Web App Helps Combat Domestic Violence
in Rio de Janeiro

In response to soaring domestic abuse during Covid-19 lockdowns, law students created the novel Maria da Penha Virtual app.

Judge Adriana Ramos de Mello, of the Rio de Janeiro’s Court of Justice, is one of those responsible for the Maria da Penha Virtual initiative. / Credit: Gabriel Cabral

Read the article written by Angela Boldrini for Folha de S.Paulo.

Published the 8th march 2023

One day, when Amanda returned to the apartment she shared with her children and husband, she was shocked to see that he had thrown her belongings into the hallway. The door to her home was locked; not knowing what to do next, she just sat on the floor and cried. She was in the process of getting a separation and now was suddenly kicked out of her apartment.

Amanda (she asks that her real name not be used) had previously filed complaints against her husband. The first was at the beginning of the separation period through Call 180, a government-run, toll-free nationwide hotline for women to report instances of domestic violence. “The process did not move forward, there was no protective [measure], it was just a conversation with the assistant,” she says. She lodged the second complaint at a police station on another occasion when her husband tried to throw her out of the house. “There, all they told me was to return with a locksmith and change the locks.”

So she had no expectations when she filed a third complaint, via cell phone, as she sat in that hallway with her things strewn across the floor. This time, Amanda used the Maria da Penha Virtual web application, launched in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 2020 and extended to the rest of the state in 2022.

“I didn’t know how long it would take, but within a week they called me back,” she says. A psychologist contacted her to explain the situation. What she had suffered has a name: property and psychological violence. Both are covered by the Maria da Penha Law, which targets gender-based violence in Brazil with the specific aim of reducing domestic violence. She got a restraining order for 90 days, which gave her a “feeling of peace.”

By November 2022, the Court of Justice of Rio de Janeiro had received 2,582 complaints through the new web app —1,777 of them in the past year alone. The greatest number (some 240) came from the Leopoldina neighborhood in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, home to the Complexo do Alemão and Complexo da Maré, two of the city’s largest and most violent favelas.

The app was developed during the Covid-19 pandemic by a technology and law study group at UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). “We read an article about how domestic violence was increasing during the lockdown, yet women had no means to report it because police stations were closed and women were trapped at home with their aggressors,” says Professor Kone Cesário, project coordinator and vice-principal of the UFRJ Law School. “That’s when a student came to me with the idea for a web app.” 

Together with the Court of Justice of Rio de Janeiro, the students developed an online form that allows a woman to send a request for an urgent protective measure directly to the domestic and family violence court. This is done through a website, which can be accessed via cell phone or computer.

“You describe what happened, and you can attach photos,” says Amanda. “That was very important in my case because I had documented what he had done with my things, throwing everything in the hallway.” 

According to Judge Adriana Ramos, who presides over the First Court of Domestic and Family Violence Against Women in Rio, an important point of Maria da Penha Virtual is that it does not store the complainant’s data. “This was something we thought about from the beginning because there are women who share their cell phone with their aggressor, or who could have their phones inspected by their aggressor later,” she says.

Judge Ramos says that she followed a case in which the woman was kept in solitary confinement by the aggressor and was rescued thanks to a complaint that she managed to file using her cell phone. Once the restraining order is granted, another program is activated: the “Maria da Penha Patrol” of the Military Police, which ensures compliance with the order. 

This virtual and direct dialogue between the victim and the courts is a cause of concern to some specialists. According to sociologist Wânia Pasinato, giving women the responsibility for providing correct information to the court can be, in itself, a form of abuse. “That’s why we spend so much time talking about the importance of humane treatment, of training police teams so that women are properly assisted,” she says. “We know that services today are not what they should be, but we cannot simply say ‘they are horrible, so let’s make women ask for the help themselves.’”

Professor Cesário says that the humane aspects of dealing with victims of domestic abuse are taken into account in Maria da Penha Virtual, and that women receive psychological support and follow-up after the initial request through the app.

Critics also warn that betting on technology as a means of correcting the slowness of the judicial system can exclude the poorest and most vulnerable women, who frequently have no internet access, but Ramos says that serious consideration is being given to universal access. “It would be important to have terminals in clinics or other places that women frequent so they could file a complaint without being noticed, or in the event that they can’t use the internet at home.”

Currently available only in the state of Rio, the project is expected to be expanded throughout the country. Rafael Wanderley, the UFRJ law student who came up with the idea for Maria da Penha Virtual, is one of the founders of the startup Direito Ágil (Agile Law), which manages the expansion of the technology to other states. In 2023, the model will be taken to Paraíba and pilots will be rolled out in the municipalities of Sousa, Santa Rita, and Campina Grande.