Sandra Gomes Melo
Global Partnership to End Violence Against Women
Global Leadership Awards
Human Rights Award
Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards 2013
As police chief, you’re free to look for the “real truth”
Sandra Gomes Melo is a Brazilian human rights attorney and the director of the Civil Police Academy in Brasilia. Her career has been spent dealing with violence against women – prosecuting offenders, protecting victims, training those who respond, and trying to understand why it happens.
In the process, she has developed unique, innovative approaches – and just as importantly, she has learned what makes them work. Few are as thoughtful about gender and justice; but then few have her practical experience.
Her decision to join the police rather than become a judge, or work as a corporate lawyer, might have seemed surprising to her peers. She is very clear about what she wanted, and why.
“I wanted to be a police chief because when you are a judge or prosecutor you read and work only with the truth that is handed to you as part of the legal process. When you're a police chief, you're free to look for the real truth, not only the truth you see on paper. You arrive at the crime scene, sometimes just after it has occurred. It was an opportunity to be very near the victims and to understand the offenders.”
That curiosity and drive helped keep her on track as she trained and worked as a young policewoman in one of the toughest stations in the country. It wasn’t an easy place to learn. “I felt that sometimes some of the policemen think that this isn't a job for women. But I really am so passionate about this job that I decided to work hard, to be the most prepared in my organization.”
“I proved that as a woman I could do the same things as them,” she says.
Women in prison: Disadvantage doubled
In 2001, she was promoted to run the Women’s Prison in Brasilia, with responsibility for 700 people: 400 prisoners and 300 staff. It was here that she began to see firsthand how women experienced law enforcement and corrections.
“I started thinking about the women and their families and children. I thought, this is different. If a man is arrested, his woman continues to visit him. She'll come visit every week. When women are arrested, the man will stick around maybe one month, perhaps a year. Then the guy starts looking for a new wife and a new family. The women have more problems, especially more health problems. Sometimes they never been in a hospital or seen a gynaecologist. Sometimes they don't know how to care for their babies.”
She came up with new ideas. “I felt I needed to work for the best conditions for them. I really believed that if we don't do this they will go away from prison worse than they came in.” She created the “Angels Project” that provided education by bringing in volunteers to train prisoners on professional skills, as well as provide religious, medical and judicial assistance.
Her work increasingly led her to question the way that women were treated. “I felt the police in general need to work in a different way with men and women, whether as offenders or victims.” That led to her next appointment, to the police station for women in Brasilia.
Priority: Implement laws not enforced
More than 300 women's police stations have opened in Brazil since the first in São Paulo in 1985. “Everyone knew that violence against women was not uncommon in Brazil, but no one really knew how prevalent it was until women officers started compiling statistics,” The Christian Science Monitor reported in an article on the system, since widely emulated in Latin America. “In the first year of operations, the number of charges filed by officers in women's stations was more than double the number of charges for similar crimes against women filed by the predominantly male officers in regular precincts.”
Her time at the women’s police station coincided with a new law, named after a woman who had been shot by her husband, leaving her paraplegic. The Maria da Penha law established special courts and stricter sentences for offenders. The problem, as Sandra saw, was in the implementation.
“I decided that in Brasilia, in my police station, the law would be a reality,” she says firmly. “I fought with a lot of people: judges, prosecutors, some colleagues. But I defended the law. And I decided to focus my work on women victims of violence.”
Innovation + media = impact
She created the Women’s Mobile Police Unit, a roving police station designed to provide police services to women in disadvantaged communities, the countryside and inaccessible areas. Her creativity drove “Projeto Mulher Segura” (Safe Women Project), an initiative focused on raising awareness about violence against women and providing more specialized services for survivors.
“We arrested offenders and we put them on the news to show the police had arrested a man that used violence against his wife. The country started taking notice that this is a problem that happens all the time. I used media and statistics. Brazilians became shocked when I told them: every five seconds a woman is hit. And in the majority of the cases, a man who is related to them, a husband, father, cousin, brother, is the offender. People started to think about it.”
Few have thought as much as she has: as a student at the Civil Police Academy, a teacher, and now as its director. “These men don’t use violence just because they abuse alcohol or drugs. They only hit women. Why doesn’t he offend against a neighbor or a boss? Why his wife and daughters? These features are confused with the problem. The problem is that there is a culture, that he grew up in a family environment that accepted this kind of treatment of women.” Sandra has prioritized gender-sensitive training for police officers, including a project to prevent crimes against women, children, elderly groups and LGBT individuals.