This is a story about a group of grassroots women leaders from an informal community of 9,000 families called Ponte do Maduro, in the heart of Recife in the northeast region of Brazil. The life experience of these women demonstrates how strong they are, and at the same time is so evident of a complete lack of justice in our society, in which so many institutions proactively oppress the majority in the interests of a few. We as a society accept this without indignation.
What is violence? How many faces and dimensions can violence take when we open our eyes to the roots, the forms, the consequences? Is it just physical or moral abuse? What about the symbolic violence, acts that restrain women's rights, that make them believe that the institutions that protect their rights are exactly the ones that oppress them? How can we ask a person to respect their families, their neighbours, given the examples set by these institutions? Institutional violence and the absolute lack of access to justice for marginalised women in poor communities is an open door to the naturalisation of violence.
What these women have experienced and witnessed shows that without a deeper process of transformation, a single programme or public policy is incapable of changing the perverse relationship between common citizens and institutions, such as the police.
This was one of the lessons we at Espaço Feminista learned during our workshops on urban and domestic violence. What these women have experienced and witnessed shows that without a deeper process of transformation, a single programme or public policy is incapable of changing the perverse relationship between common citizens and institutions, such as the police.
Listening to "Maria"'s experience of violence (names have been changed to protect the families' identities), we see how she was silenced and could not express her indignation or stand up against those who violated her physically, morally and symbolically. Maria is a 52-year-old black woman who has lived in Ponte do Maduro her entire life. She lives with her son and another woman, "Severina", who shares the house with her. She, like the majority of her community, has no formal employment. Her life is divided between a small informal business buying and selling beverages and her permanent work as a community leader, which she has exercised through a neighbourhood association for the past 12 years.
Five years ago, Maria was sitting outside her house with her son, talking and relaxing after lunch, when a 16-year-old boy rushed inside her house, bleeding. The boy dropped a gun he was concealing and then ran to a neighbour's house in which he hid. Immediately an entire patrol unit of police arrived and, without permission or any legal order, broke inside Maria's house searching for the "criminal". Despite the fact that the boy was no longer there, they entered her house, brutally beating her, her son, and Severina. Then they found the boy, still bleeding, in the neighbour's house and shot him. They started beating the two ladies and Maria's son in an attempt to find the gun.
After a while, and pressured by a group of people shouting and crying outside Maria's house, begging the police to stop the violence against innocent people, the police cuffed Severina, threw her inside the police car and took her away. She had five convulsions and was finally taken to a public hospital and abandoned there. She still suffers from psychotic attacks and is no longer able to work and live a normal life.
Disturbingly, the police in question were policia amiga — "friendly police" — part of a wider Pernambuco state government programme named Pacto pela vida ("Pact for life") intended to decrease the level of violence by increasing police ties with the community.
Transforming experience into action
What makes this case different from hundreds of other cases? Maria is aware of what happened to her, she knows her rights and dignity were violated and above all she knows how to deconstruct the idea that she is a second-class citizen. She understands that she has a role inside her community: to fight against all forms of violence, knowing what happened to her. As she says:
"If there is a decrease in the violence rate inside our community it is because of us community leaders. It is our capacity to talk to all residents as equals, independent of who they are — drug dealers, young criminals, etc. It is not due to the police and their inhumaneness and the way they see us and approach us — all being treated as criminals just because we are poor."
Now I understand how much we need to keep changing ourselves, to change the way public policies are designed and implemented in our communities. We want to change not just ourselves ... we want to change policymakers and the way they make policies ...
She adds: "Now I understand how much we need to keep changing ourselves, to change the way public policies are designed and implemented in our communities. We are citizens and need to be respected and heard. We want to change not just ourselves, as marginalised and excluded groups, as the majority of our society. We want to change policymakers and the way they make policies: nothing for us without us."
We learn by teaching
During the past five years we at Espaço Feminista have witnessed a profound change in the process of grassroots women's empowerment in Recife. We have learned the real meaning of women's empowerment, not merely as a concept but as praxis. We experienced such a range of political and technical educational methods and learned so much by doing so that we now totally understand what Paulo Freire (and Seneca before him) meant when he said: we learn by teaching.
For organisers such as ourselves, what women such as Maria and Severina have experienced teaches us so much about our society and our institutions, and causes us to reflect on what deeper transformations we must achieve to eliminate such violence against our common humanity.