Story by:  in Campo Grande, Brazil

A Brazilian scheme is teaching salon workers to help identify at-risk women. And a similar scheme is now being trialed in the UK

Ivone Vera, 35, sits in a small room in a beauty salon in Campo Grande, Brazil, where she spends her days waxing clients. It’s an intimate space with a bed, a table in the corner, bare walls and no windows. Within the privacy of these four walls, over the last three years she has heard countless stories of women’s abuse at the hands of their male partners.

“What I hear in this room really affects me and sometimes I don’t know what I can do. There are times I lie awake at night, not able to go to sleep thinking about what I’ve heard,” she says.

Vera is one of the first cohort of beauticians in the city to receive training by the state’s justice department aimed at teaching salon workers how to spot the signs of domestic abuse and encourage women to report the crime.

It is part of Mãos empenhadas contra a violência (Hands committed against violence) – one of 14 programmes set up by judge Jacqueline Machado and her team in 2017 in response to frightening statistics detailing the extent of violence against women in the central-west state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Brazil is the fifth most violent country in the world for women. And according to figures from 2015, Mato Grosso do Sul – with a population of 2.62 million people – had a rate of 5.9 murders of women per 100,000 compared with Sao Paulo, which has more than 44 million inhabitants, where the rate was 2.9.

Vanessa Vieira, a social worker at the state’s justice department trying to combat violence against women blames a patriarchal culture. “We have a rural mentality; men see themselves as the boss of the family. Women are there to help and work for men. These attitudes pervade throughout the state.”

Irrespective of their socio-economic background, most women frequent beauty salons in Brazil and often build an intimate relationship with the professionals there. An afternoon training programme for beauticians teaches domestic abuse law, covering financial and emotional abuse as well as physical violence. They learn why many women stay in abusive relationships and are told what services are available to help. Workers are shown a film, do improvisation exercises and have conversations around the subject. Vieira says: “I’ve seen women who have broken down in tears because they realise that they too have been victims of violence.”

To date, 272 beauticians have been trained at 10 sessions in Campo Grande, and 50 salons are participating, reaching more than 22,000 clients a month. Three beauty schools have signed up, as well as travelling beauticians. Leaflets about violence against women are distributed in the salons.

Six months after the initial training, questionnaires evaluate its impact. So far, 63 clients have revealed that they were living in an abusive situation. Although there is no data on how many clients have sought further help, or left their abuser, or pressed charges, the project has already been replicated in seven cities in six different states across Brazil.

n her waxing room, Vera recounts how after her training she helped her sister escape a violent relationship. Her sister had been with her husband for four years when he started calling her names and telling her that she was fat and ugly. The aggression got gradually worse until one day when Vera’s sister raised the issue of unpaid bills, he grabbed a knife and pointed it at her, threatening to kill her. She grabbed hold of it, and cut her hand before she fled to her room and locked herself in. “He left soon after and she [my sister] called me to help her. We went to report the crime and the police came to arrest him. Now she has a restraining order against him.”

Vera uses this story to convince her clients that they can do the same. “I listen to women, I tell them they need to be strong and ask for help. I tell them they’re a victim and where to report the crime.”

In another salon in a wealthier neighbourhood, Naara Lippel, a manicurist, remembers one client who spoke to her about her boyfriend at the time; they were engaged and he had starting yelling at her and calling her names. “She asked me what I thought,” says Lippel. “I told her she was a victim of violence and that things could get worse. She left him and told me that I had helped her take this decision. At first I thought I had gone too far, but now she is married to another man and is really happy. Thank God I said something, because at least she’s not a prisoner in a relationship. I don’t know for sure, but if she’d stayed with him, I think things would have got worse.”

In the UK, where there are nearly 2 million victims of domestic abuse each year, the long-awaited domestic abuse bill – designed to better protect victims and punish perpetrators – had its first reading last week in parliament.

Here, one London council is following Brazil’s lead by encouraging hairdressers, barbers and beauticians to sign up to training to spot the signs of domestic abuse.

“Going for a haircut gives many people an opportunity to open up to somebody outside their social circle – someone who they know, trust and who is used to listening,” said Nicole Jacobs, domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales at a launch event hosted by Sutton council and the local NHS clinical and commissioning group to enlist beauty professionals.

In the south London borough, the total number of domestic violence and abuse cases reported in 2018 was 1,573, an increase of 8% from 2017 when domestic violence also accounted for 38% of all incidents with injury in 2017, ranking Sutton 12th out of 32 London boroughs in terms of reports of domestic violence per 1,000 population. The council is investing £1.25m in a partnership with local hospitals, GPs, the fire brigade, police, schools, voluntary group and housing agencies to improve services relating to domestic abuse.

At a national level, the most recent femicide census found 149 women were killed in the UK in 2018 – the highest number since the census began in 2009. More than half were killed by a current or former partner.

“Beauty professionals may well be able to spot the signs of abuse that others might not see and direct people to the services that can in some cases save lives,” Jacobs says.

Back in Campo Grande, Vera says despite her clients confiding in her about violence they have faced, they usually go back to their husbands. “I had one client who wouldn’t leave because he paid the bills,” she says. “I try to encourage them to go to the police. But women have to learn how to love themselves.”

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