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Brazil investigates rescue of maid enslaved for nearly 40 years

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 21 December 2020 19:13 GMT

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Brazilian woman was enslaved at the age of eight and forced into marriage, officials say

By Fabio Teixeira

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Brazilian woman enslaved as a maid from the age of eight for almost four decades and forced into marriage has been rescued in a rare crackdown on domestic slavery, officials said on Monday.

The 46-year-old was found living in a small room in an apartment in Patos de Minas, in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. She had worked for the family for most of her life without pay or any time off, according to labor inspectors.

The victim was given up as a child by her destitute parents to the family of Dalton Cesar Milagres Rigueira, a university professor at Unipam, and raised by his mother, inspectors said.

"They gave her food when she was hungry, but all other rights were taken from her," Humberto Camasmie, the inspector in charge of the rescue, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The woman's name has been withheld to protect her identity.

Domestic servitude in Brazil is difficult to identify and tackle because victims rarely see themselves as modern slaves, officials say. Of 3,513 workers found in slavery-like conditions between 2017 and 2019, only 21 were held in domestic servitude.

A lawyer representing the Rigueira family said they had been presented as guilty by news show Fantastico, which revealed the rescue on Sunday, before their case was heard in court.

"The premature and irresponsible disclosure by inspectors and agents of the state, before a lawsuit recognizes ... their guilt, violates rights and sensitive data from the family, and compromises their safety," the lawyer said in a statement.

A spokesman for Unipam said Rigueira had been suspended by the university and that "all legal measures are being taken".

Labor prosecutors said they were trying to strike a deal with the Rigueira family to pay compensation to the victim. If charged by criminal prosecutors of employing slave labor and found guilty in court, Rigueira faces up to eight years in jail.


While labor inspectors can visit workplaces at will to check for slavery, they must obtain permission from a judge to enter a home and said evidence of abuse from victims was a prerequisite.

Rigueira's neighbors alerted authorities after receiving notes from the 46-year-old asking them to buy food and hygiene products since she had no money, according to labor inspectors.

During her captivity, the woman was forced to marry an elderly relative of the family so that they could continue to receive his pension after he died, authorities said.

Following her rescue at the end of November, the woman was taken to a shelter where she is being assisted by psychologists and social workers. Officials said they were trying to reunite the woman with her biological family.

The woman is now keeping the monthly pension of about R$ 8,000 ($1,557) - which is seven times higher than Brazil's minimum wage - according to labor inspector Camasmie.

"She did not know what a minimum wage was," he said. "Now she's learning how to use a credit card. She knows that every month she will be paid a substantial amount (from the pension)."

Domestic servitude hit the headlines in Brazil in June when authorities rescued a 61-year-old maid who they judged to have been enslaved by a woman working for beauty company Avon.

Avon fired the executive and said it would support the victim. The ex-Avon employee, who along with her husband and mother was charged with enslaving a worker, denied the charges.

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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