Condemned to 'private prison': the Brazilian women subjected to secret abuse

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the teenager from Brazil’s remote northeast began a new life in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago, she never imagined she would spend some of those years locked away in her own home.

A Brazilian woman, who survived a so-called private prison, or forced isolation at the hands of her husband, looks out of a window at a secret shelter in Rio de Janeiro, April 5, 2016. REUTERS/Sophie Davies

Now hiding in a government shelter, the mother of two says her husband subjected her to five years of psychological and physical abuse, then held her prisoner for two more years.

The story by the woman who only wants to be identified as M.S. is one of many similar scenarios reported recently in Brazil, which is seeing a surge in cases of women being held in so-called private prisons.

The number of reported cases of women in private prison, a form of domestic abuse in which they are held against their will, more than tripled last year from the year before, according to new government statistics.

Reporting of such abuse grew in response to efforts to boost public awareness, advocates say, particularly a telephone support hotline that enables women to speak out about what had been a largely under-reported crime.

Cases reported to what is called the 180 hotline hit nearly 4,000 last year from about 1,000 in 2014, the government said.

Private prison can refer to cases of women who are not allowed to see family or friends, not allowed access to email or telephone or are never permitted to be unaccompanied in public to prevent them from having contact with others.

It also denotes psychological terror of the kind M.S., now 27, said she experienced at the hands of her husband.

“He threatened me, telling me that I wouldn’t have food, that he would kill me,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He forbade their children, one and three years old, from consuming anything but breast milk.

Yet he hid his behavior well. “In front of family and neighbors, he was normal,” she said.

The couple were together four months before getting married, and her husband changed after their wedding, she said.

At first she went out to work, but soon he forced her to give up her job, accusing her of meeting up with other men during the day. He confiscated her mobile phone and prohibited her from talking to anyone.

During her two pregnancies, he beat her up.

In the final two years of their marriage, he would not let M.S. and the children leave the house at all. As a landlord who rented out local properties, he could stay home most of the time and keep guard, she said.

M.S. managed to contact police and escape but said she still has nightmares that her husband will find her.


Brazil has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, ranking seventh, with a woman murdered every two hours, according to the Latin American Social Sciences Institute (FLACSO).

Between 1980 and 2010, some 92,000 women were killed inside their own homes, many by their partners, statistics show.

Complaints recorded by the hotline added to the number of reported private-prison cases, said Bruna Costa, a lawyer at the Brasilia-based NGO Anis, which researches women’s rights and bioethics.

The government publicized the hotline, which launched in 2014, with television advertisements featuring well-known actresses.

It also teamed up with UN Women Brazil to launch a mobile app to provides information about women’s rights and a speed-dial button to the 24-hour hotline.

“This increase in complaints is because people have become more aware of the crime,” said Aparecida Gonçalves, Brazil’s national secretary for combating violence against women, in a statement.

The perception is growing that “violent situations must be addressed rather than silenced in the home,” Costa said.

“The rise in complaints is related to a higher awareness among women that the situation they are living through is a domestic violence situation,” she said.

Last year, Brazil’s criminal code was changed to give a legal definition to the crime of femicide – the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender.

It set out tougher prison sentences for convicted offenders and also established longer sentences for crimes committed against young girls, older women, pregnant women and girls with disabilities.