Charity helps shed light on one of Brazil’s dark secrets

Fran Mary Santos Montiro endured years of abuse from her husband
Fran Mary Santos Montiro endured years of abuse from her husband

Jordan Greer from Ballyclare visited Brazil as part of a student internship with Christian Aid. He went to see how women are being supported by Christian Aid to escape violence and have a chance of a new and better life

In just a few months the eyes of the world will be on Brazil, as it hosts the 2016 Olympic Games.

But this country, often perceived as one of celebration and colour, hides a dark secret. Brazil has the seventh highest rate of violence against women in the world, with a woman assaulted every 15 seconds and murdered every two hours.

Since 1985, an astounding 92,000 women have lost their lives as a result of violent attacks, often at the hands of a husband, partner or family member.

São Paulo, in the south east region of Brazil, is one of the world’s most populous cities. It is also one of the most unequal cities in Latin America, with the very poor and very rich living side by side. 

In São Paulo, street vendors represent 2.3 per cent of the economically active population (approximately 138,000 workers, of which 57,000 are women).

They earn around BRL R$875 (£231.99) per annum. And for women, life is especially hard.

Female street vendors are undermined by their male counterparts – despite all struggling to earn a living on the streets, they are expected to complete domestic work as well as paid labour.

They are not considered on the same level as men by the men in their community or by the police. Therefore female street vendors are particularly at risk from violence.

In February 2014, Christian Aid’s local partner organisation Gaspar Garcia received funding from the EU to start a project in São Paulo to support female street vendors who are at risk of violence in their everyday life (at home and at work) with the aim of enhancing their personal, social, political and economic strength.

Gaspar Garcia’s work helps female street vendors challenge and prevent violence, and to build a more peaceful environment in their communities.

These women, who are poor and live in vulnerable conditions, are taught about their rights through workshops. The organisation educates the community about these rights by speaking out, lobbying and influencing public policy.

I visited the bustling area of Lapa in São Paulo, where street vendors sell clothes, toys and other items on stalls, sometimes even off rugs on the floor, as businessmen and women in expensive suits rush past them on their way to work.

To many, these women are considered insignificant and invisible.

The current dynamic among street vendors is very complex, because most of the women don’t have a licence to work in the street. They did in the past, but between 2009 and 2012 the city’s mayor started to revoke the licences in a bid to clear up the streets before the World Cup. Now, the majority of female vendors remain unlicensed.

Kelly Makauskas, 42, sells women’s clothing from a stall on the side of the road in the Lapa shopping area where she’s been working since 1991.

Despite her licence being revoked by the mayor she continues to trade with the support of a judge, who ruled that vendors can keep working until the government creates a formal public policy against them.

Yet, the police continue to bully and intimidate her. She cannot leave her stall even to use the toilet out of fear of fines and being shut down. Police shootings, including a fatal incident, have been reported – although no-one was punished – and Kelly and her friends continue to live in fear.

She told me: “They need to look at the street vendors like real people, like citizens, because I feel that they look at me like a criminal who shouldn’t be here - I just want to work.

“I only want to work and have the chance to do that, because I sell clothes and it’s the way I provide for my family.

‘‘I’m afraid tomorrow I won’t be able to be here, because it’s happened before. I turn up and I’m not allowed. I’m 42, but most people are older and they can’t get another job, but the authorities don’t care about that.”

Yet, thanks to the support of Gaspar Garcia, Kelly now understands her rights, and what the police can and cannot do.

“They [Gaspar Garcia] help me with everything as before I didn’t know my rights; now we discuss a lot about the legislation of the street vendors and I didn’t know about it before. They showed me and the other ladies and for me it was like opening my eyes.

“All the street vendors should unite to ask for their rights because alone they can’t do anything, but together we’re stronger.

“Most of the street vendors here are women, so if we’re joined together we can have a better time and a better place to work.”

Safe house offers sanctuary from violent partners

I visited the lawless and violent city of Ariquemes in northern Brazil to meet women whose lives have been saved thanks to the support of a small safe house, ‘Casa Noeli dos Santos’.

Casa Noeli is a small house in a secret location, with two bedrooms, an open living room, kitchen and a vegetable plot. It was opened in 2011 to house women who have fled their violent partners. 

Supported by Christian Aid’s partner, the Anglican Service of Diakonia and Development (SADD), it is one of a just handful of safe houses in this vast country.  It can home 10 women and their children at one time, serving a population of 150,000 people across the state.

Pictures drawn by the children who’ve sought refuge with their mothers adorn the painted walls, colourful throws cover the sofas and photos of smiling women are pinned on a noticeboard. It could be anyone’s home.

Yet, the padlocked front gate and electric fence across the top of the high perimeter wall tell a different story.

Fran, a mother-of-two, came to Casa de Noeli two years ago to escape her violent husband who is now awaiting trial for 12 homicides – including her father and brother.   

Sadly, Fran’s story is not unique.  Reverend Elineide Ferreiro Oliveiro, 30, who has managed Casa Noeli since it opened, also has her own story of violence to tell.

Her own sister Elione, 35, was stabbed seven times by her ex-husband when she asked for a divorce over 15 years ago. Thankfully, she survived.  Elione now works alongside Rev, Elineide and the home’s psychologist, Lucimerie.

Each week, the team welcome women who have nowhere else to go, on recommendation of the police.  The women are given psychological support and are shown how to access the basic state benefits they are entitled to. 

Each woman stays a maximum of three months, and continues to receive care and support afterwards, so there has never been a problem of overcrowding.

The women are often financially reliant on their partners, forcing them to stay in violent relationships, but Rev.

Elineide and her team provide opportunities to learn new skills, such as baking and handicrafts, so they are able to make their own money.

When Fran first came to Casa Noeli she had just the clothes she was wearing.  Now, she is in a safer and more secure place.

“Elineide is just like a mother.  Wherever I go, or wherever we go, she’s here with us,” she said.

Fran is taking positive steps towards a new life and hopes to leave Ariquemes and make a new life somewhere else.

“The safe house is a special place, and it’s because of this house I’m alive. If I didn’t have the house I would be in the same cycle, being beaten, threatened.  The house is very important to break the cycle.

“I encourage women to stand up for themselves and report these crimes, because then they’ll find Elineide,” she added, smiling.