December 4, 2012 | Violence Against Women

Her Tragedy Saved Countless Women’s Lives

Maria Da Penha

Her Tragedy Saved Countless Women’s Lives

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Maria da Penha was sleeping soundly that day in May, 1983, when her husband tried to kill her with a gun blast. He succeeded in gravely wounding her, leaving her a paraplegic for life.  A  biopharmaceutist, Da Penha finally made it out of the hospital; two weeks later her husband tried to electrocute her.

But perhaps the worst outcome of the attacks was that da Penha’s husband remained free for almost two decades while court after court found him not guilty—because domestic violence was not considered a major crime in Brazil. But Maria da Penha would not be stopped. With the backing of international organizations like UNIFEM, she crusaded to get the courts to take domestic violence seriously.

In 2006, the Brazilian government enacted what is known as the Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence. The new law established special courts and stricter sentences for offenders, as well as instituting prevention measures and setting up women’s shelters.

Five years after the Maria da Penha law was enacted, the country has recorded more than 331,000 prosecutions. Almost two million calls have come in to the Service Center for Women.

“Before, domestic violence was considered a crime of low potential offensive,” da Penha has said. Women now “find themselves ‘saved by the law,” but we need more financial resources to implement it in all its power.” Indeed, in 2010, Brazil was still averaging ten domestic murders a day.

Da Penha’s husband, by the way, was finally convicted almost 20 years after his attacks. And Maria herself is the guiding spirit behind the Maria da Penha Institute, dedicated to eradicating violence against women.