Political science majors in Brazil research domestic violence

February  27, 2013

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Rachel Lenke ’12 (back row, second from the left); Ellen Lose ’12 (front) and Dr. Mariano Magalhães with women from a focus group in Estrutural, Brasília, Brazil.


It’s the type of work usually done in graduate school. Augustana’s Ellen Lose ’13 and Rachel Lenke ’13 lived in Brasília for three weeks last summer researching Brazil’s culture of domestic violence and gender inequality and the effect of the Maria da Penha Law, which the Brazilian Congress passed in 2006 to provide greater protection to women.

Dr. Mariano Magalhães, who mentored and accompanied Lose and Lenke in Brasília, says opportunities for field research for undergraduates studying political science are rare. It was Augustana’s Freistat Center grant for onsite undergraduate research that funded these two political science majors’ research in Brazil for their Senior Inquiry projects. They are the first to take advantage of this new grant opportunity for students.

“It was the best experience I could have asked for,” Lenke said shortly after her return to campus. “It was so much more than I expected.”

With Dr. Magalhães’ help as a translator, Lose and Lenke met with dozens of Brazilians, from abused women living in impoverished areas around Brasília to scholars, judges, deputies, senators and leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Twenty intensive one-hour interviews, two focus group meetings and several public trials of cases of domestic violence provided a variety of data, and the students heard firsthand the diverse opinions regarding domestic violence and the Maria da Penha Law.

The Maria da Penha Law established special courts and stricter sentences for offenders, as well as prevention measures and women’s shelters. The name of the law is a tribute to Maria da Penha, who became a paraplegic after her husband twice attempted to murder her. He remained free for almost two decades before being convicted. Today, da Penha is a leader in the movement for women’s rights in Brazil.

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Although the law passed several years ago, change has come slowly in a culture where the women’s movement is in its infancy. A common punishment for abusers was revoked just last year. Traditionally, a man found guilty of domestic violence would be ordered by a judge to buy and deliver a basket of food to the victim as a punishment (a monthly benefit usually provided to poor families by the government). As Dr. Magalhães points out, that penalty brought the abuser back into the home, into contact with the victim once again. Plus, it was more like a “slap on the wrist,” rather than a serious deterrent.

“One of the biggest problems is the disconnect between the government and what the Maria da Penha Law was set up to do,” Lenke added. “Some women still don’t have access to shelters and programs. Some progress has been made, but so much more needs to be done.”

Lose felt that the women who were interviewed by herself and Lenke were eager to feel heard. “Throughout their daily lives, they are often neglected or dismissed, and I think and hope that they feel empowered by Rachel’s and my desire to hear their stories. I believe that in a way our desire to hear their stories validated their experiences as important and true.”

From her experience, Lose is combining her political science and sociology Senior Inquiry projects. She will apply the theories of female underreporting of domestic abuse developed by scholars in the U.S. and Europe to the case of Brazil, using, in part, surveys conducted by the Brazilian Federal Senate and from the two focus groups of poor women. The goal of the project is to understand why women underreport their victimization in order to offer ways that will more accurately measure domestic violence in Brazil.

If Lose had to decide today, sociological survey research would be her field of interest. In the long run, finding a career that allows her to both travel and help people is on her agenda.

Lenke will focus on NGOs for her Senior Inquiry — how they work and what it takes to be successful. One that she will examine is CFEMEA, or the Feminist Center for Studies and Advisory Services, an autonomous women’s rights NGO that works to defend and promote women’s rights and democracy, particularly by monitoring and critically assessing Brazilian legislation and public policies.

After she graduates from Augustana in May, Lenke wants to earn a Ph.D. and teach comparative politics. That was the course she took from Dr. Magalhães, in her first year on campus, that inspired her to major in political science and ultimately led her to Brazil.

Both Lenke and Lose hope to return to Brazil some day to continue their research of domestic violence and reunite with new friends.