The Case of Micaella: Society’s Negligence Surrounding Violence Against Children

By Leticia Serafim, Communications Coordinator, Instituto Promundo

Poster for Brazil's national child abuse hotline.The recent case of Micaella, a four-year-old girl from Rio de Janeiro whose stepmother beat her to death, raises the question: Is Brazilian society failing to address violence against children? Outdated social norms and proverbs like “em briga de marido e mulher, não se mete a colher” (“never take sides in couples’ quarrels”) and “roupa suja se lava em casa” (“don’t wash your dirty laundry in public”), which allude to the idea that family conflict should remain a private matter, can end up legitimizing situations of violence. Without intervention, this violence often recurs and, in extreme cases, ends in tragic outcomes like the case of Micaella.

Discussions about the ways that parents raise their children – and about when outside intervention is acceptable – are made more difficult by the fact that Brazilian society condones and even normalizes certain forms of violence. The use of spanking, other physical punishments, and verbal abuse by parents is accepted as a way to discipline and “teach” children. According to O Dia, the case of Micaella followed this pattern: neighbors reported being aware that the girl was often beaten and abused by her stepmother. At school, teachers perceived injuries and behaviors that indicated abuse. No one thought that they should intervene.

According to O Globo, the son of Micaella’s stepmother said he contacted the municipal Guardianship Council (i.e. child protective services) about the abuse his stepsister suffered, but that no measures were taken to intervene. The Guardianship Council, however, denies having ever been contacted.

Micaella’s father’s disregard for – and even cooperation in – the frequent abuse that his daughter suffered also draws attention to this case. Statements by the son of Micaella’s stepmother demonstrate that Micaella’s father seemed to be unprepared to care for his daughter, needing to delegate this role to a woman: “When we called Felipe, Micaella’s father, to tell him that my mother was beating her […], he was indifferent. He said he would make his own decision [about the situation]. He refused to let Micaella’s aunt take care of her instead.” Implicit in the stepmother’s son’s statements are the rigid norms of masculinity that keep men from taking on caregiving roles – even for their sons and daughters – and help to produce this kind of behavior.

Brazil’s “Child and Adolescent Statute” (“Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente”), passed in 1990, guarantees the right of children and adolescents to security and to lives free from violence. In 2014, the passage of the “Menino Bernardo” Law (named for Bernardo Boldrini, an 11-year-old killed by his stepmother) was another major victory for children’s rights. The law prohibits the use of corporal punishment and the use of cruel or degrading treatment in child and adolescent education, not only by parents, but also by family members, guardians, teachers, and any person responsible for caring for, treating, educating, or protecting children and adolescents.

At the time of voting to approve the “Menino Bernardo” Law, the measure was opposed by strong sectors of society who resisted state intervention in family life. Their arguments are the same ones that have prevented intervention in cases like Micaella’s and Bernardo’s.

Despite legal advances, 2015 data from Rio de Janeiro’s Public Security Institute (Instituto de Segurança Pública, or ISP) show that violence against children continues to increase. The total number of child victims of violence under age 18 increased from 33,599 in 2010 to 49,276 in 2014 – an increase of 46.7 percent. The data also reveal that most violence against children occurs in the home. In 56.1 percent of cases, violence is perpetrated by the adults who spend the most time with the child (e.g., father, mother, grandmother, caregiver, babysitter, neighbor, etc.).

Research has shown that using physical punishment to discipline children is associated with increased levels of child aggression, in addition to not being more effective in stimulating obedience when compared to other methods. Physical punishment during childhood is associated with behavioral problems in adulthood, including depression, sadness, anxiety, use of drugs and alcohol, and antisocial behavior. IMAGES research has also shown that boys who experience or witness violence as children are more likely to perpetrate violence themselves as adults; in other words, violence against children perpetuates an intergenerational cycle of violence.

Promundo, as a founding member of the “Don’t Hit, Educate!” (“Não Bata, Eduque!”) campaign, has been working to end the corporal and humiliating punishment of children and adolescents for the past 15 years. Promundo’s programs recognize children as rights holders and as participants in their own educational process. Recognizing that children and adolescents have fundamental rights and deserve to be respected and supported is integral to transforming the culture of violence that ignores the children’s autonomy and participation in their own upbringing.

To prevent violence against children, it is also necessary for society to dispense with the idea that child protection is exclusively a parent’s responsibility. Neighbors, relatives, teachers, and children’s rights professionals should all be alert to cases of child abuse and neglect. One important reporting device is Disque 100, a free and anonymous hotline to report child rights violations, including neglect, violence, and exploitation.

It does not stop at reporting, however. Deeper societal changes must be promoted. The “Menino Bernardo” Law is a crucial start to this process, but there is also a need to invest in policies and programs that are able to change a culture that legitimizes education based on spanking, verbal abuse, and physical punishment. Teaching about the importance of nonviolent caregiving, positive discipline and parenting, and men’s involvement in care work are promising approaches to shifting mindsets and behaviors. Only when we are able to change the deeply rooted norms related to gender and violence will we have a safe society for children and equality for men and women.

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