Friday, 16 Nov 2018
World

Deep in the Amazon, fighting the culture of sexual abuse

For years, Brazilian authorities have been fighting against sexual abuse of girls by organizing education campaigns, special telephone lines and stricter laws. But in the heart of the Amazon, they face an unusual enemy: a pink dolphin mystic.

The Amazonian folklore has long warned the pubescent girls of the dolphin, who, according to legend, seduced and pregnant, to leave the next day.

When 33-year-old Marili Pinheiros bathed in the river with her daughters with her daughter, she would search the muddy waters for any sign of an elegant pink creature taking in the air. "I was afraid it would permeate them," she said. But when her 9-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted, it's her 51-year-old neighbor, not the dolphin, who is to blame, she said.

"I have never doubted it," said Pinheiros, adding that she had found out that the neighbor was giving money and food to her little girl in exchange for trial and error sessions.

According to the Ministry of Health, sexual abuse is the second most common offense against children in Brazil, after being neglected. The government has made progress in recent years to stop the phenomenon. Reports of sexual abuse increased by 83 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to government figures, reflecting increased awareness.

But the authorities say the toughest battle is about deeply rooted cultural norms that mask and excuse abuses committed for generations. Many residents believe that sex between older men and underage girls is acceptable. Over the years, the pink dolphin myth of the river has been used to explain unwanted pregnancies, often resulting from such relationships. It has become so widespread that some believe it without reservation.

In the Amazon jungle, where families suffer from chronic poverty and low levels of education, a vast network of rivers isolates communities from authorities trying to dissuade children from exploiting their farms. A 2010 government survey has designated the state of Pará, in the Amazon region, as the most critical area of ​​the country's fight against sexual abuse because of the high number of cases in that country.

In order to curb sexual violence, the state government of Pará has established centers for victims, including police stations, medical clinics, social worker offices and psychological trauma centers in the same building. Since their inception in 2004, the centers have helped more than 17,000 victims of sexual abuse, helping them to prosecute abusers, offering free abortions and treating sexually transmitted diseases.

But the struggle to change the culture surrounding sexual abuse has sometimes put the government at odds with the inhabitants of an area with a complex relationship with girls and their sexuality.

The nephews and niece of Pinheiros look out the window next to her house.

Pinheiros is holding his baby. The mother says that one of her older children was sexually assaulted by a 51-year-old neighbor.

The shoes of Pinheiros girls.

TOP: Pinheiros' nephews and niece look out the window next to her house. LEFT: Pinheiros is holding his baby. The mother says that one of her older children was sexually assaulted by a 51-year-old neighbor. RIGHT: The shoes of Pinheiros girls.

"We are fighting a legend"

The pink dolphin is a true creature, common in the basins of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. The inhabitants have long believed that the animal had special powers. The figure that appears in the fairy tales is a simplistic version of the dolphin. Typically represented in a straw fedora, it is said that the creature turns into a beautiful musician who attends parties in search of girls to seduce.

In an area where economic opportunities are limited, where a breadwinner often supports an entire family, entire communities sometimes adhere to the myth of the dolphin to protect abusers, according to experts who try to discourage sexual abuse in communities.

"We are fighting a legend," said Pablo Cardoso, 45, a psychologist who has treated child victims of abuse in the Amazon basin. "People blame the dolphin for trying to protect the perpetrators. People will protect it, especially when the abuser is the provider. Cardoso, who often works with local police and social workers, has been threatened with death by abusers and family members trying to preserve their only source of income.

A popular government cash transfer program known as Bolsa Familia, which has helped more than 30 million Brazilians escape extreme poverty since 2003, has allowed these Amazonian districts to enter the country. regular contact with the government. But as these communities slowly integrate into Brazilian society, many oppose the government's definitions of consent and abuse.

The wooden boat attached to the back of this freighter in a tributary of the Amazon belongs to two women who said they were selling berries to the men on board. In the poor area, local women and girls often board vessels to exchange goods and sometimes sex for food, fuel and money.

Police investigators Deuszimare Oliveira Costas, left, and Fabio Machado work along the Parauau River, a tributary of the Amazon basin.

Vanessa Macedo, police chief at Breves, is at the forefront of the fight against widespread sexual abuse. "We are dealing with a victim who does not see himself as a victim," she said, "to families who see it as a source of income and an abuser who is constantly in transit."

TOP: The wooden boat attached to the rear of this freighter in a tributary of the Amazon belongs to two women who said that they were selling berries to men on board. In the poor area, local women and girls often board vessels to exchange goods and sometimes sex for food, fuel and money. LEFT: Police investigators Deuszimare Oliveira Costas, left, and Fabio Machado work along the Parauau River, a tributary of the Amazon basin. RIGHT: Vanessa Macedo, Chief of Police at Breves, is at the forefront of the fight against widespread sexual abuse. "We are dealing with a victim who does not see himself as a victim," she said, "to families who see it as a source of income and an abuser who is constantly in transit."

A battle against cultural norms

With limited access to secondary education, girls from river delta communities have few options. Early sexual experiences and child marriage are widespread.

In the quiet town of Breves, three-story boats and hammocks line the harbor. Mothers who cradle their sleeping babies travel up to 12 hours away from communities on stilt houses on the banks of the river to vaccinate their children and obtain government benefits.

Sandra Lopes, 39, rocked a newborn baby on her chest, the youngest of her nine children. Last year, when a 32-year-old man from the area asked to marry his 16-year-old daughter, she saw an opportunity there.

"She did not have what she needed. I could not afford to buy him nice clothes and shoes. She is better with him than with me, "she said. "It's one less expense for me."

Many communities rely on huge ferries that carry dozens of trucks along the river for food and money. Local women and girls, some of whom are not yet teenagers, will board wooden canoes to get to the ferries and exchange shrimp, berries and sometimes sex for biscuits, gasoline and money.

Since Breves, the police have tried to suppress child prostitution by patrolling rivers and inspecting bins twice a week. But this practice has become increasingly difficult to apprehend as ship captains and residents have the intelligence to hide it.

Sandra Lopes suckles her baby on a ferry moored at Breves. She traveled nearly 12 hours to vaccinate the child and receive social assistance benefits.

During a recent inspection by a police boat, the engine roared and scared the villagers approaching a ship. Several children who boarded the ferry turned around, while two local women aboard the ship hid in the cabins while the police were on board. They were selling berries, they told a reporter.

"It's a silent crime," said Vanessa Macedo, 31, the local police chief, referring to prostitution. "We are dealing with a victim who does not see himself as a victim, with families who see it as a source of income and with an aggressor who is constantly in transit."

In the district of Breves, the conviction rate for sexual assault of minors increased by 60% between 2012 and 2016, partly thanks to a stricter law that makes relations with minors under the age of 14 illegal. local authorities.

Many people here are now trying to turn the story of the dolphin, the staple food in Brazilian fairy tale books, into a conduit for a national discussion of sexual abuse. Teachers include the legend in their lesson plans on identifying and reporting sexual abuse, while a group of Amazon women named Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again, uses the story to engage in frank discussions about violence and women's oppression.

Despite these efforts, some residents oppose what they consider to be excessive government interference in the current situation.

When the police burst into Janette Bahia dos Santos's house in search of her teenage daughter Leticia, the mother was furious. Leticia, 13, was dating a 28-year-old family friend. Their relationship violated the law, which provides penalties of up to 15 years for men who have sex with children under 14 years of age.

"It's not a crime, it's a private matter," said dos Santos, who gave birth to Leticia at the age of 16 to a man twice as old. "Here at Breves, it's normal."

This story was funded by a grant from the International Women's Media Foundation.

Traditional houses like this one belong to the "ribeirinhos", or people of the rivers, and dot the banks of tributaries of the Amazon basin.

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