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?