For the past week, Brazilians have been closely following the unravelling of a major case of sexual abuse that has been happening for years. The perpetrator is João de Deus, a medium who has been providing spiritual treatment – and allegedly sexually abusing his clients – at a centre in the small town of Abadiânia, located 120km from the country’s capital, Brasília.
After 10 women broke the silence during a television show broadcast on 8 December, hundreds more have come forward to say that they were also victims of the medium. Prosecution authorities have published an appeal for any women affected to come forward and, at the time of writing, 335 from six different countries have answered the appeal.
It is worth noting that the name João de Deus is a nickname: João is his first name and “de Deus” means “of God”. His spiritual treatments have made him an international celebrity. He has not only treated many famous Brazilian artists, athletes and politicians, but also a number of internationally acclaimed personalities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine.
His victims, which include young girls, tell a similar story: the predator would lure them to his private office by saying that they needed special treatment (rather than the collective “surgeries” done in the centre). There abuse was embedded in the rituals, confusing his victims and making it look like it was part of the process. It is worth saying that the 76-year-old had been accused of other crimes before, including murder and smuggling, and has been acquitted of child abuse.
It is hard to think that 335 women with one experience in common could ever be doubted. And yet this is exactly what is happening. João de Deus claims he is innocent (he has been arrested, after turning himself into the police, saying: “I am giving myself over to the divine justice and the earthly justice”) and on social media many people came to his defence, posing the question that is unfortunately so well known among feminist activists: “Well, why didn’t they say anything?”
The #MeToo story has gripped Brazil with its horrific disregard for women’s rights, but it’s not the only one to do so. This week, the recently appointed minister for women, families and human rights, Damares Alves – who will start her mandate on 1 January alongside the newly elected far-right president Jair Bolsonaro – has declared she supports the “rape allowance”.
It pains me to even write this, but essentially the “rape allowance” – as it has been coined – is a benefit for women who are raped and decide not to terminate the pregnancy. Basically, this is a monthly payment of R$85 (about £20) until the child turns 18, to be paid by the rapist (and when the rapist is not known, by the government). However, as bad as it sounds, this is just a part of a much bigger issue: rape is one of the three occasions when abortion is not a crime in Brazil. And Alves, who is also a religious leader, is a fierce and outspoken anti-abortion campaigner, even in the case of rape.
It is tragically ironic that the minister for women, families and human rights doesn’t really care about women’s rights. The rape allowance completely ignores the trauma that comes with such violence, treating women in a true Gilead manner: as walking wombs with no rights over their own bodies. In a country where a rape happens every 11 minutes and 37% of the population believes that women who are not “well behaved” should be blamed if they are raped, a proposal such as the rape allowance completely misses the point of combating gender-based violence and oppression.
As Laura Bates says when she talks about systemic sexism, it is time we join the dots. If 335 victims of male violence are scarcely believed, how will a survivor be able to prove she has been raped to receive a “benefit”? Will a deeply conservative and religious country take a woman’s word against the perpetrator’s?
When I browse through my previous articles on Brazil’s women’s rights for The Pool – reporting on the ingrained misogyny during president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the possibility of losing our scarce abortion rights and the assassination of Marielle Franco – it is hard not to read them as a Margaret Atwood book plot. A very real dystopia happening as I, once again, write about the absurdities of my motherland. I fear what I’ll be writing about next.