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Face to Face with the Fellows: Alessandra Orofino

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If the women in my family taught me anything, it's that women helping women is the only way out of this mess. And for the sake of my young daughter, I have no plans of giving up.”

Alessandra Orofino, 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow
At the 2019 Fellows gathering, Mrs. Obama greets Alessandra as she breastfeeds her daughter, Helena, watched by her sister Daniela.

At the 2019 Fellows gathering, Mrs. Obama greets Alessandra as she breastfeeds her daughter, Helena, watched by her sister Daniela.

Breaking the Cycle of Gender-Based Violence in Brazil

Alessandra Orofino

Around the world, we’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic expose and exacerbate inequities in healthcare, education, and economic mobility among other issues, but we’ve also witnessed grassroots leaders tirelessly expand their work to care for their communities. One of those many leaders is Obama Fellow Alessandra Orofino.

In Brazil, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have led to a spike in domestic and gender-based violence in cities across the country—a pattern that has also emerged in the United States and other countries. In response, Alessandra and her team have expanded access to resources and support for women who are survivors of violence through their Mapa do Acolhimento (Welcome Map) network. Using community organizing, digital tools, and existing tech platforms, Alessandra and her team are connecting Brazilian women to therapists and legal defense at an unprecedented rate, processing one request per hour.

We asked Alessandra to share her story in her own words and describe how she and her team are mobilizing activists and supporting women across Brazil during this critical time. Read her story below and find out how you can support her work if you are able.

Alessandra Orofino smiles to camera.

I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 90’s. At the time, the city was violent, inequality was rampant, and the country was just pulling itself together after a long and dark period of military dictatorship.

My childhood was marked by all of these things: I lost an uncle to city violence, and I experienced inequality first-hand through different branches of my family. But I also had hope. As I grew up, so did the Brazilian economy, and our democratic institutions became more solid. All around me, there was optimism.

Nowhere was this sentiment more abundant than amongst the women in my family: my mother, my two grandmothers, my godmother, and my great grandmother. They were fierce, and they raised me to be just as strong as they are—although I don’t always feel like I’m up to the task.

My great grandmother left an abusive husband at a time when divorce was not yet legal. Her separation contract had a clause stipulating that if she ever had another romantic relationship, she would lose custody of her daughter. My grandmother split amicably from my grandfather after having four children. She then decided to go to college. She wished to be a doctor, but that was nearly impossible at the time. She ended up studying speech therapy and worked with children with special needs for most of her life.

My mother, on the other hand, went to medical school and became a pediatrician. There, she met my father. His mother, my paternal grandmother, raised three kids on her own after losing her husband in a car accident, and she worked odd jobs to support her family. Later, she lost her youngest son when he was murdered during a street robbery. She endured all of that with support from her niece, who is now my godmother and one of the first female engineers of her generation. My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by strong women who have defied the odds to lead successful and inspiring lives, and who chose to bring other women along with them.

When I graduated from college in the United States, I knew I had to go back to Brazil. I felt a responsibility towards my country, my city, and the people who raised me. But I felt especially indebted to the Brazilian women who came before me and made me who I am. That includes all the badass women in my family, of course, but also all the women who built this country, in particular the ones who raised countless Brazilian children; not just their own, but the children of families they worked for. Today, Brazil has almost 7 million female domestic workers, and they only got basic worker rights in 2013.

I came back to Rio around that time, and co-founded an organization called NOSSAS to ignite and support activism and solidarity across the country. One of our very first projects was Beta, a chatbot that monitors bills related to women’s rights in the Brazilian Congress and gives a community of young feminists a straightforward way to pressure elected officials at every step of the decision-making process.

But then we realized that some of the most important voices in the women’s movement were also the ones we were hearing the least from. The voices of women who had been subjected to violence, and who rooted their fight in their own experience of vulnerability. These were the women we wished to reach, these were the stories that needed to be heard. But oftentimes survivors of violence were still immobilized by trauma. Without them, our movement was incomplete. We couldn’t possibly wish to have them by our side if they were still fighting to break cycles of violence at home, or fighting for custody of their kids with husbands who believed they were still living in my great grandmother’s time.

That’s how we ended up creating Mapa do Acolhimento, a solidarity network that matches survivors of violence with a community of certified therapists and experienced lawyers who provide them with pro bono services. Our volunteer community also constantly maps and rates public services available to survivors, and our triage team works hard to ensure that no woman’s call for help goes unanswered. Today, the project has volunteers in all Brazilian states and over 800 municipalities, with capacity to help over 5,000 cis- and transgender women per year. On average, the women we serve receive 24 sessions of therapy and countless hours of legal work.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we knew that we needed to ramp up our efforts. At the time, specialists estimated that lockdown measures would increase cases of domestic violence by as much as three times. Our situation was already dire—in Brazil, a woman is murdered every seven hours, four girls under the age of 13 are raped every hour, and every two minutes police receive a report of violence against a woman. But the economic crisis and forced confinement meant that this situation would definitely take a turn for the worse.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, our team has seen a steep increase in the number of calls for help, to the point where we are now processing an average of one request per hour. Our network doesn’t provide one-off services. Every woman who makes a request will likely receive support from this solidarity network for months to come.

Because we know we can’t grow forever, we have also been leveraging the power of our community to impact public policy and break the cycle of violence at its roots. In the last few months, we were able to include a provision for single mothers to receive duplicated benefits in Brazil’s emergency basic income scheme, giving millions of women access to the financial resources they may need to leave abusive partners. We forced the governor of São Paulo to open up dozens of women-staffed 24-hour police stations specializing in cases of gender-based violence. And we worked alongside healthcare workers, particularly nurses—86 percent of whom are women—to create a special pension scheme for the children of those who have died on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

We also mapped out which public services were still open or had online or telephone-based services during lockdown, and created Brazil’s first-ever database of support services for survivors of gender-based violence.

We still have a long way to go. Brazilian women, especially Black, poor, and transgender women, are still beaten, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to harassment. But if the women in my family taught me anything, it’s that women helping women is the only way out of this mess. And for the sake of my young daughter, I have no plans of giving up.

If you’d like to help us continue to help women in Brazil, you can donate to Mapa do Acolhimento here: (Opens in a new tab).

You can learn more about Alessandra’s work and the Obama Foundation Fellowship  here.