By Pilar Olivares
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - During the early months of Brazil's COVID-19 pandemic, Rio de Janeiro police detective Fernanda Fernandes was certain that cases of domestic abuse were rising, but there was little she could do about it as few women came forward to file a report.
"Women (were) unable to escape their abusers while stuck at home," said Fernandes, who runs the Specialized Delegation for Support of Women (DEAM) in Rio's sprawling Duque de Caxias suburb. The number of complaints has, however, risen as the outbreak has ebbed, and more women have left their homes to lodge complaints with police, she said.
Around the world, police and prosecutors, victim support teams and women's movements, as well as the United Nations, have reported rising domestic violence during coronavirus-related lockdowns. The pandemic in Brazil has left many couples jobless, adding to domestic tensions, Fernandes said.
The economy slumped 4.1% last year and Brazil's recovery is likely to remain tepid as the country grapples with a brutal fresh wave of infections.
Brazil recorded 649 femicides during the first half of 2020, according to figures from the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, up 2% from the same period in 2019. But other crimes against women such as assault and rape, which usually require victims to file a police report, fell during that period, the Forum noted.
"The decrease in the registration of some crimes in this period is more a reflection of the difficulties and obstacles women encountered during the pandemic to report abuse, than a sign of a reduction in cases," it said in its latest October report.
Fabiana Antunes, a shopkeeper, said that she finally gathered the courage to go to police in May after the latest attack by her abusive former partner, an illustrator whom she met five years ago.
A year into their relationship, he began to drink more, forbade her from seeing friends, and became violent, she said. She left him two years later, but they were still living under the same roof at the onset of the pandemic, when his mood soured.
"The pandemic - the fact of being stuck at home - made everything worse," she said.
In May, he struck her in the stomach during a fight, Antunes said, and she contacted the police. A judge issued a restraining order against Antunes' ex-partner, who moved out, according to Fernandes and court documents.
Yet Antunes still worries. Her ex-partner drew sketches which she showed to Reuters - of a woman who looks like her murdered by a man wielding a cleaver.
Aldefran Melo da Silva, her ex-partner, said Antunes had previously been proud to feature in his artistic work. He confirmed the restraining order had been issued but denied wrongdoing.
"We had normal marital discussions, but without any physical or verbal aggression," he said. "I never hit her."
Fernandes - whose team in Duque de Caixas handled 4,121 cases of domestic violence in 2019, the most of any DEAM team in Rio state - has held Facebook Live sessions to brief the local community on the need to report signs of domestic abuse.
Part of the challenge, she said, is convincing some women abuse is unacceptable. Others fail to grasp the danger of their situation as they do not believe their partners are capable of killing them.
Taylaine Alves, a 19-year-old mother of two, was severely burned in a 2019 attack and later died in hospital from her injuries. Alves' boyfriend was charged and is in prison awaiting trial. His lawyer from the public defender's office declined to comment.
"We mothers never forget," said Jozilene Pereira Alves. "Life goes on, but a piece of me is dead."
Brazil introduced tough penalties for domestic abuse in 2006 with the Maria Da Penha law – named after a woman left paraplegic after being shot by her husband in her sleep.
However, it was not until 2015 that Brazil officially recognized femicide as a crime – years after most other countries in the region, including Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.
Paulo Cesar da Conceicao, who runs a rehabilitation center for men involved in domestic violence, called CR Homem, said most abusers struggle to accept their responsibility, blaming their victims for provoking them.
Conceicao said that, in group sessions, his team guide conversations to help men to see their own responsibility for domestic abuse.
"The men arrive in the group very closed and resistant, and we try to break that down," he said.
Daniela Gasparin, 38, says she lives in fear of her former partner, who was jailed after attacking her with a knife on a bus in the city of Boituva, in Sao Paulo state. Her ex-boyfriend was arrested and convicted in the case.
"Even if he is in jail, I'm still scared he will get out and come after me," said Gasparin. "This is a love I cannot understand. How can a person love and also try to kill?"
(Reporting by Pilar Olivares; Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien)