Emily Masucci: Gender-Based Violence in Brazil

“The Struggle Continues: Gender-based Violence and the Politics of Justice and Care in Urban Brazil,” by Emily Masucci, Doctoral Student, Department of Anthropology

Emily Masucci (left) and Renata Souza, a progressive member of Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature, head of Rio’s human rights commission, and former colleague of Marielle Franco (see photo below for more about Franco).

Once the seat of the Portuguese empire, Rio de Janeiro was intentionally and violently constructed atop historical Afro-descendant neighborhoods and indigenous land. Generations later, many of their descendants live in the city and are experiencing another wave of historical erasures and state interventions. Presently, low-income neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are facing some of the most striking patterns of state violence in the world. 

This study of gender-based violence (GBV) among low-income women illuminates how state violence against marginalized communities, extending back centuries, paired with compounding structural inequalities have gendered consequences. With the support of a graduate student research grant from the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, I was able to conduct preliminary dissertation research in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to explore how low-income women experience and organize around GBV and differential access to justice and care at the local level. During this research, I spoke with women involved in anti-violence community organizing who often stated, “A luta continua” (“The struggle continues”), as both an expression of solidarity and a call to action. This phrase encapsulates low-income women’s ethic of organized resistance and invites further investigation into the nature of their “struggle.”

Street art in the historic neighborhood of Santa Teresa demanding “Quem Mandou?” (Who Ordered It?) referring to the calculated political assassination of former city councilwoman Marielle Franco on March 14, 2018.

Following Brazil’s twenty-one-year military dictatorship, feminist and women’s movements pressured their nascent democracy to address historical gendered inequities by “engendering” branches of state institutions. As a result, Brazil boasts a host of gender-specialized services oriented around justice, such as women’s police and domestic violence courts, and also services oriented around care, such as women’s centers and shelters. Yet, despite their implementation, levels of GBV have increased in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil more broadly. According to the most recent data, Brazil’s feminicide rate rests at fifth highest in the world, at 4.8 murders for every 100,000 women. In Rio de Janeiro this year, feminicide rates (Jan-Sept 2019) are already 211 percent higher than in the entire year of 2016 (DGTEC 2019). 

Preliminary research findings indicate that often formal channels of social and legal support are significantly restricted for low-income women in Rio de Janeiro, if not entirely out of reach. Inaccessibility, paired with the fear that these institutions are but another site of violence, prompts many low-income women to actively circumvent official spaces of justice and care. In the event that low-income women do appeal to state services, they find that their experiences of GBV and other violences are not legible as a holistic reality. The compounding, historical impacts of state and structural violences, intergenerational poverty, and geosocial precarity—especially poignant in Rio de Janeiro—do not fit neatly into legal frameworks and social services oriented around GBV.

In a conversation I observed between community organizers from the periphery of Rio de Janeiro, they posited, “How do we take care of ourselves without engaging institutions that don’t understand our experience?” My ongoing ethnographic research investigates this question, underscoring how low-income women and their communities reimagine and implement alternative blueprints for gendered justice and care at the local level. Through the narratives of low-income women, this study seeks to deepen our awareness of global patterns of gender-based inequities and violences, the limitations of gendered democratic citizenship, and the possibilities for organized community-level anti-violence initiatives. 

Ultimately,  my work is about more than precarity and violence. It seeks to foreground the ways in which marginalized communities are tapping into collective histories of “struggle” to incite meaningful change and to reclaim futures that have been historically stolen.  


DGTEC. 2019. “Dados Estatísticos – Feminicídio.” Observatório Judicial Da Violência Contra A Mulher. Rio de Janeiro.

—Emily Masucci is a graduate teaching fellow and doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology.