The attacks have stunned this city. In one, an assailant held a gun to the head of a 30-year-old woman while raping her in front of passengers on a bus as the driver proceeded down a main avenue. In another, a 14-year-old girl from a hillside slum was raped on one of Rio’s most famous stretches of beach.
In yet another case, men abducted and raped a working-class woman in a transit van as it wended through densely populated areas. The police failed to investigate, and a week later the same men raped a 21-year-old American student in the same van, pummeling her face and beating her male companion with a metal bar.
“Unfortunately, it had to happen to her before anyone would help me,” said the Brazilian woman raped in the transit van. “I was like, ‘Could this have been avoided if they had paid attention to my case?’ ”
A recent wave of rapes in Rio — some captured on video cameras — have cast a spotlight on the unresolved contradictions of a nation that is coming of age as a world power. Brazil has a woman as president, a woman as a powerful police commander and a woman as the head of its national oil company — and yet, it was not until an American was raped that the authorities got fully involved and arrested suspects in the case.
In some ways, Brazil’s experience echoes recent events in India and Egypt, where horrific attacks have prompted outrage and soul searching, revealing deep fissures in each society. In Brazil, it has unleashed a debate about whether the authorities are more concerned about defending the privileged and Rio’s international image than about protecting women at large.
The public discussion about the string of sexual assaults in Rio was relatively muted before the American student was attacked in late March after boarding a transit van in Copacabana, a beachfront district frequented by tourists. The reason, some experts argue, was that the earlier victims were largely poor or working class, reflecting one of Brazil’s enduring struggles: extreme class divisions in society.
Rio’s public security officials acknowledge that they have faced a sharp increase in the number of reported rape cases, which surged 24% last year to 1,972 in the city. But they argue that the increase has taken place nationally, reflecting a change in legislation in 2009 to broaden the definition of rape to include oral and anal penetration, as well as efforts to make it easier for women to file rape complaints.