Domestic violence is hardly a new topic in the global history of gender relations. Scholars and counselors have long been familiar with responses to domestic violence, ranging from emergency hotlines and family counseling to restraining orders placed on abusive spouses or partners. However, the manner in which domestic violence is addressed must reflect the fact that it exists in different forms and cultural contexts across national boundaries.

This provocative newspaper article reflects both Canadian and Brazilian culture simultaneously, introducing terms and categories used by the Canadian press to report on Brazilian news. Referring to machismo in the context of abused husbands, the article evokes stereotypes of Latin American masculinity that add a misleading tone to the report.

This article provides a perspective on the relations between domestic partners, and it suggests that domestic violence, as an exercise of power, has changed over time. Does the nature of domestic violence, now publicly accompanied by violence against men who dare to seek help, indicate a transformation of gender relations?

Source: “Brazilian machismo gives way to husband beating: Soaring numbers of men seek help at abuse shelters in Rio.” National Post, July 28, 2003.


RIO DE JANEIRO - When security officials here embarked on an ambitious project to set up special services for the thousands of women abused by their husbands and boyfriends several years ago, they never imagined that a substantial portion of those seeking their services one day would actually be men.

But machismo, it seems, may be dying a slow and painful death in this society traditionally dominated by men. In the past two years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of men seeking help at shelters and special police stations, usually reserved for battered women. At one shelter in the working-class Rio suburb of Sao Goncalo, cases of men seeking help over abuse has more than doubled from 108 to 259 cases in the last year, social workers say.

And it is not just men from poor families, where a great deal of domestic abuse still happens. More than 100k of the male clientele at the Sao Goncalo shelter are from middle-class households.

Statistics also show that although women are still the biggest sufferers of domestic violence throughout Brazil (in a recent survey in this beach-front city more than 51% of men admitted to using some form of abuse against their partners), the women themselves are more likely to lash out and hit their partners if they are in abusive situations. In many cases, social workers recount that while it is usually the woman who denounces her husband for domestic violence, when police go to arrest the aggressor, they find out that he is just as much a victim as his wife or girlfriend.

“Often, when we start prosecuting the husbands in abuse cases we find out that they are just as abused, if not more so, than their wives,” says Catarina Noble, who heads up a police station that specializes in domestic abuse in downtown Rio. According to Ms. Noble and others, cited in a study by media giant O Globo, in many cases men usually engage in verbal abuse, and women respond with physical violence.

It’s a surprising trend in a country where some judges have been known to uphold the so-called “defence of honour,” an anachronistic piece of jurisprudence that allows men to murder their wives if they are caught in an affair. But for many analysts, the recent violence against men symbolizes a loss of their dominance.

As Brazil, a country of 175 million people, faces difficult economic times, with increased joblessness and rising prices, domestic abuse is going up exponentially, experts say. At the same time, there are increased opportunities for impoverished women -- traditionally the biggest victims of domestic abuse -- with more government-sponsored training and educational programs targeted at them.

“Women are getting stronger in Brazil,” says analyst Alice Bittencourt. “They have to deal with tougher situations. Many times, the husband is unemployed.”

“When he gets home drunk, for example, she has an attack and hits him. That’s typical.”

In one case, Fatima, 32, was abused by her boyfriend and decided to fight back. She is an expert in Thai martial arts, and inflicted some serious damage on her boyfriend, social workers say.

“He arrived home drunk and he attacked me,” said Fatima, who would not reveal her last name. “I fought back, and hurt him a lot, and I told him it was the first and last time he would ever hurt me. After that we separated.” She said she did not seek out the police because her boyfriend was a police officer.

Abused men are very similar to abused women, experts say. They arrive at shelters or special police stations here with low self-esteem and are afraid their wives or girlfriends will discover that they have sought help. At one shelter, a social worker recounted the story of a prominent union leader who was being physically abused by his wife.

At the women’s shelter in Sao Goncala, officials reported the experience of a 50-year-old businessman they call “X.” He came to see social workers complaining his wife was verbally abusing him, and throwing things at him. “He was completely in love with his wife, who was having an extramarital affair,” said the co-ordinator of shelter, Mariza Gaspary. “The curious thing was that after they separated, the wife hooked up with a new boyfriend who started to abuse her physically.”

LOAD-DATE: July 28, 2003