In a number of Brazilian states, judges are ordering those guilty of domestic violence to join group discussions. Participants say they're resistant at first, but eventually find the experience to be a real eye-opener.
PARANOÁ — In a public building in Paranoá, in central Brazil's Federal District, a group of 15 people meet once a week to talk about domestic violence. In this case, though, the participants aren't victims seeking support. They're the perpetrators themselves, abusers who've either been referred here by the justice system, or, in rare instances, come of their own free will.
"We have to give men their share of responsibility," says Lucia Bessa, the Federal District's undersecretary for women's affairs. "Normally we women, whether it's about reporting abuse or leaving an abusive relationship, bear all the responsibility. But what about the male partner? What about the abuser?"
The discussion groups, organized by a body called the Center for Assistance to Family and Perpetrators of Domestic Violence (NAFAVD), are an attempt to answer that same question. Similar efforts are being made in other Brazilian states. Overall, there are 25 such services being offered in nine different states, according to a Adriano Beiras, a psychology professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).
Discussion and educational groups for perpetrators of abuse are still few and far between, in other words, but they appear to be gaining ground, in large part because of domestic violence legislation enacted in 2006. The so-called Maria da Penha Law, named after a biopharmacist who was herself a victim of domestic abuse, specifically recommended such groups as a way to "educate" against violence.
"A man who has abused a woman can do it again to another if all we're doing is focusing on the victim," says Beiras. "It's like trying to fix a problem without looking at the root cause."
Anger and resistance
The discussion groups give offenders an opportunity to reflect on their behavior. The sessions are overseen by psychologists and social workers, and recommended by judges generally for minor cases, when threats are made, for example. Often the men are slapped with restraining orders as well.
"When they get here, they are mad," Rebeca Rohgls, founder of the Albam Institute in Belo Horizonte, says of the discussion group participants. "In many cases they're here because of threats they made, so most of them believe they didn't do anything wrong. "She knew I wasn't going to kill her," they say."
Rohgls is a pioneer with these kinds of programs. "In the group sessions, we work on raising awareness among the men, which is a way to protect women," she adds. Rohgls says participants often attend meetings for between four and six months, and that topics commonly discussed include gender, women's rights, paternity and the Maria da Penha Law.
One of the biggest obstacles, according to Isabel Cristina Ribeiro, a coordinator with the NAFAVD program in Paranoá, is the "macho culture" that men use to justify violence. "Usually, they arrive and say, "I hit her, but she provoked me,"" Ribiero notes.
Coordinators like Ribeiro also have the challenge of finding qualified professionals willing to work with abusers. "Many psychologists and social workers don't feel prepared to handle this stuff," says Ricardo Bortoli, a social worker in the southeastern city of Blumenau. "They see these men only as crooks,"
But Bortoli, who founded a group, 13 years ago, for perpetrators of domestic violence, sees the situation differently: He believes that with help, abusers can evolve and thus live as "normal" people.
"It wasn't loaded"
For more insight, Folha spoke with some of the program participants themselves. One of the men, 38-year-old Maciel (not his real name), told us about the argument he had with his wife, six years ago, that landed him in jail and eventually into one of the group sessions.
He was drunk at the time, he says, and decided to interrogate his wife, whom he suspected of cheating on him. "It did not go smoothly at all," Maciel recalls. "I cursed and said a lot of dirty words. I had a gun at home, but it wasn't laoded. It was an old shotgun. I threatened her with it."
The woman ran to the back room. Hours later, while Maciel was sleeping, the police showed up at his house. "The police told me, "If we find the gun, you're going to jail." And I did go," he says.
Maciel was initially held for nine days, then given a longer sentence and a restraining order by the courts. This year he was ordered to attend NAFAVD meetings in Paranoá. He says that after six months, his ideas about violence have changed. "Most people think domestic violence is only when someone hits his wife," he says. "But there are various forms of violence. People think that words don't hurt."
Maciel admits he was resistant at first. "When you arrive, you think you are going to be judged, but it's a support group. I tried to take it seriously and learn some lessons," he says. "I left with another point of view. Not that I was violent before. But if I had that knowledge about violence, I would not have made that mistake."
Greater peace of mind
Joao (not his real name) describes a similar experience — of initial resistance followed by acceptance. When he was first ordered to attend group sessions in Blumenau, Joao was so resentful he even thought about appealing the courts to exempt him.
"At first I regretted not hitting my ex-wife, since here I was, having to go though the legal process regardless. But in the end I accepted the meetings and started to enjoy them," he says.
Joao's meetings take place every two weeks. The men sit in a circle. Their discussions are mediated by coordinators (usually both men and women are present). "I didn't think of myself as a chauvinist, but I realized that in some aspects, I was," says Joao.
A third participant, Gustavo Mendes, 37, found himself in one of the programs after an argument with his ex-girlfriend. "I don't remember what I said, but the argument was very serious," he says. "I told her to get out of the car and I insulted her."
A judge ordered him to attend meetings. "It was a big shock," he says. But now, after 10 sessions, Mendes says that he gets it now — that he shouldn't have allowed himself to get so angry. "I began to see things with a greater peace of mind," he says.