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Deep in the Amazon, pushing back against a culture of sexual abuse

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For years, Brazilian authorities have been fighting against the sexual abuse of girls, with education campaigns, hotlines and stricter laws. But in the heart of the Amazon, they are confronting an unusual foe: a mystical pink river dolphin.

Amazonian folklore has long warned pubescent girls of the dolphin, which according to legend would seduce them and get them pregnant, only to leave the next day.

Marili Pinheiros’s niece runs past clothes drying outside her home in the Amazon jungle.

When Marili Pinheiros, 33, bathed with her daughters in the local river, she would scour the muddy waters for any signs of the sleek, pink creature coming up for air. “I was scared that he would impregnate them,” she said. But when her 9-year-old daughter was sexually molested, a 51-year-old neighbor, not the dolphin, was to blame, she said.

“I never suspected it,” said Pinheiros, adding that she found out the neighbor was giving her little girl money and food in exchange for groping sessions.

Sexual abuse is the second-most-common offense against children in Brazil, after neglect, according to the Ministry of Health. The government has made some strides in recent years to curb it. Reports of sexual abuse rose 83 percent from 2011 to 2017, according to government figures, reflecting an increase in awareness.

But authorities say the toughest battle is against deeply ingrained cultural norms that have masked and excused abuse for generations. Many residents believe sexual relations between older men and underage girls are acceptable. Over the years, the myth of the pink river dolphin has been used to explain away unintended pregnancies, often resulting from such relationships. It has become so widespread that some wholeheartedly believe it.

In the Amazon jungle, where families suffer chronic poverty and low levels of education, a vast network of rivers isolates communities from authorities attempting to deter the exploitation of children. A 2010 government investigation deemed Pará state, in the Amazon region, the most critical area in the country’s fight against sexual abuse because of the high number of cases there.

In an effort to rein in sexual violence, the Pará state government has pioneered victim centers that include police stations, medical clinics, the offices of social workers and psychological trauma facilities in a single building. Since their inception in 2004, the centers have assisted more than 17,000 sexual abuse victims, helping them press charges against abusers, providing free abortions and treating sexually transmitted diseases.

But the fight to change the culture surrounding sexual abuse has sometimes put the government at odds with locals in a region that has a complicated relationship with girls and their sexuality.

Pinheiros’s nephews and niece look out the window next door to her home.

Pinheiros holds her baby. The mother says one of her older children was sexually abused by a 51-year-old neighbor.

The shoes of Pinheiros’s daughters.
TOP: Pinheiros’s nephews and niece look out the window next door to her home. LEFT: Pinheiros holds her baby. The mother says one of her older children was sexually abused by a 51-year-old neighbor. RIGHT: The shoes of Pinheiros’s daughters.

‘We are fighting a legend’

The pink river dolphin is a real creature, common in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. Locals have long believed the animal has special powers. The figure that appears in fairy tales is a jaunty version of the dolphin. Typically depicted in a straw fedora, the creature is said to transform itself into a handsome musician who attends parties looking for girls to seduce.

In a region with little economic opportunity, where one breadwinner will often support an entire family, whole communities will sometimes cling to the myth of the dolphin to protect aggressors, according to experts trying to discourage sexual abuse in the communities.

“We are fighting a legend,” said Pablo Cardoso, 45, a psychologist who has treated child victims of abuse in the Amazon river basin. “People blame the dolphin to try and protect the perpetrators. Especially when the aggressor is the provider, people will protect him.” Cardoso, who often works with local police and social workers, has been subject to death threats from aggressors and family members trying to preserve their sole source of income.

A popular government cash-transfer program known as Bolsa Familia, credited with lifting over 30 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty since 2003, has brought these Amazonian districts into regular touch with the government for the first time. But as these communities slowly integrate into Brazilian society, many are pushing back against government definitions of consent and abuse.

The wooden boat tied to the back of this cargo ship in an Amazon tributary belongs to two women who said they were selling berries to the men onboard. In the impoverished area, local women and girls often paddle up to ships to exchange goods and sometimes sex for food, gasoline and money.

Police investigators Deuszimare Oliveira Costas, left, and Fabio Machado work along the Parauau river, a tributary in the Amazon basin.

Vanessa Macedo, chief of police in Breves, is on the front lines of the battle against pervasive sexual abuse. “We are dealing with a victim who doesn’t see herself as a victim,” she said, “with families who see this as a source of income and with an aggressor who is constantly in transit.”
TOP: The wooden boat tied to the back of this cargo ship in an Amazon tributary belongs to two women who said they were selling berries to the men onboard. In the impoverished area, local women and girls often paddle up to ships to exchange goods and sometimes sex for food, gasoline and money. LEFT: Police investigators Deuszimare Oliveira Costas, left, and Fabio Machado work along the Parauau river, a tributary in the Amazon basin. RIGHT: Vanessa Macedo, chief of police in Breves, is on the front lines of the battle against pervasive sexual abuse. “We are dealing with a victim who doesn’t see herself as a victim,” she said, “with families who see this as a source of income and with an aggressor who is constantly in transit.”

A battle against cultural norms

With little access to secondary education, girls in the river delta communities have few options. Early sexual experiences and child marriage are widespread.

In the sleepy town of Breves, three-story boats strung with hammocks line the port. Mothers cradling their sleeping infants travel up to 12 hours from remote stilt-home communities on the river bank to get their children vaccinated and obtain government benefits.

Sandra Lopes, 39, rocked a newborn on her chest, the youngest of her nine children. Last year, when a local 32-year-old man asked to marry her 16-year-old daughter, she saw it as an opportunity.

“She didn’t have what she needed. I couldn’t afford to get her nice clothes and shoes. She is better off with him than with me,” she said. “It’s one expense less for me.”

Many communities rely on the massive ferries that chug along the river, carrying dozens of trucks, for food and income. Local women and girls — some not yet in their teens — will paddle up in wooden canoes to the ferries and exchange shrimp, berries and sometimes sex, for biscuits, gasoline and money.

From Breves, police have tried to crack down on childhood prostitution by patrolling the rivers and inspecting ferries twice a week. But the practice has become increasingly difficult to catch as ship captains and residents get smarter about concealing it.

Sandra Lopes breast-feeds her baby on a ferry docked in Breves. She traveled almost 12 hours to get the child vaccinated and receive welfare benefits.

During a recent inspection by a police boat, the roar of the engine spooked villagers approaching one ship. Several children paddling up to the ferry reversed course, while two local women aboard the ship hid in the cabins as police boarded. They were selling berries, they told a reporter.

“It’s a silent crime,” said Vanessa Macedo, 31, local chief of police, referring to prostitution. “We are dealing with a victim who doesn’t see herself as a victim, with families who see this as a source of income and with an aggressor who is constantly in transit.”

In the district encompassing Breves, conviction rates for the sexual abuse of minors rose 60 percent from 2012 to 2016, thanks in part to a stricter law that makes relations with minors under 14 illegal, local authorities say.

Many here are now trying to turn the story of the dolphin, a staple in Brazilian books of fairy tales, into a conduit for a national discussion about sexual abuse. Teachers are integrating the legend into lesson plans about identifying and reporting sexual abuse, while an Amazonian women’s collective by the name of Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again, is using the story to spark frank discussions in the region about violence and female oppression.

Despite these efforts, some residents are pushing back against what they consider excessive government interference in the way things have always been.

When police burst into Janette Bahia dos Santos’s home looking for her teenage daughter Leticia, the mother was furious. Leticia, 13, was dating a 28-year-old friend of the family. Their relationship violated the law, which establishes sentences of up to 15 years for men who have sexual relations with children under 14.

“It’s not a crime — it’s private,” said dos Santos, who gave birth to Leticia when she was 16 to a man twice her age. “Here in Breves, this is normal.”

This story was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Traditional homes like this one belong to “ribeirinhos,” or river people, and dot the banks of the tributaries in the Amazon basin.

Credit:Washington Post

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