Maria da Penha
A tireless struggle to reverse the pattern of impunity in cases of domestic violence against women in Brazil

On May 29th, 1983, María da Penha Fernandes, a Brazilian pharmacist and victim of domestic violence, returned from work and went to bed for the night. Unlike other nights, however, María’s husband shot her with his revolver as she slept, causing her to become paraplegic.

Because she was too afraid to obtain a divorce or even a legal separation, she returned home two weeks later only to have her husband once again try to kill her, this time by electrocuting her. Afterwards, María sought out legal assistance. Despite the vast evidence against her husband, the Brazilian justice system re-victimized María by taking 19 years to arrest and incarcerate her husband.

Given the pattern of impunity reflected in the justice system’s response to such attacks, CEJIL and the Latin American Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) presented a case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR).

The case of María da Penha demonstrates the patriarchal culture that exists in Brazil, which favors men in marital relationships. In this context, situations of domestic violence are perceived as acts reserved to the private sphere and not as a public issue or a violation of human rights.

Case Impact

  • The work on this paradigmatic case contributed to the creation of Law No. 11.340 (the María da Penha Law), which establishes criminal sanctions against perpetrators of domestic violence against women, promotes rehabilitation programs for offenders, and establishes special police bodies to address the issue. These changes fundamentally influenced the recognition of domestic violence as a violation of human rights and of the pattern of impunity in Brazil’s legal system regarding violence against women. Likewise, it contributed to placing the issue of domestic violence in the center of the Brazilian public agenda.
  • As a result of the public policies implemented after the new law, in the 5 years after its adoptiont the law has assisted more than 3,364,000 women since January of 2006.
  • Additionally, over 331,000 men were prosecuted for domestic violence against women and 110,000 final judgments were issued by the Brazilian justice system. (UN Women, 2011).