Wednesday, 21 Oct 2020

Opinion | No One Is Stopping the Child Sex Abusers

No One Is <br>Stopping the Child <br>Sex Abusers

Three factors contribute to this crisis
of child sex abuse: impunity, poverty and a deeply
rooted culture of male domination.

Three factors
contribute to this
crisis of child
sex abuse: impunity,
poverty and a
deeply rooted
culture of male
domination.


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Three factors contribute to this crisis of child abuse: impunity, poverty and a deeply rooted culture of male domination.

By Heriberto Araújo

Mr. Araújo is working on a book on violence in the Amazon.

PÁRA STATE, Brazil — It’s been nearly five years since J.S. de Brito began a legal battle to protect his daughter, who was sexually abused when she was only 2, and to prosecute the man he suspects committed the crime — the child’s maternal grandfather. Despite medical evidence confirming that the child was molested, the case has stalled. The justice system in this region of the Brazilian Amazon has allowed the possible abuser to continue to have almost daily contact with his victim.

Mr. Brito, who is 38, lives here in Pará State, in Breves — a town of 100,000 people, battered by poverty and unemployment. He shares custody of his daughter, a result of an extramarital affair, with her mother. Though for months he suspected that his daughter was being abused, he didn’t take legal action until January 2016, when the child complained during a bath of “pain in private parts.”

“The little girl had returned from her mother’s house that morning,” Mr. Brito said, explaining that the mother lived with her own father and that a 6-year-old cousin also spent a lot of time at the house.

He took his daughter to a hospital so she could be examined, he said, and doctors confirmed his worst fears: She had suffered vaginal and anal penetration (probably with a finger). According to court documents, the child said her cousin had abused her. Mr. Brito, however, suspects that the grandfather, whom he says might have a drinking problem, was also likely involved. He argues that his daughter had previously shown signs that she was afraid of both her cousin and grandfather.

Mr. Brito asked social services to revoke the mother’s custody, at least temporarily, to prevent the little girl from being abused again. He also reported the case to the police. But nothing came of it. The police interviewed both parents. According to court documents, the mother said the abuse occurred when the child was with Mr. Brito, not while she was with her. When I reached out to her, she said she and her daughter were victims of a “plot to separate them,” but had no further comment.

Mr. Brito also said he asked that social services place the child in a shelter for abused children. But he was told there that there was no space available. He was told that, as there was no evidence that the abuse was committed in the mother’s home, it was better for the child to remain there.

Court documents show that the police never spoke with the grandfather. What’s more, he worked as a receptionist at the police station where the witnesses gave their statements. Without further investigation, the detective on the case concluded that the young cousin was the only abuser. The Pará State prosecutor’s office in Breves subsequently asked that the case be dismissed, arguing that a 6-year-old child could not be tried.

Mr. Brito hired a private lawyer and appealed to the federal authorities to keep the case open, and he asked that the police investigate the grandfather. In April 2019 a judge agreed and gave the police a month to work on the case. But it has since stalled again.

According to official data from Pará State, 861 cases of sexual abuse of children and adolescents were reported in 2019. But experts argue that the number is certainly much higher, because only 10 percent of cases are reported. In 2010, a parliamentary commission of inquiry in Pará found that, between 2004 and 2008 there may have been “nearly 100,000 cases of violence and sexual abuse against children and adolescents.”

Three factors contribute to this crisis of child abuse: impunity, poverty and a deeply rooted culture of male domination.

The abuse of minors in Brazil is not limited to the Amazon. In São Paulo, the most developed city in the country, 84 births were registered to girls between the ages of 10 and 14 over just three months this year. In August, the pregnancy of a 10-year-old girl in Espírito Santo shocked the country. For four years she had been raped repeatedly by her uncle. The hospital that she was admitted to refused to terminate the pregnancy, even though the little girl’s life was in danger. In the end a judge intervened, and she was transferred to a hospital in another state where the procedure was done.

But in the Amazon, perpetrators’ impunity and victims’ insecurity are more acute than in other areas. The region is home to some of the lowest human development indexes in the country. Remoteness and logistical difficulties often prevent victims from even reporting crimes.

Pará is about three times the size of California, but has a population of only 8.6 million people. Rural areas in this sparsely populated territory remain largely outside of government control, with the closest police stations or court located several hours away by boat or over rutted roads where there is no public transportation.

In rural areas outside Breves, sexual exploitation is believed to be rampant. Locals living in backwoods hamlets told me that poor families force their daughters, some as young as 5, to sell themselves to the crews of passing merchant ships and barges transporting soy, wood and minerals through the waterways. The girls perform sex acts in exchange for food or for a piddling amount of money, less than $3.

Experts argue that deeply ingrained cultural dynamics are crucial to understand the widespread practices of incest and pedophilia that were described by European and local travelers to the Amazon in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that continue to this day in the region. “This problem reveals the persistence of a patriarchal society and the inheritance of slavery, in the sense that the child’s body is devoid of rights,” explained Prof. Ygor Olinto of the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of the State of Amazonas, who studies the slavery and child trafficking in the Amazon in the 19th century.

Myths are used to mask or explain away these crimes. A popular folk tale, for instance, attributes youthful pregnancies of unknown or unspeakable paternity to the mystical pink river dolphin of the Amazon, which is said to transform itself into a handsome man who attends parties and seduces young girls to have sexual encounters close to the river.

The coronavirus and people’s subsequent confinement have made the issue even more urgent. Official data shows that 73 percent of the time, the abuse of children occurs at the home of the victim or perpetrator, and that 40 percent of cases involve parents or stepparents. Studies on the impact of confinement during the Ebola outbreak in Africa found a correlation between a spike in the domestic abuse of children and the restrictive measures taken against the virus. Brazilian activists and experts predict that something similar will happen during the coronavirus pandemic that is hitting Brazil hard.

“The pandemic is having a great impact,” Henriqueta Cavalcante, a Catholic nun and an activist against sexual exploitation in the Amazon told me. “Victims are isolated and without the opportunity of attending schools, where abused children often break with their silence.” She said she has received death threats for denouncing child abuses committed by powerful politicians.

“Here in Pará,” she told me, “the culture of machismo is entrenched. I remember the case of an 80-year-old man who said that his daughters had been ‘his’ before anyone else. He said he was too old to also have his way with his great-granddaughters.” Sister Cavalcante, who regularly brings cases to police detectives, state prosecutors and judges in Pará, admits that all too often, she is frustrated with the outcome. Though Brazilian law considers it a crime to have sexual relations, ostensibly consensual or not, with anyone under 14, crimes go unpunished or languish for years in courts.

Dozens of social workers from Pará, who requested anonymity because they were afraid of reprisals, as well as directors of orphanages — told me that policemen, prosecutors and judges are the ones failing to effectively prosecute these crimes, either because of negligence, corruption or simply indifference rooted in machismo. The police detectives and members of the Public Ministry I interviewed in the region blamed their failure to address sex crimes on a structural lack of personnel to investigate. They argued that, in a country with high murder rates, the investigation of homicides takes most of their time and resources.

President Jair Bolsonaro has done nothing to fight the problem. He has a well-known record of misogynistic and sexist language: He described the conception of his daughter as “a moment of weakness,” and when he was a federal lawmaker, he said to a congresswoman that she did not deserve to be raped by him. Comments like these only empower abusers and criminals in a country that has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world and which, in 2018, registered more than 66,000 rapes, the highest rate in a decade, with four girls under the age of 13 raped every hour. Experts also accuse him of underfunding or dismantling social programs that offer some protection to victims.

Brazil must take concerted steps to stop this impunity. In 2019, there were 17,000 reported sexual abuses against children and adolescents in the country. However, official studies acknowledged that the state offered any follow-up at all in only 10 to 15 percent of those cases. Why hasn’t this been addressed?

The country should expand the number of courts in the Amazon and put in place an efficient system of rapid trials. It can respect the presumption of innocence while also punishing the actions of sexual predators who roam freely destroying childhoods. Judges, prosecutors and policemen who do not act promptly should be sanctioned. Not long ago, the country showed that the rule of law was able to tame another curse — corruption — and hold the powerful accountable. Now it must defend its most vulnerable.

Heriberto Araújo is the author of the forthcoming book, “Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Fight to Own the Amazon.”

Cover photo by Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times. Cover inset photo by Andre Penner/Associated Press.

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