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The Hidden Crime

Portugal Turns to Prevention to Take on Its Domestic Violence Problem

After a history of handing out lenient sentences to domestic abusers, the Portuguese government is focusing on prevention and education in a bid to turn things around.

Written by Marina Watson Peláez Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A man casts a shadow on a banner during a demonstration to denounce violence against women in Lisbon. AP/Armando Franca

In Barcelos, northern Portugal, four people, including a pregnant woman and an elderly couple, were stabbed to death in March this year.

Adelino Briote, 62, had previously threatened to take revenge on these people, who had refused to witness in his favor at court proceedings in a domestic violence case involving his daughter and mother-in-law in 2015.

That assault, in which he used an iron rod to beat his daughter and mother-in-law, led him to be convicted to three years and two months in prison, but the sentence was suspended. Briote didn’t go to prison and instead had to commit to a social reinsertion plan. Victims say the fact that he was able to walk free and potentially assault again is a powerful example of how the Portuguese judicial system betrays them and puts public safety at risk.

More than 450 women have been killed through domestic violence over the past 12 years in Portugal. The country registered 22,773 cases of domestic violence in 2016, or 14 per day. A 2014 report by the European Institute for Gender Equality found that 24 percent of women in Portugal have experienced violence in their lifetime.

The Ministry of Justice declined an interview with News Deeply, but statistics show that in 2015 and 2016, more than 5,000 domestic violence aggressors, who had already been proven guilty, were exempt from serving a term of imprisonment. Instead, they faced an injunction that could involve paying a fine to the authorities or to a charitable organization, attending a program or receiving specific treatment.

Domestic violence became a public crime 10 years ago. In Portugal, “public crimes” are those for which prosecution is not dependent on the victim filing a complaint. But Left Bloc party MP Sandra Cunha says women are still being betrayed by the judicial system.

“We have had awareness campaigns and training for several entities, including safety forces, but the real problem and where [the government] has to act is in the judicial system,” Cunha tells Women & Girls.

“If aggressors know that they can go unpunished even though it is a public crime, we won’t be able to eradicate this problem,” she adds.

A study that looked at 43 cases of feminicide between 2010 and 2015 in Lisbon revealed that almost half of the victims had already presented a complaint for domestic violence.

Portugal’s Ministry for Equality told News Deeply that there are currently 39 shelters for victims of domestic violence, which in the first quarter of 2017 accepted 263 women and 293 children. Last year, the country also opened 10 shelters for male victims of domestic violence. Men account for 15 percent of all cases reported, according to the country’s latest Annual Report of Internal Safety.

“While we have progressive legislation, the way the justice system responds is often too delayed for victims,” says Elisabete Brasil, executive director for violence at Portugal’s Union for Women’s Alternatives and Answers (UMAR). “Something isn’t right when a system has more women in shelters than abusers in prison.”

Between September 2014 and May 2015, only 84 of 665 abusers (8 percent) condemned for domestic violence in Lisbon were sent to prison.

Brasil adds that it shouldn’t be the victims having to pack up their things and leave, and that the country should focus more on repercussions for perpetrators.

Prevention strategies

Recently, the Portuguese parliament proposed that the government focus more on prevention of domestic violence and protection of victims.

The country has in recent years focused on protecting victims through keeping tabs on some offenders. There were at least 500 domestic violence abusers monitored by geolocation, using electronic bracelets, at the end of 2016. Since the program was launched six years ago, no cases of homicides in the context of electronic vigilance were registered, and the prevalence of new assaults was also reduced.

More than 900 victims also have access to teleassistance, which provides 24-hour access to support. According to Portugal’s Annual Report for Internal Safety, since the program was launched in 2008 until 2016, 480 cases of domestic violence were registered through this system, or 5 percent of total complaints.

One of the government’s main goals is having reception rooms for victims of domestic violence in all police stations across the country to ensure privacy for victims. While 63 percent of police stations had special reception rooms for victims of domestic violence in 2016, there are still around 270 stations around the country without adequate services for victims of domestic violence.

This year, the government also introduced an app for domestic violence victims. The Portuguese Association for Support to Victims (APAV) receives around 49 complaints per day via this app and hopes it will make it easier for victims to get information and call for support.

UMAR says the key to eradicating this crime will lie in changing young people’s attitudes to violence. Surprisingly, a study UMAR carried out with 5,000 people aged around 15 found that one in five found physical, psychological or sexual violence in relationships acceptable.

The country is now working on a program related to domestic violence and gender equality to include in the national curriculum, as way to combat patriarchy and prevent the creation of a new generation of victims.

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