Justice for Brazilian Women: An Interview with Virginia Feix

by Shelley Anderson

Virginia Feix works as a lawyer in the human rights commission of the state assembly in Porto Alegre. It was a natural step for her, as she had been working on human rights issues--specifically, amnesty for prisoners of the dictatorship--since 1985. While the changes since then have encouraged her, "all the apparatus for oppressing the people is still there," she says. "Now, instead of repressing dissidents, the poor and blacks are repressed in the name of national security."

Brazil's constitution, promulgated in 1988, has been one of the biggest changes. "The Constitution achieved many rights for women. Criminal law is still bad for women, but under the Constitution, women are guaranteed equal wages, and men and women have the same obligations and duties within the family. One article even declares that the state must take measures and policies to prevent and avoid violence inside the family. That is why it is important now to make women aware of their rights. This is why we work in the legal area, to see that the laws become applied."

On paper, the Brazilian Constitution looks like a feminist dream. There is 120 days of paid maternity leave; even women in prison have the right to have their children next to them long enough to breast feed. There are articles setting a minimum wage and guaranteeing social security for domestic workers, and an article which outlines free state assistance for all children until six years of age.

"None of these rights are known or applied," says Virginia. "Most women don't know what a constitution is. We have good laws, but the judiciary system is not sensitive to women. There is a lack of public defenders, so access to the law is very limited and expensive, even though access is a right and the state is obligated to create conditions for the poor to have a public defender." This is why Virginia and a few other women created Themis, a legal literacy organization for women. The group is named after the ancient Greek goddess of justice.

"Themis tries to empower women to face the courts. We educate community leaders so they can go back to their movements and educate other women about their legal rights. Our training is eight months long. The first four months we give information about different areas of law such as human rights, family law, labor law, and we explain how the judiciary is organized. The second half of the training we go to the courts and to the state assembly, so the women can talk with judges and defenders--and we take judges and defenders to the community groups."

Last year women leaders from a slum community and from the national network of mothers' clubs were trained. This year leaders in the prostitutes' movement and from another poor community are being trained. "Just to enter a court building leaves these women lost and afraid," says Virginia. It is not easy, she points out, for women who have been jailed and abused by the law to return to a court house. But the results can be powerful, especially in a society where physical violence against women is considered normal.

"Our problems are universal problems," says Virginia, when asked what are some of Brazilian women's major issues. "Domestic violence is very common. Women know, of course, that this exists, but they don't know it is a crime, because the culture tolerates it. We have to make more people aware that the problem exists. Legally, to prove you were beaten is difficult, so we have to develop mechanisms to prove and to collect evidence."

In Brazil, government funding created Women's Defense Councils, where representatives from both public and private sectors debate issues of importance to women, and make decisions that are binding upon the government. One key issue has been violence against women, and, in particular, how the law deals with this problem. The Women's Defense Councils and grassroots women's organizing has led to changes in how violence against women is dealt with. Before the 1980s, many men who murdered women were acquitted when they plead a "legitimate defense of honor". The defendant claimed he was defending his honor, because his wife or girl friend had been involved with another man. In 1988 the Superior Court, in an unprecedented move, overruled a "legitimate defense of honor" justification made by an all-male jury in the case of Joao Lopes. The Superior Court declared that, "homicide cannot be considered a normal and legitimate means of responding to adultery, for in such crimes what is defended is not honor, but self-adulation, arrogance, and the pride of a man who considers his wife to be his property."

In 1985, thanks to groups like the Black Women's Collective, SOS Mujer and the Brazilian Bar Association-Sao Paulo Section, a pilot project involving an all-women's police station began in downtown Sao Paulo. The police women handled only cases of violence against women. Soon, long lines of women who had experienced rape, beatings, kidnapping, imprisonment and death threats began to appear in front of the new police station. The resulting media publicity about the project made violence against women a national concern. There are now 41 women's police stations in Sao Paulo. Virginia is sceptical about the project, pointing out that the special stations are too few and far between for most women. Some police women, she says, have trivialized victims and urged them simply to return home. Others argue that the stations have provided much needed assistance and helped to document just how prevalent violence against women is.

Virginia remains sceptical. "Police in general are violent against women, especially prostitutes. The police torture the wives and girlfriends of criminals just to get information. Our job is to make this violence more visible."

Themis, with three coordinators and 24 volunteers, hopes to make state and individual violence more visible in March 1995, when it will hold an international seminar on "Justice: Gender, Race and Class" for judges, prosecutors and other members of the bar.

Virginia is also excited about an event closer in the future: this year's upcoming November national election. Like many Brazilians, she is confidant that Luiz Ignacio Da Silva (known as ´Lula') will win the Presidency. "He represents our history," she says. "Even his name is a common Brazilian name. He represents a party (the Partido Dos Trabalhadores--the Workers Party) that has clearly been in touch with the excluded groups in our country--the poor, blacks and women." It is with the marginalised and excluded where Virginia sees hope, and the future of Brazil.

Themis, Andradas 1137/2311, Porto Alegre/RS, Brazil. Tel. 051 221 4290; fax 051 225 9028.