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Carlos Zuma has developed an alternative course of action that offers people and judicial courts a more constructive remedy to family violence. He has opened up a channel for judges to refer abusers, mostly men but women as well, to six-month rehabilitation courses that are showing promising results.

This profile below was prepared when Carlos Eduardo da Silva Zuma was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Carlos Zuma has developed an alternative course of action that offers people and judicial courts a more constructive remedy to family violence. He has opened up a channel for judges to refer abusers, mostly men but women as well, to six-month rehabilitation courses that are showing promising results.


Carlos is creating a way for families, judges, and psychologists to collaborate in addressing the epidemic problem of family violence in Brazil. In addition to the cultural obstacles that promote violence, there is the institutional problem that even when abusers are found guilty by the courts, they usually pay a token fine and return home. In severe cases, they may spend a few months seething in jail while the family loses the income of a breadwinner. Neither outcome attempts or achieves rehabilitation.

As a family psychologist, Carlos knows that rehabilitation is possible and that keeping families involved, rather than separating the abuser, works best. With a counseling method that he and other professionals have used effectively, Carlos is making it possible for the judges to refer family abusers for rehabilitation. This involves changing penal codes, sensitizing judges, and making sure that the groups succeed. Helping the courts deal more effectively with abuse is an important first step, and Carlos is planning ways to allow schools and employers to also tap into the rehabilitation process. Meanwhile, he is training more and more psychologists in the group therapeutic method to meet the rising demand.


Family violence in one form or another is an epidemic in Brazil. One in three children reports having been physically abused in the home, while two-thirds of children on the street cite violence as the chief reason they ran away from home.

The most common form of abuse involves a man–father, husband, boyfriend, uncle–although various other forms exist, including violence by mothers against their children, wives against husbands. Carlos is quick to cite that while violent acts have their authors and victims in the moment of abuse, they also have their witnesses, accomplices, and an overall environment that either facilitates the violence or perpetuates it. For example, long and heated arguments often turn violent; without the shouting, the abuse might not happen. Siblings may feel powerless as they watch a brother or sister get hit–but is there a role they might play in averting or mitigating the event? Addressing family violence requires healing an entire family.
Family violence was first brought to light by the feminist movement. Twenty years ago a woman could find no sympathetic ear among authorities, not until female officers were assigned to take such cases. Later, around 1998, special family courts were established to handle these cases. The new courts sped up the processing of the accused, but they emphasized quick and meaningless punitive remedies that moved men through the system with little effect. Carlos reports that this system actually created a culture of impunity among violent men who reasoned that it was cheap and convenient to beat wives, even if they ran into legal trouble. Clearly this was not an effective remedy.

Judges, of course, are not blind to the ineffectiveness of their routine sentencing and collection of fines. Those who care want alternatives, but they tend to think in terms of tougher penal codes that would put offenders behind bars. At the same time, they are sensitive to the paradoxical solution of doing even more harm by removing the main wage earner–violent though he may be–from a family for months or years at a time, creating even more hardship.

For its part, the medical profession has been content to provide services when called upon, but not to take initiative at the structural level. So long as its contribution depends on abusers referring themselves and paying for their own treatment, the medical establishment's contribution will be necessarily small in scope and reactive in nature.


Carlos is working on the "supply side" and the "demand side" of his idea simultaneously. Creating demand means building capacity within the legal system to make use of counseling services. Judges have to understand that an alternative exists, why they should use it, when it is applicable, and what steps they can take to change how abusers are handled by the courts. This is somewhat easier now than when Carlos first began trying to get judges' attention. One after the other closed the door in Carlos's face, refusing to meet, talk, or open up the question of weaknesses in the legal system to an outsider. After all, what does a psychologist know about the law? Finally, after a dozen rejections and refusals, Carlos found a single judge, not in the heart of Rio de Janeiro but in a rural district of the state, who liked Carlos's idea enough to work with him on the details of implementation. This one judge opened the way for his peers and colleagues to follow. With a working model in place, other judges in other jurisdictions of Rio de Janeiro began to take Carlos more seriously.

The role of the judge is quite important to the process of rehabilitation. In order for abusers to arrive at therapy in the right frame of mind, they need to choose to be there and not view the program as a sentence mandated by the court. It is not supposed to feel like punishment. So judges need to take the time to explain to offenders what options they have. If, at the time of arraignment, the judge feels that there is enough evidence for the case to move forward, and furthermore feels that the case is remediable, then he or she can offer a choice: you may go to trial or you can choose to participate in rehabilitation. Offering choices to accused offenders requires something of a cultural shift in the courts; accordingly, "sensitizing" judges is a rather intensive process in itself. Though judges in family courts are certainly not hostile to the idea of rehabilitation, they have no experience with programs of this kind. In Carlos's efforts to pilot the program in Rio de Janeiro, so far, judges in family courts have referred 220 men to the program.

Having supplied the solution on the demonstration scale, Carlos is now preparing to spread the idea more widely. Carlos has an organization, Instituto NOOS, that spreads the counseling method by training professional facilitators to run the groups. Twenty-four psychologists have so far been trained, and another 20 or so are now in training. The challenge moving forward will be to work out the payment structure so that the psychologists can be compensated for their work. A government grant paid for the pilot project while Carlos and several of his colleagues more or less volunteered their time. For the idea to spread widely, however, a more consistent source of remuneration must be available. In addition to possible government support, which Carlos continues to pursue, there is a fund supported by employers and the business sector, who also have a stake in reducing family violence among their workforce.

Other areas for development include generating rehabilitation workshops for victims of violence and other family members. So far, 80 women have participated in victims' workshops, while 450 other families have been identified, in partnership with the Children and Youth Foundation, as potential participants. Identifying children at risk and referring families to counseling services would involve schools, particularly teachers, in a way similar to the engagement of judges.

In all of its activities, the NOOS Institute draws on an extensive network of governmental partners, such as the Ministry of Health, and many other citizen sector organizations.


Born into a large family of Italian immigrants in the North Zone of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos was a quiet, inquisitive child. Though he was a good student, he had little interest in becoming the engineer his father hoped for. Carlos was more interested in the people and society around him. At 14, he took a particular interest in an illegal fishing operation he discovered near a spot where his family vacationed. Dolphins were dying in large fish corrals spread across the bay. Without prompting from anyone, he contacted marine biologists, officials, and other sources of information to discover that the large and destructive nets were being operated by corrupt local officials. This was one of Carlos's first encounters with institutional impunity.

He began studying psychology. Interning at a psychiatric hospital, he was troubled by the large number of young people whose behavioral problems were labeled as psychiatric conditions. Adolescents were being committed to psychiatric institutions simply because their parents did not have the ability or interest in trying to communicate with them. Carlos and his friends, although still just student interns, organized a service through which they provided in-home counseling for the teens and their families, thus preventing the institutionalization of essentially healthy people.

This was Carlos's introduction to the discipline of family therapy, the field in which he decided to specialize. Through his practice, he discovered how widespread and destructive family violence is, and how little was being done to heal families. Carlos founded a clinic with a focus in providing family services. He soon realized that his techniques could be used for other purposes. He began to publish his methodology and research, and organize events.