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Macho Barbarism: The Horror Of Brazil's Mutilated Women

Like cases reported in India, Afghanistan and some Middle Eastern countries, gender-based violence that leads to mutilation and disfiguration is also a brutal reality in Brazil.

In Belo Horizonte, protesting violence against women
In Belo Horizonte, protesting violence against women
Juliana Coissi

SÃO PAOLO — Maria de Fátima can't breathe through her nose. She can't see or smile either. Kelly can barely hear. Gisele can't walk anymore. And Jane, after losing several fingers, can barely eat or brush her teeth alone.


These Brazilian women share a common tragedy: they were all beaten and tortured — to the point of having hands, feet, fingers, breasts or ears cut off, skin torn with kitchen knives, faces smashed and unrecognizable — and all at the hands of boyfriends or ex-husbands.

Their stories bring to mind cases reported in India, Afghanistan and some Middle Eastern countries. Sadly, this kind of extreme, gender-based violence also exists in Brazil — and under similar circumstances, often when the victim decides to end the relationship, according to specalists.

"It's not punishment for something she did, but rather for something she didn't do. It's for not submitting herself to his rule, for not obeying," says Marisa Sanematsu, co-founder of the Instituto Patrícia Galvão, a Brazil-based women's rights NGO. "Dominant men can't tolerate being challenged."

Sanematsu says that throwing acid at a woman's face, for example, is really about disfiguring her and making her "unusable" for a love relationship with anyone else. Cutting off a woman's hand, the NGO head explains, is meant to destroy her independence altogether.

Seemed like other couples

Jealousy had long been a source of conflict between Jane, 31, and her former partner, José, who suffers from schizophrenia. "At first we had minor fights, arguments, like every other couple," she says.

But a year ago, José decided to stop taking his medicine and started drinking again. Then, in December, he unexpectedly attacked Jane with a kitchen knife, chopping some of her fingers off and shredding her arm. Almost a year later, she still goes to the hospital every day for treatment.

Jane was a manicurist. She dreams of being able to use her hands again to work. "I'm not angry, I just want him far away from me," she says. José is in jail, awaiting his trial.

"You won't see or smell me"

Maria de Fátima , 49, decided last year to separate from her husband. A month later he doused her face in acid. Her daugther, Camila Cabral, 24, has no doubts whatsoever that the attack was motivated by jealousy and anger at being abandoned.

The young woman recalls her stepfather making an eerie threat at the time of the breakup. "Before he left, he said: "Don't worry, you won't see me or smell me ever again." He was already planning his revenge," Camila said.

The stepfather was sentenced to 22 years in prison for the crime, which destroyed his wife's nostrils (she now breathes through a hole in her throat), distorted her lips, making speech difficult, and ruined her vision.

Kelly, 20, was knocked unconscious by her husband this past August. He then mutilated her face, ripping tearing off parts of her ears and nearly destroying her nose. Before fleeing the scene of the crime, he penned a note justifying what he'd done. In his mind, Kelly had betrayed him.

That same month, the boyfriend of Gisele, 22, cut her two hands off and severely wounded her feet. Ten days later, a 15-year-old girl also lost a hand after her boyfriend attacked her.

Victim blaming in the courts

Marta Machado, a criminal law professor, has analyzed numerous cases of femicide (the killing of women by husbands or boyfriends), some of them involving things like gential mutilation or severe beatings that left the victim unrecognizable.

Beyond the conclusion that the police and the justice system did little or nothing to protect the women who were being attacked, she also found examples of what she calls "post-mortem aggression" by court juries.

If the woman was considered to be a good mother, she was found to be deserving of the law's protection, Machado explains. In these cases, the attacker was portrayed as a monster and was given a long prison sentence. But if the victim was described as having questionable morals or being sexually promiscious, then the "hard-working" husband was found to have "lost his head." In those cases, juries tended to be more lenient with the attacker.

"The justice system constructs these stereotypes about the deceased victim's behavior, and soometimes ends up blaming her," the professor explains.

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