RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians are still grieving over the numbers seven and one, the final score of their losing game against Germany that eliminated them from competing for first or second place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Despite this loss, the Brazilians have different numbers to be concerned about.
In Brazil, every 15 seconds a woman is assaulted, every two hours a woman is murdered and at least 92,000 women have been killed in their homes in the past three decades. Recent statistics also reveal that Brazil has the seventh highest rate of violence against women in the world.
Graffiti artist Panmela Castro found a new way to protest the lack of women’s rights and gender-based violence in Brazil by fighting with peaceful, yet powerful weapons: spray cans. Castro brought together 78 Brazilian graffiti artists to raise awareness for domestic violence, using the World Cup as their spotlight and the streets of Rio de Janeiro as their canvas.
This is not the first time that “graffiti activists” like Castro have advocated for social change through public art. Murals of political protest have been defining aspects of Brazil’s urban landscape since 2009 when a federal law that decriminalized street art was passed.
For Castro, these murals that protest domestic violence have a personal meaning. Castro’s first husband began abusing her shortly after they moved in together. While Castro survived the beatings from her now ex-husband, her situation was not uncommon. Other women have lost their lives for simply being women.
One out of three women internationally will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime. In Brazil, this violence is pervasive.
Castro’s husband was never prosecuted due to the absence of a law protecting women from domestic violence.
“The society didn’t consider violence against women as a serious issue,” said Marcos Nascimento of the Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights. “It’s a private one, and most of the perpetrators of violence were not condemned.”
This changed when The Maria de Penha Law on Domestic Violence against Women was enacted in Brazil in 2006, following three decades of advocacy. The law, named after a woman who was paralyzed for life after being severely beaten by her husband, grants legal protection for women and recognizes physical abuse as a violation of human rights.
However, in the hillside favelas of Rio, access to information was limited and many women did not know the legislation existed.
Castro sought the opportunity to combine her passion for art and her personal experiences with domestic violence to communicate the law. She began partnering with human rights organizations and formed a network of women artists to teach women and girls about women’s rights through graffiti in Brazil.
Many of Castro’s murals depict strong women who are breaking free of oppression. They further convey empowering messages such as “luto como mulher” (“fight like a woman”) and “eu decido” (“I decide”).
“I thought I could help others see that they have the power to change their situation,” Castro said.
The primary goal of her art is to enable women and girls who were previously afraid to break their silence, share their stories and ultimately transform their lives.
Castro’s choice to become a professional graffiti artist and activist was daring in and of itself as the field is both competitive and male-dominated. Through her own experiences, Castro realized that her mission does not just aim to prevent domestic violence, but it aims to address all aspects of gender inequality.
“Society still dictates the role of women and I want to work to change that and inform other women,” Castro said.
Women’s wages were only 84 percent of men’s in 2008, and the gap increased at higher levels of education, according to the World Bank.
The wage gap reflects the “discriminatory practices and social norms” in Brazil. Even if women are working full-time, they are still expected or forced to perform household duties and chores.
In an attempt to reduce the inequalities between men and women, Castro formed Rede Nami, an organization of female urban artists that promotes women’s rights through public art and runs workshops for girls to express themselves.
The basis of the organization is female empowerment: teaching girls at a young age to speak out against injustices and understand that they do not have to be oppressed.
As the graffiti movement in Brazil continues to expand, Castro and other female artist-activists are demonstrating the use of art as a powerful tool for advocacy.
– Abby Bauer