On December 3, 2012, 21-year-old Viviane Alves Guimaraes jumped from the seventh floor window of her apartment building in Sao Paulo where she was living with her mother and sister. Her suicide occurred nine days after an office Christmas party where she was drugged and raped by a colleague.
Viviane’s case was featured in the news for some weeks before disappearing. It disclosed disturbing aspects within Brazil’s corporate culture ridden with abusive power relations and sexist attitudes towards women. A couple of days before her death, the young intern had complained to her colleagues and family about the intense sexual harassment she was experiencing at work but measures were not taken fast enough.
Although the law firm, where Viviane worked as an intern, received some bad PR for a while, it emerged untarnished by the incident, contending there was no clear evidence that the intern had been raped or that her suicide should be blamed on problems at work.
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Many beg to differ, especially the victim’s colleagues and those who are familiar with the frequent cases of severe sexual harassment in Brazil especially in law firms where power hierarchies are particularly pronounced.
In Brazil, the subject of sexual harassment is not approached in a serious manner. Verbal or physical harassing acts, which are predominantly made by male to female colleagues, are generally treated as mere annoyances at most.Women are expected to handle such habitual occurrences without making a fuss. There is a tendency for some to interpret such sexual passes as genuine romantic interest rather than abusive or discriminatory.
The perception of sexual harassment also depends on social class and race. Often young women, poor women or women of colour are much more vulnerable to sexual harassment, but their perception of their own rights is overshadowed by the intimidation they feel from those in higher positions at work.
The absence of clear legal repercussions in the face of abusive behaviour further complicates the matter and the sexual harassment law in the penal code has proven extremely difficult to implement so far. But perhaps the worst is the cultural atmosphere that normalises and consequently accepts sexual harassment as both inevitable, and in an insidious sense, “normal”.
Talking with a series of young professional women, one notices that they often accept the idea that their own behaviour is somehow central to the issue. In effect, there exists a veiled tendency to make women the responsible party, i.e. if they wish to avoid passes from men at work, they should dress conservatively and avoid provocative behaviour.
Examining gender relations and the perception of women in Brazilian society is necessary in understanding such attitudes toward sexual harassment. Within Latin American countries, Brazil has the most active women’s movement, yet it has not yet succeeded in weakening the patriarchal character of Brazilian society. Women are kept in subservient roles, especially in the domestic sphere. Few Brazilians question traditional gender roles except within small progressive social settings.
Another relevant concept within the sexual harassment discourse is the hyper-sexualisation of the female body. Through cultural traditions such as the famous Brazilian carnival symbolised by the body of an Afro-Brazilian woman, the female body is often treated as an object. Popular media representations of women are strongly influenced by a sense of Latin American machismo, which in turn shape sexist attitudes towards women that naturally repeat themselves in the work place.
No woman should have to “tolerate” or turn a blind eye to sexual harassment. With more women entering the work force every day and with Brazil’s ambitious project of becoming a global economic superpower, addressing these issues is the only way the country can move forward.
The legal framework
Sexual harassment was declared a crime in Brazil in 2001. It is defined as “imposing upon someone with the purpose of obtaining favours of a sexual nature, abusing the relationship of authority or superiority inherent to the discharge of one’s position or function”. One of the problems with this definition is that abusive acts are only considered harassment where there is a hierarchy involved. Accordingly, when harassment occurs between colleagues exercising equal powers within the company, it is more difficult to prove.
The Brazilian penal code holds that the usual penalty for the harasser is one to two years in prison. The victim is responsible for proving that sexual harassment occurred, all the more difficult when faced with the threat of losing one’s job. What remains even more controversial is the lack of accountability on the part of companies.
Since the only legal way to prosecute a sexual harasser is through a federal court, the company does not have any legal obligation to the victim during the period while the court case is under consideration.
It is true that companies are still subject to reputational risks for being involved in civil court cases and may choose to take steps to settle incidents. Unfortunately, these settlements often involve only trivial adjustments, such as the removal of the harasser from the immediate work environment of the victim. This kind of quick fix tends only to transfer the problem to another place.
In a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management Anne M. Fiedler and Ivan Blanco found that sexual harassment is worse in Latin American countries compared to the United States and Europe as they score high on indicators such as the uncertainty avoidance index, collectivism, masculinity and high levels of power distance.
Sexual harassment is a symptom of these deep societal problems, which – unfortunately – do not have quick solutions as rooted in longstanding cultural traditions. That is why it is necessary for the Brazilian government together with private companies to make a better effort at revising the current legal and societal approaches towards the subject.
The sad story of Viviane Alves Guimaraes and countless other stories of women experiencing sexual aggression in Brazil is a clear indication for the necessity to address deeply rooted societal attitudes towards gender roles. No woman should have to “tolerate” or turn a blind eye to sexual harassment. With more women entering the work force every day and with Brazil’s ambitious project of becoming a global economic superpower, addressing these issues is the only way the country can move forward.
Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.