RIO DE JANEIRO — The attacks have stunned this city. In one, an assailant held a gun to the head of a 30-year-old woman while raping her in front of passengers on a bus as the driver proceeded down a main avenue. In another, a 14-year-old girl from a hillside slum was raped on one of Rio’s most famous stretches of beach.
In yet another case, men abducted and raped a working-class woman in a transit van as it wended through densely populated areas. The police failed to investigate, and a week later the same men raped a 21-year-old American student in the same van, pummeling her face and beating her male companion with a metal bar.
“Unfortunately, it had to happen to her before anyone would help me,” said the Brazilian woman raped in the transit van. “I was like, ‘Could this have been avoided if they had paid attention to my case?’ ”
A recent wave of rapes in Rio — some captured on video cameras — have cast a spotlight on the unresolved contradictions of a nation that is coming of age as a world power. Brazil has a woman as president, a woman as a powerful police commander and a woman as the head of its national oil company — and yet, it was not until an American was raped that the authorities got fully involved and arrested suspects in the case.
In some ways, Brazil’s experience echoes recent events in India and Egypt, where horrific attacks have prompted outrage and soul searching, revealing deep fissures in each society. In Brazil, it has unleashed a debate about whether the authorities are more concerned about defending the privileged and Rio’s international image than about protecting women at large.
In India, the recent death of a student, who was gang-raped as her male companion was beaten on a bus under similar circumstances, has highlighted a prevailing view that women, no matter how much progress they make, are still fair game, unprotected by an ineffectual government.
And in Egypt, where the collapse of the old police state has led to an outbreak of sexual assaults in Tahrir Square in Cairo, some newly emboldened conservative Islamists publicly blame the women, saying they put themselves in harm’s way.
It is perhaps paradoxical that the issue has popped up so forcefully in Brazil, a country that has gone to great lengths to protect and promote women’s rights. There are special cars for women to ride on trains to avoid being groped, as in parts of India. There are special police stations here staffed largely by women. And there is a general view that holds women as equal, fully capable of excelling in even the most powerful posts.
“We’re living a schizophrenic situation, in which important advances have been made in women reaching positions of influence in our society,” said Rogéria Peixinho, a director of the Brazilian Women’s Network, a rights group here. “At the same time, the situation for many women who are poor remains atrocious.”
Indeed, the public discussion about the string of sexual assaults in Rio was relatively muted before the American student was attacked in late March after boarding a transit van in Copacabana, a beachfront district frequented by tourists. The reason, some experts argue, was that the earlier victims were largely poor or working class, reflecting one of Brazil’s enduring struggles: extreme class divisions in society.
“For a large part of the political leadership, these rapes only get to be a concern if they affect someone rich or damage Brazil’s image abroad,” said Malu Fontes, a newspaper columnist who criticized the lack of attention paid to rapes of poor women in Rio, which is preparing to hold the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“We like to believe in Brazil that we live in a peaceful, happy place, when the truth of our existence is far more complicated,” she said. “It’s like we’re Narcissus gazing into a pool of sewage.”
Rio’s public security officials acknowledge that they have faced a sharp increase in the number of reported rape cases, which surged 24 percent last year to 1,972 in the city. But they argue that the increase has taken place nationally, reflecting a change in legislation in 2009 to broaden the definition of rape to include oral and anal penetration, as well as efforts to make it easier for women to file rape complaints.
Brazil has made strides in its efforts to reduce violence against women. As early as the 1980s, it helped pioneer the creation of police stations with female officers to help victims register domestic violence, sexual assaults and other gender-related crimes. And in 2006, legislation was enacted nationwide intended to establish special courts for prosecuting acts of domestic violence with stricter sentences.
But while Rio’s authorities have succeeded in lowering rates of certain violent crimes, like homicides, the recent rapes have focused new attention on the dangers of riding Rio’s buses and vans, an essential part of life for many residents.
In the days after the rape of the American student, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced a ban on transit vans, which are privately owned and sometimes operating without permits, in Rio’s prosperous South Zone. The ban prompted criticism that the mayor was giving priority to the safety of wealthy seaside areas over grittier parts of the city where the vans are still allowed to operate.
A spokesman for Mr. Paes countered that the ban was not related to the rapes, but part of a broader public transportation plan under consideration for months. The spokesman added that the mayor had also forbidden vans to tint their windows, in an effort to prevent crimes within the vehicles.
Officials in the state of Rio de Janeiro said that rapes in buses, vans or subway cars accounted for less than 1 percent of all cases in recent years. “There are no signs of an epidemic of rapes within public transportation,” said Pedro Dantas, a spokesman for Rio’s public safety department.
Still, the string of cases in Rio, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl on a bus last year, are part of a larger pattern of attacks and harassment aboard transit vehicles in several cities, including two rapes this month around the capital, Brasília. In the city of Curitiba, lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would introduce women’s-only buses.
Eleonora Menicucci, Brazil’s minister for women’s affairs, noted that no nation was immune to shocking crimes against women, pointing to the abduction and long imprisonment of three women in Cleveland.
But she said Brazil had worked hard to encourage women to come forward to report rapes, and she contended that perpetrators would be prosecuted regardless of the backgrounds of the assailants or the victims. She cited a case in the city of Queimadas, where six men from relatively privileged circumstances were swiftly arrested, tried and convicted last year in the gang rape of five women, two of whom were killed after recognizing their assailants.
But critics remain skeptical, arguing that the main reason the rape of the 14-year-old girl from a slum drew public attention was that it occurred on the beach in front of Leblon, one of Rio’s most exclusive neighborhoods.
Sérgio Cabral, Rio’s governor, called the assault on the American student an “atrocity” but emphasized that he did not expect it to affect the image of Rio, which he was said was experiencing a “forceful moment with big events and investments.”
About the author: Simon Romero is an American journalist who has been the Brazil bureau chief for The New York Times since November 2011, based in Rio Janeiro. In this assignment, he covers Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo, and Heather Tal Murphy from New York.