Beyond survivors: A president’s story

While gender violence is a near universal problem, there are regional challenges to addressing it. Over the 16 Days, we shall share the stories of women across all regions of the world who have been victims of torture and sexual violence.

However, while they have been victims, the experience of torture does not define who they are. These women are survivors and more. Here we share the story of Dilma Rousseff, the current president of Brazil, who was tortured in her youth for being a member of the resistance movement during the dictatorship. 

Nearly two years ago, on 1 January 2011, Ms Dilma Rousseff opened her first official speech as Brazil’s first female president by saying that she would not use the opportunity to boast about her own life story.

However, most people would agree that her story, from enduring torture and prison during the country’s 21-year military dictatorship to taking the helm of Latin America’s largest nation, is remarkable.

More than 40 years ago, in January 1970, Dilma Rousseff was arrested in São Paulo due to her participation in the resistance movement against the dictatorship. She was taken to a prison kept by the Bandeirantes Operation (OBAN), an organisation created by the Brazilian Army to investigate members of the resistance. There, Dilma Rousseff, age 22, survived 22 days of intense torture. One of the few occasions on which she spoke about what she went through during her time in prison was in an interview with the Brazilian journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho two years ago.

“I was beaten a lot, suspended in the ‘parrot perch’, received many, many electric-shocks”, she told. “One day, I started to bleed, had bleeding that looked like a menstrual period and was taken to the Central Army’s Hospital. There I met a very young girl from the National Liberation Action (ed.: a leftist Brazilian guerrilla that stood against the military dictatorship) who advised me: “Jump for a while in your room to continue the bleeding and they will not take you back to OBAN”.

A more recent report that came out earlier this year detailed more incidents of torture, including a two-month stretch at a detention facility in Minas Gerais, during which the torture caused haemorrhaging of her uterus.

Dilma Rousseff was sentenced by a military court to six years in prison but was released after almost three years. When she left prison, she was 25 years old and had lost 10 kg in weight. When asked by the Brazilian journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho about how she felt after the time she spent in prison, Rousseff’s was brief: “No one leaves there without marks”.

She is convinced that “torture is one of the greatest evils that exist” and believes that “the deepest meaning of democracy necessarily includes putting an end to torture”.

Despite the many years that have passed, Ms Rousseff still thinks about the torture victims of the past and of the present. “Those scenes of the men imprisoned in Guantamano and Abu Ghraib cannot be justified. That is barbaric”, she said. She invited 11 women with whom she shared cells during the years she was imprisoned to her inauguration. Those who did not survive the dictatorship were also remembered in her speech: “Many of my generation fell on the march, and they cannot share the happiness of this moment. With them I share this achievement, and I pay them tribute”.

She received approximately 7,500 EUR in compensation for the torture during the dictatorship, which she pledged to donate to an anti-torture charity. Furthermore, under her leadership as president, Brazil has moved forward with a two-year Truth Commission, which began this past May, to investigate and reveal the crimes of the past. Although a 1979 amnesty that shields perpetrators from persecution for their crimes remains on the books, there has been much optimism that the commission will bring the crimes to light for the first time in a proper nationwide forum.

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