hearing in Brazil.

There were three major takeaways from the rulings of this case. Firstly, the IACHR called for not just Brazil, but all countries of Latin America to reconsider their laws of immunity and impunity for certain authorities employed by the government. This call for action was implied by the Court when it ruled that the impunity of the state deputy violated the right of access to justice for Marcia Barbosa de Souza. Secondly, the Court indicated that the domestic legal systems of Brazil should take further action to pursue femicide cases with due diligence and reasonable time. This demand responded to the Brazilian state’s failure to fully investigate the homicide in a timely, efficient, and punctilious manner. Lastly, the legal system of Brazil, along with those of  other Latin American states, ought to consider gender equity when processing criminal cases. In this case, the “right of access to justice without discrimination was not guaranteed, along with the right to equality.”

Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil highlighted nearly every issue with the government’s handling of femicide. The case also brought attention to horrifying femicide statistics, especially those noting that femicide rates are higher for Afro-descendants. Overall, this case was crucial for indicating specific steps and procedures that should be taken to help combat the issue.

IACHR Policy Recommendations in Response to the Case

At the end of the brief, the Commission of the IACHR included multiple suggestions for how femicide should be handled in Latin America, both in a legal sense and in terms of data collection and education. Regarding Brazil, the IACHR recommended that the state design a national and centralized system for the collection of data disaggregated by multiple demographics to allow for the quantitative and qualitative analysis of acts of violence against women. This first mandate was to be designed one year after the closing of the case and brought into full effect after three years.

Regarding due diligence and discrimination, the Court ordered Brazil to create a plan for the continuous education and sensitization of police forces in charge of investigations and justice operators, so that they are able to better identify acts and signs of gender-based violence against women. This mandate set a timeline of two years for creation and implementation. Furthermore, during the same two-year period, the Court ordered the Brazilian government to implement a national protocol that presents clear and uniform criteria for the investigation of femicides.

Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil initiated the fight against gender-based violence in Brazil by calling upon the government to take accountability for discriminatory practices not only in the legal system but also in societal norms. The IACHR recognizes that Brazil has deeply rooted sexist values that must be addressed at a national level to combat femicide. Additionally, impunity protections for government officials who perpetrate violence against women perpetuate the idea that this behavior is normal throughout society and permissible among authority figures. According to the IACHR, addressing the patriarchal norms that restrict the rights of women would make law and program implementation more effective.

Some Steps Forward, Some Steps Back

The Court declared that Brazil should take important measures to combat femicide, but little action has been taken since the decision. Since 2021, the efforts of the Brazilian government to combat femicide have actually declined. There have been no known federal actions to implement a centralized data system for femicide, a continuous education program for police authorities, or a national protocol for the handling of femicides. Instead, Bolsonaro cut the budget for fighting violence against women by 90 percent, dropping from US$19 million in 2020 to about US$1.7 million in 2021. While the exact reason for this dramatic budget cut is unclear, this trend in the Brazilian federal government’s spending demonstrates their movement in the wrong direction.

Fortunately, some government organizations have made some progress within the country. For example, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights — a government agency dedicated to establishing equality for women and promoting human rights in Brazil — established a national hotline to report domestic violence. Other actions have sought to improve the socioeconomic well-being and the overall health of women, but they do not directly address the issue of femicide. There are also about seven “Casas de Mulher Brasileira,” which are emergency centers that provide legal, health, and socio-psychological services to female survivors. These are small, but important steps toward assisting the women in the country. Although Brazil has yet to implement the Court's requests, there are hopes that the mandates will be addressed within the time allotted, which varied from two to six years among the multiple requests.

The Role of the IACHR in Other Countries

Although Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil is centered around legal actions in Brazil, the entire region of Latin America can learn from the decision. The Court mentioned the faulty legal systems of other countries several times throughout the hearing. Some countries have higher femicide rates and less legal action than Brazil, which raises concerns and emphasizes the importance of international intervention. Currently, Honduras has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America, with 4.6 victims per 100,000 women. Despite UN efforts to protect women in Honduras, as recently as March 24, 2023, there were protests within the country over murders of women. Similarly, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador have 2.7 cases per 100,000 women and 2.4 cases per 100,000 women, respectively. The UN has also put effort into dismantling the root causes of femicide in these countries, but there has yet to be a significant decrease in the number of victims.

The IACHR indicated that nearly every Latin American country should reconsider the impunity of authority in gender-based violence cases and should consider implementing uniform protocols for dealing with femicide. Some of the other recommendations — such as a centralized data collection system and educational procedures for legal authorities—should also be taken into consideration by other countries.

Barbosa de Souza et al. v. Brazil helped demonstrate the importance of international authorities in addressing discriminatory practices across Latin America. Even with the lack of action by Brazil, the case brought international attention to femicide while generating feasible ways to approach the problem. It is to be hoped now that Brazil and other neighboring countries will recognize the importance of the issue and utilize the practical programs outlined by the IACHR to combat femicide.