Refinery29 has partnered with Allison Rapson and Kassidy Brown, founders of the media company We Are the XX, for a documentary series exploring the lives of women around the world. "A Woman's Place" features the empowering stories of female activists working for real change in their communities. This story draws on interviews conducted by Rapson and Brown, as well as additional reporting from Refinery29 in New York.
In Brazil, an average of 15 women per day are killed simply for being women, according to figures cited by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Femicide, now defined under Brazilian law as a "crime that involves domestic violence, discrimination, or contempt for women, which results in their death," remains a serious problem in South America's largest country.
But before 2006, domestic violence was not even considered a criminal act in Brazil. Back then, "common punishments for domestic violence crimes included donation of food baskets to charity or payments of fines," according to a study published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.
That changed with the Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence, adopted in 2006. Da Penha was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her then-husband. In 1983, he brutally attacked her while she was sleeping, shooting and partially paralyzing her. When she was released from the hospital, da Penha said her husband tried to electrocute her.
Da Penha has since dedicated her life to fighting for other women like her in Brazil.
"Before the Act, domestic violence was a crime considered of low potential offensive. That reality has changed, and indeed in all the places I go to give talks, women find themselves 'saved by the Law,' but we need more financial resources to implement it in all its power," da Penha told the United Nation's Women's Organization in 2011. "The problem is not in the law, but in its application. Unfortunately, these instruments exist only in big cities."
Nearly a decade after the Maria da Penha Law was passed, advocates say there is still more to be done to protect women. In the city of São Paulo alone, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
Adriana de Mela runs Projecto Violeta, a resource center for victims of domestic violence in Rio de Janeiro. A judge, de Mela has been fighting to reform Brazil's legal system to better protect victims.
"Our Brazilian law says that when a woman goes to the police department to report domestic violence, she has to go and wait for a decision for four days," de Mela said. "It's a lot of time for a woman who is suffering domestic violence…She can’t wait, she will probably be murdered."
Projecto Violeta focuses on speeding that process along, taking it from four days to four hours, de Mela said, so women can obtain the protective orders they need quickly. The center also offers women access to social workers and psychologists.
"I discuss with the police how we can do things to make the decision faster. [At our center], we have a public lawyer for victims, just for women. The public lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge — [a victim can do] everything in four hours," de Mela said. "The most important things is to give her the opportunity to have a decision fast."
Outside of the country's legal system, some Brazilian women have taken the fight against domestic violence to the streets. Artist Panmela Castro said she began painting murals and doing graffiti in 2005, drawing attention through her work to women's issues.
Back then, she said she painted with a group of men; there were not yet "graffiti girls."
"I wanted to be in the streets doing the same things that they were doing. I was super-masculine because I needed to speak like them, to dress like them, to be accepted," Castro said. "Because why would a girl be with the boys in the streets, the streets where all kinds of things could happen….I think that is when my art really started."
Now, Castro has her own group of "graffiti girls." Her organization, Rede Nami, supports other artists as well. Through her work and mentorship of 30 young women, she raises awareness about the Maria da Penha Law and about women's rights as part of a project she calls "Graffiti for the End of Domestic Violence."
"This problem of domestic violence…just happens because of this culture. Because of the way that people see and think about what women have to be like," Castro said. "Most of the women that suffer domestic violence, it’s because they were not 'obedient.' It’s a parallel that I make in my work."
"I think the people want us to be obedient, and sometimes we need not to be. And the women from the past who were not obedient and did whatever they want, they broke an opening for us to be more free, like we are today," Castro said.
That freedom is the message that flows through her work. And it's made an impact far beyond the walls of Rio. Castro was named to a list of 150 Fearless Women around the world by Newsweek and The Daily Beast. For her part, she said she will keep urging young people to share their message through art.
"Graffiti is in the streets, and you don’t need to ask for permission to do it. You can just go there and get your message out," Castro said.