Wife-killings outrage feminists and expose dark side of Brazil's macho roots

November 18, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Dr. Ricardo Simonetti, a brilliant physician, recently returned to Brazil after medical study in Germany. His wife, a young neurologist, had recently ended their marriage. But Dr. Simonetti's colleagues expected him to shrug that off and concentrate on his promising career.

Dr. Simonetti, 35, took a different course. Wounded by the independence his wife had developed during his yearlong absence, nursing a jealous rage over his belief that she had been "dancing the lambada" with other men, Dr. Simonetti decided to "cleanse my honor with my own hands."

So he lured Dr. Daisy Carreiro to his apartment Oct. 13 and shot her dead.

Dr. Carreiro's killing has focused new attention on the seemingly casual violence that Brazilian men often inflict on wives and lovers who offend their masculine pride. It has set off new protests by women who say the slaughter of wives remains common here despite a decade of feminist attacks on Brazilian machismo.

"Brazilian men still consider females as property and think that if 'their' women leave or displease, men have a right to kill. This is culturally ingrained," said Dr. Eva Blay, a sociologist who heads Sao Paulo's Center for the Study of Women.

Over the centuries, male magistrates have even enshrined in Brazilian jurisprudence the concept of "legitimate defense of honor" as a mitigating factor when husbands murder unfaithful wives.

Six days after Dr. Carreiro's murder, a 33-year-old salesman in Rio de Janeiro shot his ex-lover in another attempted homicide. The same week, a mechanic tortured and raped his teen-age girlfriend after she tried to end their relationship.

Amid feminist outrage over the attacks, a professor at the University of Paraiba, 1,600 miles to the north, telephoned Dr. Blay to report rising fears among Paraiba women after three local men murdered their wives in as many weeks.

Because record-keeping across much of the country of 150 million remains fragmentary, nobody knows how many wives are murdered each year in Brazil. But a recent study commissioned by President Fernando Collor de Mello and conducted by University of Sao Paulo epidemiologist Maria Elena Prado showed that the percentage of fatalities of women

of child-bearing age attributed to murder each year in Brazil more than quadrupled between 1979 and 1987.

Another published report, "A Portrait of Violence Against Women," based on police records, showed that 83 percent of the rapes, beatings and other attacks on women are inflicted by present or former husbands or lovers.

"Wives die the most. Husbands kill the most," said Maria Ines Serreira, a sociologist at Sao Paulo's Center for the Study of Violence who is compiling a study of more than 3,000 murders from 1946 through 1988.

Wife-killing, of course, is not unique to Brazil; domestic violence is also a serious problem in the United States. But sociologists said that, across Latin America, the phenomenon has special roots in the Iberian culture of machismo.

A widely publicized investigation is continuing in Peru into the September death of a former airline flight attendant whose lover, a prominent Lima banker, has been accused of throwing her naked from the 19th floor of the Sheraton Hotel amid the disintegration of their longtime affair.

But wife-killing is especially widespread in Brazil, partly because the Wild West atmosphere prevailing across much of its vast territory shrouds many killings.

In 1985, the Brazilian Bar Association called on authorities to crack down on wife-killers in Imperatriz, a frontier settlement in Maranhao state 1,900 miles north of Rio de Janiero, where at least 30 husbands were found to have murdered -- or

hired assassins to murder -- ex-wives to avoid paying alimony.

In fact, the women's liberation movement in Brazil developed over the last 15 years in part through successive protests focused on trials of men accused of killing wives or lovers, according to Dr. Blay.

Dr. Blay pointed to feminist demonstrations against a judge who in 1979 sentenced Raul Doca Street, a Sao Paulo playboy, to just two years in prison for the 1976 shooting death of his socialite lover after she broke off their relationship. The defense argued in the trial that Doca Street's actions had been a "legitimate defense of honor."

After that seminal case, Brazil's fledgling women's movement mobilized to bring publicity to other wife-killings. In 1980, in Minas Gerais state, two simultaneous trials sparked weeks of courthouse protests: one of an engineer who shot his wife to death in their bedroom after she asked for a separation, the other of a landscape architect who admitted he had murdered his wife in an "unthinking moment" after she said she would leave him.

Both accused killers eventually received jail sentences feminists considered too short. But the mounting outrage served to unite Brazil's previously fragmented women's movement, spurring the creation of organizations in several cities to help abused wives.

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