The 2016 Olympic Summer Games began with the traditional parading of the torch throughout the country, including in Fortaleza, where two leaders of Brazil’s feminist movement led the march through the northeastern city.
Maria da Penha is a 72-year old women’s-rights icon who led a decades-long crusade to ensure greater justice for survivors of domestic abuse. Da Penha survived multiple murder attempts by her ex-husband, one of which left her paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. Twenty years after her ex-husband committed these crimes, he served only two-years in prison.
In response, da Penha pressured the Brazilian government to alter domestic violence laws and hold her abuser accountable. In 1998, she filed a petition against the federal government through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission determined that the Brazilian government violated da Penha’s rights to a fair trial and failed to provide adequate judicial action for victims of domestic abuse.
Da Penha’s efforts resulted in the government’s 2006 passage of the Maria da Penha Law, which tripled the minimum sentence for those convicted of domestic abuse. Addressing the Olympic crowd, where spectators cried “guerreira,” or “warrior,” as she spoke, da Penha stated, “My 19-year struggle gave rise to a new law, but we still have a long way to go.” According to a 2015 study by the Latin American Faculty on Social Sciences (FLACSO), Brazil had the fifth highest rate of murders of women in the world, up from seventh in 2014.
Juliana de Faria, founder of the feminist organization Think Olga, passed the torch to da Penha, symbolizing the connection and appreciation between the past and future generations of feminist activism in Brazil. The two activists carried the women’s rights flag along with the torch.
De Faria’s organization has utilized social media platforms to shed light on the sexual harassment of women. After a 12-year old girl participating in Brazil’s Junior Masterchef competition faced a storm of sexual harassment online, Think Olga launched the viral hashtag #MyFirstHarassment, asking women to describe their experiences.
Beyond social media, Think Olga seeks to educate Brazilians about the impact of street harassment. The group created a harassment map to track where women reported being harassed and posted copies on public transportation systems.
Acknowledging the need for more attention on violence against women, de Faria told the crowd, “Violence has always existed, but now it is more visible.” She concluded, “Our struggle involves shedding light on these topics, and we hope that the Olympic Flame will light our way.”