Girls beyond Ipanema

Violence against women in Brazilian universities

Deborah Vieira

Translated from the Portuguese by Melanie Joy Hänni

Garota de Ipanema’ (‘The girl from Ipanema’) is one of the most played songs in the world. It represents the Brazilian stereotype: beaches, sun, and bikinis. What most people do not know is that the girl from Ipanema, Helô Pinheiro, the muse of the song, was only sixteen or seventeen years old when Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes wrote the song at the ages of thirty-five and forty-nine, respectively. In an interview with the Portuguese website Sábado[1], Helô Pinheiro says she only knew them “as a couple of men who were playful every time I walked by, coming back from school, frequently in my uniform”. Helô doesn’t seem to have presented this as something negative, but for women who have suffered the horrors of harassment, usually at an earlier age than for Helô, this song can take on a new meaning. A campaign promoted in Brazil by Think Olga in 2015 gathered accounts of women’s first experiences of harassment shared in 82,000 tweets. Once analysed, the average age of first harassment was 9.7 years old, and one of the most frequent words in the accounts was ‘school’.[2]

In Brazil, sexual harassment follows women from childhood into adulthood, and this includes the time they spend at university. A survey from Instituto Avon and Data Popular shows that 49 percent of women in a Brazilian university setting have suffered from intellectual disqualification due to gender bias, 67 percent claim they were subject to violence at university or related environments, 56 percent of female students have suffered harassment at university, 36 percent decided not to take part in academic activities due to fear of harassment or violence, 25 percent of female university students were insulted or attacked for rejecting men’s advances within the university setting or in academic parties, and lastly, 63 percent did not react to these acts of harassment or violence.

We don’t react because we feel insecure. The vast majority of universities try to cover up such cases. The chances of the accused being granted impunity are directly correlated to the wealth of the aggressor or the prestige of the university or course. One of the most iconic cases in Brazil happened in 2014 when a committee was established to investigate rape reports in the universities in São Paulo. Of the ten formal reports, six were related to the University of São Paulo’s (USP) Medical School, and of the students involved, only one was suspended from academic activities — and not imprisoned, despite being accused of rape, which is a crime according to the Brazilian penal code. The suspension lasted a year, ending in September 2016. The alleged perpetrator has since graduated with a medical degree, and in April 2017 he obtained a license to practice medicine granted by the Regional Medical Licensing Council of the State of Pernambuco.[3]

Women are used to seeing that when they report a crime, they are the ones who are considered crazy or evil women who want to end the lives and careers of their aggressors. The woman is the real culprit because she was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, wearing the wrong outfit. Everything is wrong, except for the attacker. A poll by Data Folha found that a third of Brazilians blame the woman for being raped.[4] Jornal GGM published an article reporting that one of the female students who reported a rape connected to USP’s Medical School was being bullied and threatened over social media: “USP’s Medical School scum should be eradicated from humanity… trash… these dirty prostitutes should disappear and go study something more relatable to their mentality and essence”.[5] There are 3.5 times more rape reports than arrests. It is common for public bodies and universities to not act on these reports since they fear blemishes to their reputation, especially in the case of private universities. There is also concern that the police will not take action or that doing something about it may even be more detrimental to the victim.

On the other hand, the number of feminist collectives and women’s support groups has grown, both in and out of Brazilian universities. An example is the Coletivo Feminista Geni (Geni Feminist Collective) which is responsible for bringing attention to the rape cases involving USP’s Medical School. Many of these collectives are being mapped by project MAMU (Mapa de Coletivos de Mulheres, or the Women’s Collectives Map) and, despite not having institutional power, they seek to denounce and support women regarding this issue.[6] A survey by Jornal do Campus da USP (USP’s Campus Newspaper) found that of the seventy-seven female university students interviewed, forty said they wouldn’t know who to turn to in case of harassment or assault, and twelve said they would take the case to feminist collectives or share it with their friends.[7]

Being a Christian in times of violence against women in universities

The Christian response to violence against women in and out of universities is frequently discredited. Many evangelical Christians who defend women’s rights in Brazil are met with resistance from non-Christians because of a negative view of evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians are stereotyped as uneducated people whose leaders and pastors finance corrupt politicians and extort believers by promising blessings in exchange for money. To a wider audience and often in the university environment, the mention of evangelical churches is associated with the prosecution of homosexuals and Afro-Brazilian religions, money laundering, proselytizing, and corrupt political projects which many times are detrimental to women. The evangelical church isn’t known as a church that shows the love of Christ with strength and candour or a church which defends and fights for the oppressed, as exemplified by pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., and the defence of civil rights for African Americans in the United States.

Sadly, people are not completely wrong to think this way. In fact, this has generally been where the Brazilian evangelical church has stood. When mentioning the need to act with regards to violence against women it is not uncommon to hear things such as these:

  • “You are not a Christian. This is creating dissention and factions (Galatians 5:20). You want to be superior to men! You prefer ideologies to the Gospel. The right thing to do is to preach the Gospel, and anything beyond that is taking on the issues of the world and distracting us from Christ’s commandment which is only to preach the Gospel (Matthew 28:19–20)”.
  • “Women must be submissive to all men. This isn’t sexism, it is God’s will”.
  • “The man is the head, the brain, not the woman. This means women don’t have the same rationality, and therefore it is correct for them to be subjugated by men”.
  • “Genesis 1:26 says that man is made in God’s image and likeness, and not woman, and so it is correct to say that men and women are not equal in dignity”.
  • “If a woman was abused or harassed it is because she, like Eve, tempted the man, she was the stone causing man to stumble”.

All this is at the root of violence against women, as it twists their value and supports violent practices, in addition to preventing victims from being cared for and allowing aggressors to go unpunished. What we see is that it is more important to protect the reputation of an ‘Adam’, who was unjustly tempted, than to take care of the victim.

A Christian woman at university will then discover she is in a crossfire. She is as likely as any other to suffer such evils, however frequently the weight of bad theology that surrounds her stops her from saying anything. Many Christian movements consider that opposing violence against women is a worldly issue, while mistakenly relating the submission to Christ and to others mentioned in the Bible to women’s submission and personal sacrifice to the abuse they suffer. Frequently the victim is blamed and derogatively called ‘Eve’. The mother of human beings is treated as the incarnation of sin and temptation. These people say abuse takes place because the woman is living in sin or without ‘spiritual coverage’, or because she doesn’t pray enough, or she has acted as a stumbling block. The sin of the aggressor is treated as the woman’s sexual sin, as if she had been an active participant and derived pleasure out of being raped or harassed. This consumes the victims and produces self-blame and shame, which, added to the accusations coming from pastors and leaders — the ones who should be by the victims’ side supporting them — ends up convincing them they shouldn’t look for help or report the crime.

Violence against women in universities and the Bible

In Genesis 1:26 we have the creation of the human race (“adamah”, meaning the word “earth”). The most frequently used Bible versions translate it as man, as in a human being of the male biological gender. Some people use this to justify that only men are made in God’s image and likeness, ignoring verse 27, which presents the division of biological gender between man and woman, reaffirming that both are made to God’s image and likeness, and therefore both have inherent dignity.

Another point related to translation can be noted in Genesis 2:18. Regarding the creation of woman, the New International Version says “I will make a helper suitable for him”, and the Portuguese translation Almeida Corrigida e Atualizada says “I will make him a competent helper” (in a free translation). In Hebrew the woman is ‘ezer Keneghdô’, with ezer acting as noun, not adjective, meaning ‘assistance’, ‘help’, ‘aid’ — this same ‘ezer’ can be found in ‘Ebenezer’ meaning literally ‘stone of help’ and not ‘helper stone’. Therefore, the relationship is not one of subordination, of asymmetry and inequality, which we so often hear in churches, but the woman is presented as somebody who comes to add, with both man and woman forming an integrated unit. Once more, this shows how the woman is at an equal level to man, not beneath him.

In chapter 3, Eve and Adam disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit. Immediately their eyes are opened, and they notice their nudity, running to get fig tree leaves with which to cover themselves. The first consequence of sin, therefore, is the breaking of relationships. They don’t feel comfortable in front of each other when God calls Eve, Adam, and the serpent to question what they had done, and to seal the consequence of their disobedience.

It is important to understand that what happens next changes everything, moving from a world that lived in perfect communion with God to the fallen world that we know, with clear and deep scars left by the rupture of the relationship between God and human beings, between humans and other humans, and also between man and woman. Eve is told: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NIV). This sentence indicates a consequence — not a commandment — exclusive to the female gender. (The suffering, sweat, tiredness and so on announced by God to Adam also affect women, but this passage is never used to exempt women from any type of work.) This consequence, in which a woman is dominated, shows a hierarchy of power and subjugation where one is greater than the other, and the Bible tells us this is not God’s will (Luke 9:46–48), but a stain of sin. The understanding that woman is an inferior being which can, and must, be dominated is at the root of violence against women and in the lack of voice they have to speak up and fight against this.

Christ’s death on the cross took place to restore and reconcile what was broken, to restore communion between God and humanity, and to restore communion between humans, men and women. This Good News breaks away completely from society’s gender expectations. In the logic of the Kingdom, Emmanuel, God with us, chooses to walk with women, talking to them in public, and giving them a voice (like he did with the Samaritan woman in John 4:4–42), teaching them and preparing them to teach (Mary in Luke 10:38–42), healing them and fully integrating them with society (the woman with the haemorrhage in Luke 8:48), and presenting women as role models of faith to be followed (the widow who made an offering in Luke 21:1–4).

The Good News is so scandalous to our values that it was given to women to announce it first. These were the ones who woke up early to visit Christ’s tomb and were surprised by the good news that Jesus was not among the dead but had in fact risen (Luke 24:11)! Only Peter gave the women some credit, despite the text not being detailed enough to tell us if he believed Jesus had risen or the body had disappeared. The other apostles considered the women’s words to be madness and only believed them when Simon said he had seen the risen Christ. The reconciliation that Christ brings is scandalous. Where the last is first, the smaller one considered the largest, where there are no Jews or Greeks, no slaves or free people, there are no men or women — because we are called to be one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and all equal in dignity.

The bad theologies which have been taught in churches for centuries blind us to structural sins. They turn us into accomplices with sin who are negligent towards victims of violence. The same violence that takes place inside universities is also deeply rooted in our churches. Many of the believers from these churches, who grow up learning to treat women as lesser creatures, are in the universities as students or teachers. How can a church that does not deal with its own sins of violence against women deal with these matters in the universities? How have we as IFES students served our churches regarding these matters? What have we done for the expansion of the Kingdom of God and reconciliation between men and women in light of Christ?

ABUB students as an example of alternative

A survey on violence against women carried out during the second half of 2017 interviewed 127 students from ABUB (Aliança Bíblica Universitária do Brasil), the IFES movement in Brazil.[8] One of the questions was “Would you like your local ABU [9] group to do something regarding violence against women?”, to which 96.3 percent of women replied ‘yes’, while 64.2 percent of men replied ‘yes’. Despite this, many university students who are part of ABUB, from a range of courses, universities, and cities in Brazil, by the grace of God are not conforming to the pattern of this world. They have reflected on these matters, and they are preaching about the Christ who is concerned about women and their suffering:

  • The ABU in the city of Lavras organized a gathering in October 2016 with the theme “Woman, why are you crying? — Violence against women: what does the church have to say about this?”. The gathering included the recitation of poetry, lectures, and open discussions on the theme. Both Christians and non-Christians were invited to look at Jesus and his message of freedom for women.
  • It is normal for ABU to have small groups at universities and schools that meet weekly to share Christ through inductive Bible studies. Many of these groups, associated to ABUB, in various cities, incentivized by Projeto Redomas — an interdenominational project which “seeks to bring attention to the problems caused by the oppression suffered by women that is already considered natural in faith environments, as well as giving a voice to these women” — carried out inductive Bible studies at universities about the lives of women in the Bible and about Jesus’ relationships with women.
  • In June 2017 in the city of Pirassununga, the ABUB regional team for the states of São Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul organized a men’s gathering to discuss healthy masculinity in light of the Bible which does not follow the standards of domination and violence seen in broader culture.
  • In 2014, the ABU group from the city of Pelotas organized Festival Mira!, with the support from the university, city hall and part of the project financed by the IFES’s creative evangelistic support. One of the panels took place in the Arts, Cinema, and Architecture Centre and focused on discussing women in the arts, and how the arts can deal with the issues of violence against women and representation of what is feminine.
  • In many local, regional, and national ABUB trainings, there have been lectures, discussions, and workshops on the subject.
  • In addition to this, or perhaps because of this, there are also many individual initiatives in which ABUB students are involved with the academic community through student representation (what we call academic centres or central student directories). Some also take part in demonstrations organized to oppose violence against women, both in and out of university settings, as this is a generalized problem and universities are a part of society which are not and should not be considered a separate world.

Many Brazilian students worry about violence against women, but they don’t know how to respond to it with actions. I believe this happens also to brothers and sisters in other countries. I suggest opening our eyes and ears to see the woman who suffers and cries in our schools and universities. How about listening, like Jesus did, to the suffering of women who have no voice in society? How about meeting up with your local IFES group, listening to the women in the group and to their pain, praying about it, and thinking together about ways we can transform and reconcile our schools and universities with the love we receive from Christ?

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8, NIV).

Discussion questions

Some things might be complicated to discuss with men and women in the same space. Many women are used to being silenced, and therefore it is important to encourage them to speak up. However, many women who suffered harassment, violence and abuse may have difficulties opening up in group settings. It is important to be sensitive when dealing with this subject. Let the group know in advance the theme to be discussed and be understanding if some women decide not to take part in the meeting or discussion. If any woman opens up to the group, please keep what is shared only between the people present, and remember to hug her, support her, and pray for her.

Read the article “Girls beyond Ipanema” and the following Bible passages:

  • Genesis 3:1–17
  • Luke 24:1–11
  • Galatians 3:28
  1. How did Jesus treat those women? What does this treatment show? You can use the Bible passages you have just read as a basis to form your answer.
  2. Even in countries with more equality, women still suffer challenges and violence, including within universities. How are women seen in your country? Think of your female colleagues, professors, and workers at your university. How are they treated? Are they being silenced?
  3. As a man, how have you been treating women around you in university settings? What has your witness been like? How do you act when a male friend, colleague or professor does something against a woman? Have you been an accomplice?
  4. In a survey done with ABUB students regarding violence against women in universities we found that of the ABUB women who answered the survey and who suffered some form of harassment or violence in university or related settings, 25.3 percent found shelter or comfort in their local ABUB group.[10] Does your local group listen to its female members? How do you think that women who are being oppressed see your local group? Is it a place of support? Or is it a place that sees them as being guilty or accomplices of what has happened?
  5. How can we open the eyes of our local groups to these matters and make them more welcoming?
  6. How are women viewed in the theology adopted by your church? Are they treated as being inferior?
  7. How are women seen by your local IFES group? Is it different from how they are seen at your church? How can your local group contribute to the church? Or how can your church contribute to this matter within your local group?
  8. How do you think Christ would welcome these women who are suffering today? Is this different from how society deals with violence against women?
  9. Do the men from the group wish to ask the women for forgiveness for anything?

Other references


[1] Dulce Garcia, “Com Tom Jobim foi tudo platónico’ diz a Garota de Ipanema,” (“It was all platonic with Tom Jobim”, available in Portuguese) Sábado, 1st of March 2015,–jobim-foi-tudo-platonico.

[2] “Hashtag Transformação: 82 mil tweets sobre o #PrimeiroAssedio,” (“Hashtag Transformation: 82 thousand tweets about #FirstHarassment”, available in Portuguese) Think Olga, 2015,

[3] Daniel Mello, “Ex-aluno da USP acusado de estupro obtém registro de médico em Pernambuco,” Agência Brasil, June 2, 2017,

[4] Fernanda Mena, “Um terço dos brasileiros culpa mulheres por estupros sofridos,” (“One third of Brazilians blames women for rapes suffered”, article available in Portuguese) Folha de S. Paulo, accessed on 21 September 2016,

[5] Luis Nassif, “Medicina da USP registra 8 casos de estupro e 2 contra homossexuais, aponta MPE,” Jornal GGN, November 12, 2014,

[6] Mapade coletivos de mulheres (MAMU) (Women’s Collectives Map — MAMU, available in Portuguese), accessed on 6 February 2018,

[7] Bianka Vieira and Luiza Missi, “Dois anos após CPI, casos de estupro não têm punição,” (“Two years after investigation, rape cases have no punishment”, available in Portuguese) Jornal do Campus, November 29, 2016,

[8] Deborah Vieira, “Abuenses e a violência contra a mulher,” 2017,

[9] Translator’s Note: ABU local groups are connected to ABUB (Aliança Bíblica Universitária), the national IFES movement in Brazil. They are similar to local Christian Union (CU) groups and most meet on a weekly basis.

[10] Vieira, “Abuenses e a violência contra a mulher.”

Quotations marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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