Denise Dourado Dora

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1998
Fundação Ford
This description of Denise Dourado Dora's work was prepared when Denise Dourado Dora was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Denise Dora, a lawyer and long-time defender of women's rights, is combating gender and socio-economic inequalities in Brazil by increasing women's access to the justice system, training poor, disenfranchized women to fight for their rights in the legal sphere.

The New Idea

Denise Dora is working to democratize women's access to the justice system in Brazil through a program that challenges the society's paradigm of gender and race discrimination. Denise founded an organization called Themis (Legal Assistance and Gender Studies) to train and empower women community leaders to fight for their legal rights. Since it's founding in 1992, Themis has pursued two primary objectives: training courses for community leaders to enable them to become community legal prosecutors; and the creation of SIM (Information Services for Women). SIM receives formal complaints about abuse and violence against women and provides assistance in individual and collective cases. With technical support from Themis' staff, both programs are led and supervised by popular legal prosecutors.While on the one hand, Themis represents women in the courts, Denise's program also engages women in demanding their own rights, enabling them to become actors within the judicial system. Denise is not only educating poor women of their rights and training them how to articulate these rights, she is also creating spaces in which women public prosecutors can work within the system. A key element of Themis' program is to transform the judicial system itself that for so long has perpetuated discrimination and inequality for women. To address the resistance that comes from a judicial system dominated by men, Themis also creates partnerships with judicial branches of the municipal and state governments to guarantee support. One of Themis' slogans is "Say SIM to Women" ("sim" means "yes" in Portuguese). Denise has developed direct collaboration with judges and members of the Public Defender's office through training courses, some of whom are now co-teaching community leaders' classes with Themis' lawyers. Brazil's New Constitution, established in 1989, created legal measures to defend gender and race issues in the executive and legislative branches, but left the judicial branch untouched, and discrimination has actually increased. Using Themis, Denise is working to expand the national discussion on equal access to justice. Through community training programs, publicity on cases and research and publishing activities, Themis is influencing the opinion of the general public on gender inequalities, methods of popular legal education and the justice system.

The Problem

To date, women have suffered from on-going prejudice and discrimination when seeking legal support. Several studies conducted in this decade demonstrate that when women are victims of domestic violence, sexual crimes, or race discrimination, they have been forced to face yet another kind of violence: discrimination and sexism within the agencies designed to protect them. For example, women are often harrassed while registering their complaint at the police station, humiliated while undergoing legal medical exams, and denied legal advice or are misrepresented while seeking justice. In Brazil as in many parts of the world, judicial branches are male-dominated and not sensitive to the reality of gender inequalites within existing governmental systems. Within low-income communities, the problems women face are compounded by racial and socio-economicdiscrimination. These women suffer from a cycle of violence, lack of access to services and insufficient education about their rights, leading to their increased vulnerability. Data from the United Nations state that in cases of female homicide, 45-60% are murdered by their partners. A study conducted in 1992 showed that, in Brazil, a woman is beaten every four minutes. Within this context, the greatest indication of the failure of the police and justice systems is that, of the high number of domestic violence incidents registered at police stations, only a small percentage proceed to the courts. Denise reports that in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Themis currently focuses its work, 3,000 cases of violence against women were registered in one year. Only 300 of those cases went to trial. Because the public security forces and legal services in Brazil remain insensitive to gender inequalities and are unaware of how to insure equality in delivering their services, they have become accomplices to crimes against women. For this reason, Denise feels that the only possible way to transform the system is to promote dialogues between communities and the judiciary.

The Strategy

Denise's strategy is to fight for women's rights through both a preventative and reactive approach. Through Themis and the successful SIM and legal training programs for community leaders, Denise is challenging the judicial system by bringing cases before the courts that would otherwise be ignored. As a next phase, Denise is working to strengthen SIM's links with local services and community institutions to fight abuse, concentrating on preventing rights violations.Simultaneously, Denise is producing and publishing several books that provide methodological material to sensitize judges and public defenders to women's rights and the deficiencies of the current court systems legal services. Denise is also attacking the problem of unequal access to the judicial system by addressing the current curricula for law training. At the university level, she is negotiating for specific courses on the issue to be implemented at law schools. Denise's idea is to develop new public policies at the administrative level of the judicial branch by building a network of partnerships and allies within the system. To accomplish this, she is working closely with the most important judicial organization in her State, the Association of Judges. Members of this association have been so impressed with the results of her community leaders program that they are now supporting the spread of Themis' methodology to six more communities in Rio Grande do Sul, in addition to the six current communities in which they work. Denise's current focus is disseminating her work to other states in Brazil. To achieve this goal, she is identifying new partners, such as ILANUD, the University of Sao Paulo, and the National Secretary of Human Rights. The viability of her spread strategy lies in facilitating her model's replication through organizing educational courses for leaders of other Brazilian NGOs. In December 1998, Denise taught a course to thirty NGOs from across Brazil.

The Person

At a young age, Denise learned from her indigenous grandmother the importance of respecting life in all of its aspects. Because of her family background, she also experienced the pain and destructive force of prejudice and discrimination. Denise learned from her childhood experiences that her major role in life would be to fight for justice. Following this life pattern, during adolescence, Denise founded her high school student council. When she went to the university to study law, she felt uneasy because law school was too academic, and there was no perspective on dealing with issues such as the defense of human rights, or issues of race and gender discrimination. Thus, Denise created the Liberta - a group of university women, at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. After university, Denise went to work in the union movement with labor demands. There, she founded the Group of Women Workers. She also worked with the mayor of Porto Alegre as a legal consultant. From these experiences, Denise found out that there was a real need to provide effective access to justice for women.