On November 10, 2006, 40 passengers on a bus were held hostage for more than 10 hours by Andr? Luiz Ribeiro, 35. Andr? had a gun pointed to the head of his ex-wife, Cristina Ribeiro, 36. He also punched her on her head and face, and pulled her hair. The torment ended when the police stormed the bus, freed the other passengers and held Andre.
Andre and Cristina were divorced seven months earlier. She had lodged three complaints against Andre for his violent behavior - for aggression; for unlawful confinement; for coercion. But all to no avail. The police did not act on her complaints.
"I went to the police station 15 times. They said that I had to wait to be called to depose my case. In the first hearing, they forgot to send him the summons. I was crying, and I asked the policemen if they could do something to protect me. They said they could, but they did not do anything about it," says Cristina.
The plight of women like Cristina is likely to end because the Brazilian government has brought in a new law to help women facing abusive men in their lives. On September 22, 2006, the new law - Domestic and Family Violence against Women - came into effect. It provides specifically against violence committed in a marriage. There was no legal protection against domestic violence in Brazil until this law came into existence.
Earlier, acts of domestic and family violence were considered "less than offensive crime" and tried by special criminal courts, which also tried fights between neighbors, street fights and car accidents. The punishment in these cases was mainly in the form of penalties. The period of detention was short, between six months and a year.
The new law defines forms of domestic violence in greater detail, and distinguishes between the various forms: physical, psychological, sexual, patrimonial and moral, and it allows aggressors to be arrested for such acts. It also provides for preventive custody.
The new law mandates that these crimes be now tried by the Special Court for Domestic and Family Violence against Women, which will be created by the Justice Court of Brazilian States and the Distrito Federal in the capital of the country.
"It is a complete law, which includes preventive measures, assistance and protection. The new law also foresees training for all the professionals who work in this area (policemen, firemen and judiciary) besides educational campaigns in schools and in society," explains lawyer Gleide Selma da Hora, 49, executive coordinator of an advocacy group, Advocacia Cidad? Pelos Direitos Humanos (Citizen Advocacy for Human Rights).
The new law also eliminates monetary penalties. In case of detention, the terms have trebled, ranging from three months to three years. Also, the complainant now needs only to make the charge before a judge. Earlier, it was common for the victim to drop charges in the police station, fearing the aggressor's reprisal.
"I lodged the complaint twice. The first time he promised to seek help and to change his behavior, and he asked me to drop the charge. Two weeks later, he was back to beating me. I lodged the complaint once again, and I didn't give up this time," says Elis'ngela (not her real name), 28. She was married to an Air Force officer for four years. He began to abuse her physically in the first month of marriage itself
Elis'ngela is now undergoing treatment at the Centro Integrado de Atendimento Mulher (CIAM) - Women's Assistance Centre - an organ linked to the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro. It offers free assistance for battered women. Since its creation in 2001, CIAM has already registered 12.328 cases.
"I left my house with only the clothes I was wearing. The professionals of CIAM took me to the State Public Defense Agency and in a month's time I got the divorce. Now he doesn't chase me anymore because he is afraid of going to prison. I'm taking classes in dance, studying and working. He was the first man to beat me and also the last. I feel strong. Time will heal me, I am young and I can start my life again," says Elis'ngela.
All over the world, cases of domestic and family violence against women are highly underreported, either due to fear of reprisal or to the shame in exposing events that take place inside a home. In spite of that, in Brazil, it is estimated there are more than two million cases of domestic and family violence annually, a dismal statistic based on a 2001 research by the Perseu Abramo Foundation.
The new law mandates that the judge deliver an appropriate verdict within 48 hours. Depending on the facts of the case, the accused can be prevented from approaching the woman and her children, or living in the same house. The woman may also recover property and cancel a power of attorney held by the aggressor/accused. It also provides measures of social assistance to women, and includes them in federal, state and city social programs. This becomes a vital measure for women who are financially dependent on the aggressor.
Earlier, the victim wasn't informed about the course of the legal proceedings against the aggressor. She will now be informed of every step of the proceedings, especially with regard to the aggressor going to prison, and the date of his release.
"The victim will also be able to have up to six months leave from work without losing her job if there is a need to protect her physical or psychological integrity. This is important for those who need to live in care centers to overcome the trauma," explains da Hora.
There is also a move to create special courts with civil and criminal jurisdiction to cover all aspects related to domestic violence, such as separation, alimony and custody of children. It will not be necessary for the victims to lodge complaints on each count.
When Brazilian President Luiz In'cio Lula da Silva signed the new law, he named it Maria da Penha, in honour of the woman whose husband tried to kill her twice in the early 1980s, leaving her permanently paralyzed. Maria da Penha shared her experience in a book titled "Sobrevivi ... posso contar" (I survived ... I can tell my story).