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Healing scars

Marina Estarque / al
April 21, 2014

Brazil remains a country plagued by domestic violence and negative attitudes towards women. A project in Sao Paulo is supporting injured victims of domestic violence with free plastic surgery.

Jaqueline Santos Oliveira (photo: DW/Marina Estarque)
Image: DW/M. Estarque

The beatings and the cuts are burnt into Jaqueline Santos Oliveira's skin. Her scars remind her of the violence she experienced at the hands of her partner. But that's not the end of the trauma: The stigma associated with her scars continue to haunt her in public. People look at her strangely, she says.

According to figures from the authorities, every second Brazilian woman has been subject to domestic violence in their lifetime. In 70 percent of the cases the violence comes from the husbands or partners of the victims.

In Sao Paulo, the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery (SBCP) has now teamed up with the non-governmental organization "The Bridge" to offer victims of domestic violence an opportunity to receive free plastic surgery. Jaqueline Santos Oliveira and Roseneide Fernandes da Silva were two of the first women to receive treatment under the plan.

Stabbed on the street

Oliveira, 26, had already had her first operation, but others are due to follow. "When I've had all the surgery I need, I will feel normal again," she said.

Four years ago her former boyfriend stabbed her in front of a petrol station in Sao Paulo. She survived the attack, but it took a long time for Oliveira to find her way back into daily life, she says. And, in addition, the feelings of shame never really disappeared. The daily trip to the changing room at her place of work, a supermarket, was a constant reminder. "For four years now, I hadn't worn a bikini," she told DW. "But now, I feel a lot better."

Scarred stomach of a domestic violence victim from Brazil (photo: DW/Marina Estarque)
Jaqueline Santos Oliveira was stabbed in the stomach by her ex-partnerImage: DW/M. Estarque

Roseneide Fernandes da Silva didn't just live with feelings of shame. For nearly two decades, she also had to put up with the pain of an injury caused by a failed attempt on her life. As an 18-year-old she had her arm badly injured as she shielded her face from two gunshots.

For years she was regularly in and out of hospital. "My skin kept getting infected. They had to keep taking more and more skin off my arm." Every time she was operated on it was like getting shot at again, she added.

Up until recently, da Silva couldn't actually bend her elbow. After the free surgery, the 37-year-old now finally has full movement again. "When I moved my arm again for the first time, I cried right there on the operating table."

Two months after this operation the scars are still visible, but da Silva says the improvement to her life is already noticeable. "I am more confident and I don't have any concerns about wearing short sleeve tops anymore," she said. "It will never look normal, but the way it looks now is much better."

Healing the soul

According to Brazilian law, the two women are actually entitled to free plastic surgery under the state medical system. But waiting lists are long. This special program is meant to speed up the treatment for those worst affected by domestic violence.

Scarred elbow of a domestic violence victim from Brazil (photo: DW/Marina Estarque)
Roseneide Fernandes da Silva can finally bend her elbow againImage: DW/M. Estarque

Lourdes Maria Bandeira from the country's Policies for Women secretariat says that the violence against women is perpetuated by wrong societal attitudes. "The strongly paternalistic views in Brazil mean that women are often held responsible for the violence used against them," Bandeira said.

Oliveira says she experienced these sorts of attitudes from the police straight after she was attacked. "They said it was my fault that I hang around with such a man," Oliveira told DW. "Many people see that you are a single mother and that you have been injured with a knife, and they make jokes."

Both women say that life is returning to normal for them, but that recovering completely is a long process. "Now I finally feel that I am alive again," says da Silva, fighting off the tears. "Things are going well for me, but I'll keep fighting."