Postcard from Brazil: A woman free in Rio, not in Delhi
I have lived in the Indian capital for several years and, like many other women in this metropolis of 16 million, I soon learned how to deal with the lecherous stares and dirty comments, the drunken men in cars who follow my auto-rickshaw home from work at night.
I have learnt to be aggressive, to talk straight and serious when addressing male strangers, to not make eye contact, to not extend a handshake and to certainly not smile, share personal details or be friendly when dealing with men I do not know.
Some may think this is a little severe, but when you are bombarded with reports of crimes against women — of men throwing acid in women’s faces, of women being dragged off the street and gang-raped in moving cars, of little girls being lured, raped and murdered, of women being stalked and harassed, most here will likely agree my actions make sense.
Women in Delhi have learnt to be guarded, to keep up a wall, to use reputable cab services and to take pictures of licence plates on our phones and send them to friends as we board auto-rickshaws.
We have learnt to text or call loved ones when we reach our destination, to carry pepper spray, attend self-defence classes and have rape alert apps installed on our smart phones.
It’s become a way of life. A norm — almost part of our subconscious — which helps us survive in a city which has the unsavoury reputation of being India’s rape capital.
The brutality of the December gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in Delhi shocked not only Indians but also the world outside, awakening others to the horrors women face in this largely patriarchal country.
It was a recent trip to Brazil — a country often compared to India because of its rising economic influence — that made me realise how much of my somewhat cold, aggressive behaviour to male strangers was linked to concern for my safety.
CRIMES, NOT GENDER CRIMES
Like India, Brazil has a vibrant culture, diverse population and breathtaking landscapes. Its people are warm and welcoming and economic gains are gradually improving the lives of the poorest in the interior.
It is also a country where women can wear what they want, where they are not sexually harassed or stared at on the street, where they can talk openly with men they do not know and can wear the shortest of shorts and the skimpiest of outfits. No one stares. No one cares.
Women are present in large numbers in all public spaces, doing everything from driving garbage collection trucks to policing the streets to loading your bags onto trolleys at the airport.
It made me feel comfortable, unconcerned about attracting stares and unwanted attention. It made me feel liberated. For the first time in a long time, I let down my guard.
There is no doubt that Brazil is still very ‘macho’ and crimes against women do happen there, as in every other country. There was recently a shocking case, similar to the Delhi gang rape, in which an American student was gang-raped on a bus in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana tourist area.
Rio and the city of Sao Paolo have extremely high crime rates, but these are not specifically crimes against women, and the robberies and murders are often drug-related. Of course, domestic abuse is still a daily reality for many women in Brazil.
The point is that it is not just a question of better attitudes towards women on the streets, but also that Brazil is sending strong signals to society to respect women, something we do not see so much of in India.
LAWS SEND STRONG SIGNALS
In 2006, Brazil enacted the Maria de Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence named after a woman who was shot by her husband and is now permanently in a wheelchair.
The law is one of the world’s most comprehensive pieces of legislation on gender-based violence, whether physical, psychological, sexual or property-related, Aparecida Gonçalves, Brazil’s national secretary for combating violence against women, told the Wall Street Journal recently.
The law allows for special courts and stricter sentences for offenders, as well as other measures for the prevention and relief of such crimes, like special police stations and shelters for women — making it much easier for women to report such crimes.
In fact, specialised women’s police stations or units in ordinary police stations were first introduced in 1985 in Brazil, which had 475 such stations by 2010, and have been popular elsewhere in Latin America.
Changes in Brazil’s Penal Code have also expanded the definition of rape, Gonçalves says. As a result, sexual violence is more visible and crimes are increasingly being reported. Activists say better implementation of the changes is needed outside the main cities.
India, in comparison, passed a new anti-rape law after the Delhi gang rape , but a U.N. expert criticised it as being too limited in scope.
The law was watered down by the predominantly male parliamentarians, who agreed to broaden the definition of rape and increase the penalties, yet did not criminalise a husband who rapes his wife, saying this could lead to the break-up of the family unit.
In India, Sonia Gandhi heads the main Congress party which leads the coalition government, but is not prime minister, while Brazil has a female president, Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to lead Latin America’s largest economy.
Rouseff has 10 women in her cabinet, twice as many as her male predecessor had in his. In India, four women hold ministerial posts. Rouseff appointed Graca Foster as the first woman to run the country’s biggest company, state-run Petroleo Brasileiro SA, and Magda Chambriard as the first woman to head the oil regulatory agency.
Last year, Rouseff passed a law giving divorced Brazilian women improved property rights. In India, a similar proposal faced opposition and a cabinet dispute prevented the amendment from being passed earlier this month
No society is perfect, but surely lessons can be learnt.
India is undoubtedly struggling to curb violence against women, and studying how others deal with this menace can only be positive.
Maybe, if the government sent out stronger signals of support for women, it would help change the patriarchal mindset and make India’s women feel a little safer in their country’s public spaces.
PHOTO CAPTION: Ishita Matharu, 23, who works for a multinational company, poses for a picture in New Delhi January 16, 2013. “I am not scared to travel alone by myself at night. After learning Krav Maga I am more confident to step out of my house late in the evening, I am no more frightened to drive alone or go out with friends”, said Ishita who has been taking Krav Maga classes for more than four years. Since a medical student died after being gang raped on a bus in New Delhi, the issue of women’s security in India has been under the spotlight. Picture taken January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal