Often the cases appear as a few words in the local press: “Man and woman arrested over the rape of a 13-year-old girl.” A police statement adds that the victim’s uncle had been raping her for the last six years, with the full knowledge of the girl’s mother and grandmother. In this case, arrests took place on May 5 in Pinheiros, a city of 77,000 people in northern Brazil, but neither the age of the victim nor the circumstances of the crime are unusual. The most recent statistics from the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (FBSP) are shocking. Every hour, four girls under the age of 13 are raped in Brazil. More than half of the 66,041 victims were under that age, according to the 2019 report.
These cases hide the true scale of the issue as they are the ones escalated to the police or medical specialists. Much abuse takes place hidden from view and protected by family omertà. “Sexual violence against children is shrouded in a pact of silence,” says Marcia Bonifacio, the head of a team of psychologists at São Paulo City Hall who provide support to schools for problematic students. Their disruptive behavior often hides a life of sexual abuse and other forms of violence at home.
Sexual violence against children is shrouded in a pact of silence
Marcia Bonifacio, psychologist for abuse victims
The psychologists have seen cases of a four-year-old girl who masturbates four times a day in class, a 10-year-old girl who starts to show signs of pregnancy, or the seven-year-old boy who pressures classmates into performing oral sex. “It’s a very perverse circle with few happy endings,” says Bonifacio. Brazil’s patriarchal and macho culture is plagued by taboos about sex, but at the same time promotes precocious sexual activity. The victims do not follow any pattern of age, race or social class, but their aggressors are almost always family members or close family friends. “I have never heard of a case perpetrated by a stranger,” explains Bonifacio. Fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and older siblings, however, are common.
The Brazilian Penal Code considers any sexual relations with a child under 14 to be statutory rape, and further considers them as rape of a person considered “vulnerable” (unable to consent due to age, illness or incapacity). As it is not uncommon for the mother of the child or other relatives to be complicit, the abuse can extend through childhood. Often the victim will be blamed for destroying the family or leaving it without an income if they complain and the aggressor is the main financial provider.
Unfortunately, cases can start extremely early. “When they are between zero and six years old the victims have little understanding of what is happening, they may even perceive it as a game, as a sign of affection. They feel pleasure and they have no boundaries – frequently the aggressor requires them to keep it a secret,” explains prosecutor Renata Rivitti. However, this ignorance can stretch into a child’s teens given a lack of information and sex education.
Bonifacio recalls the case of a 13-year-old from an evangelical family. The girl discovered in science class that what her father had been doing to her since she was eight years old and got her first period was sex. With no television, cellphone or internet, she had simply not heard of it.
Detecting abuse is the first step, and in the case of young children, this is usually discovered according to their behavior at school. When they are older, they often tell someone they trust, but the most serious cases come to light at hospital. A further difficulty once abuse is exposed is protecting the victim without re-victimizing them, and prosecuting the crime. The child will have to repeat their testimony to different services, the police and doctors. They will face intense scrutiny and have to undergo a thorough forensic examination. Many end up far away from their relatives, neighborhood, school and friends, and blame themselves for speaking out. Some retract their accusations because the price paid for speaking up is too high.
Rivitti says she encourages information sharing with victims, to make them aware of what abuse is and how it works. “Then they will know how to explain it, and they will have to be believed,” she says. They try to identify a family member who will protect the girl at home and separate her from the rapist. If he is providing for the family then they try to seek extra financial support.
Getting a case strong enough to bring before a judge is another major difficulty in Brazil. It is usually the child’s word against the adult’s. The worst nightmare of those fighting child rape is that the court will acquit the accused. “We simply cannot deliver the lamb to the wolf with a judge’s approval,” Rivitti says.
Given the complexity of the challenge, Luciana Temer runs the Liberta Institute, which seeks to raise awareness with documentaries to break what she terms “the perverse circle of the normalization of abuse.” Also on board is one of the most famous men in Brazil, Globo TV presenter Luciano Huck, who is politically influential.
As it is not uncommon for the mother of the child or other relatives to be complicit, the abuse can extend through childhood
Rivitti is trying to replicate the model she created in Jacareí, a city of 235,000 inhabitants in Brazil’s interior, at the São Paulo state level. This works by coordinating educational, social and health services to better protect victims, leading to higher rates of detection and rape complaints, fewer witnesses in trials and more convictions. She works with a network of 70 other prosecutors.
With schools closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, the team Bonifacio leads had to pivot online to create an outlet for children to denounce violence. They created a website that received 200 complaints in nine months. Of these, 56 were for sexual violence.
US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.
Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.”
“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”
“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General.
Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics.
“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet.
Aaron Reitz is the deputy attorney general for legal strategy under AG @KenPaxtonTX.
This tweet, in which he calls fellow Texan Simone Biles a “national embarrassment,” came outside of work hours but he often tweets hot takes between 9a-5p.
The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone.
Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.