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Brazil city battles domestic abuse with mobile panic button

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
updated 9:14 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brazilian victims of domestic violence given mobile 'panic button' in pilot project
  • When activated, device emits GPS signal and records conversations
  • Jaina Maria used panic button when her husband attacked her; he was later jailed
  • Vitoria, city where pilot scheme is taking place, has Brazil's highest female murder rate

Vitoria, Brazil (CNN) -- Jaina Maria never enters the studio in the pretty second-floor apartment she used to share with her husband.

Behind the door, which she now keeps locked, is the room where she says her husband beat her, time and time again. It still bears the scars of violence.

"He grabbed me by the hair and slammed me into the mirror," she says. A big chunk of glass is missing.

Jaina Maria says they were married for six years before the violence started, but then it dragged on for four more years. At first she was silent.

"He was the love of my life. I loved him so much," she explains as her eyes fill with tears. "But then you get beaten again and again."

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Jaina Maria is one of nearly 40 women in the coastal Brazilian city of Vitoria who have been given an innovative mobile "panic button" -- part of a pilot project to curb rampant domestic violence.

Even after they divorced and Jaina Maria obtained a restraining order, she says her ex-husband would still show up at the house and threaten her. One day he pulled out a knife.

After that incident, a court decided to issue her with the panic button. When activated the device emits a GPS signal and automatically starts recording the conversations around the victim -- which can later be used in court.

Soon after she got it, Jaina Maria was forced to use it. One day her ex-husband appeared, shouting at her, from the street below her apartment.

"The police arrived in four minutes," she says.

Restraining order

Her ex-husband was sentenced to 21 days in jail for violating the restraining order. He hasn't been back since.

The authorities say there have already been five convictions thanks to the panic button project, which was launched by the state judicial system earlier this year.

It's no accident the project was developed in Vitoria -- the city has the highest female murder rate in Brazil.

"Femicides" are overwhelmingly committed inside a woman's own home, and police and social services say, they are an indicator of wider levels of domestic abuse.

According to the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies, in 2010 13.2 in every 100,000 women were murdered in Vitoria, triple the national average of 4.4, which is already high. The Center's figure for the United States is 2.1 women in every 100,000, as of 2007.

The panic buttons have been distributed to women who already have restraining orders against abusers -- mostly former partners.

According to court officials, the project has also worked as a deterrent for would-be abusers because no one knows who actually has them.

The device itself is smaller than a mobile phone. Women carry it on an elastic belt under their clothes.

When the victim activates it, by holding down a small button for three seconds, a GPS signal is sent and an alarm goes off at the police station handling the panic button project.

The alert is then sent to the smartphones of four teams trained to respond. The victim's location appears on a map, as pictures of the victim and her abuser pop up and the device begins to transit audio so police can hear what's going on around her.

Constant fear

So far, officials say, they've arrived in under 10 minutes every time.

"We want to get there as quickly as we can because this person is the target of serious violence," says officer Jadir Almeida da Silva.

The project has already caught the attention of officials across Brazil and in neighboring Latin American countries also battling high levels of domestic abuse. The United Nations has also praised the project and invited Vitoria's mayor to give a presentation in New York.

Experts say the panic button works on many levels.

Dr. Sonia Lyra is a gynecologist who specializes in female trauma at the Jayme Santos Neves hospital. She was also a victim of domestic abuse, brutally beaten, she says, by her ex-husband for nine years.

"There were times when I would stay in bed for 10, 15 days," she says. "I had to reschedule all my patients until the marks on my body disappeared."

She says the panic button not only helps stop violence before it happens, but it also gives women the security they need to rebuild their lives.

Lyra says her divorce dragged on for years and she wasn't able to keep her ex-husband away until she saved enough money to hire a criminal lawyer.

"If I'd had the panic button, I would have re-established myself faster without the constant fear that he could hurt me or my children," she says.

For Jaina Maria, it has meant she now has the confidence to leave her home: She now takes her dog for walks and is even starting a new job.

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