Can shifting social norms tackle the sexual exploitation of girls in Rio’s favelas?

Protests in Brazil in response to the incident.

In a favela in Rio de Janeiro recently, a 16-year-old girl woke up in a house she did not know, surrounded by more than thirty men, some armed, who claimed to have had sex with her. She did not remember what had happened after going to her boyfriend’s house the night before. After waking up from a drug-induced state of unconsciousness, she went home wearing men’s clothes and didn’t mention anything to her family.

A short video of her lying unconscious while being sexually abused was posted on social media by the perpetrators. If it wasn’t for this video, this would probably be another case that would have remained hidden from the legal, health and social services, leaving the girl alone to deal with the physical and psychological consequences of the abuse.

This terrible news provoked shock and outrage in the world’s media and the public at large, with hundreds of people taking to the streets in Brazil in protest and many more expressing their anger on social media. And yet, similar events affect more girls than the public opinion is ready to accept.

The global prevalence of sexual abuse of girls has been estimated at 12.7 to 19.7%, and in Brazil, one in ten women report to have experienced sexual violence by someone other than their intimate partner before the age of 18.

Sexual abuse of children and adolescents can cause lifelong harm.

In the aftermath of the attack, the Brazilian victim said in an interview to a local newspaper (and then reported elsewhere): “It’s the stigma that hurts me the most. It is as if people are saying: ‘It’s her fault. She was using scanty clothes.’ I want people to know that it is not the woman’s fault. You can’t blame a robbery victim for being robbed.”

So what are the driving factors behind this extensive sexual exploitation and abuse?

People’s beliefs that place blame on the victim and her family, consider male sexuality as out-of-control and normalise men’s preference for young female bodies for sex, play a crucial role in keeping sexual abuse of girls hidden from the public eye. These shared beliefs often prevent children and adolescents from seeking legal support and health assistance, and can be deeply isolating and traumatic for the victim, who is left alone to deal with her fear of the perpetrators, shame and stigma.

We know that similar beliefs exist in Brazil. However, the widespread outcry the recent case has provoked reveals that there are many people throughout the country that condemn gender-based violence.

Recent research suggests that strengthening social norms that condemn violence and help victims feel they are safe to seek help might be a promising avenue for prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of children and adolescents. Community programmes to shift social norms and create room for people to speak out publicly can potentially reduce the acceptability of sexual exploitation and abuse of girls, and place the responsibility for sexual abuse on the perpetrators. School curricula including comprehensive sexuality education and encouraging critical reflections over gender roles and gender-based violence can also help shift norms among students and teachers. Evidence shows that policies and programmes aiming to prevent violence must place greater emphasis on setting a non-violent life course among young children and adolescents, as many of the most consistent influences on men’s likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence occur during childhood and adolescence.

The NGO Promundo is conducting research in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in Rio de Janeiro to understand the importance of social norms in perpetuating sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. The study is being carried out in three favelas. It aims to to uncover and understand social norms that justify and/or foster sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, estimate the prevalence of these norms, assess risk and preventative factors, and identify groups and individuals that are likely to hold beliefs and condone norms that support sexual exploitation. The results can help break the silence around sexual abuse and inform interventions and policies to prevent sexual exploitation, working with men and boys to prevent future perpetration and improve service provision for survivors.

Effecting change in areas such as the Brazilian favelas could reduce stigma for victims and help bring perpetrators to justice. Ensuring future generations grow up in communities where social norms value and respect women and girls may help prevent cases such as the one that shocked the world in Rio.

The global reaction shows that change may be possible, and we hope our work will provide the evidence to develop strategies that can help promote this change.

Image: Protests in Brazil in response to the incident. Credit: Free Journalists/Jornalistas Livres

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