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Public dissatisfaction with the government at the hosting of the World Cup was widely publicised again this week when tear gas was used on protesters who were supporting striking transport workers. News networks around the world have picked up on the concerns of regular Brazilians that money which could be better used to support health and education programmes, is being spent on hosting football matches.
The legacy of the event - and Rio 2016 - will be known in years to come if they do succeed in raising Brazil’s profile on a world stage and help to increase the country’s GDP. It may take time, but there is the chance that public investment in services will increase in the future as a direct result of hosting these global sporting events.
In the more immediate term however there is a story that is less well known and which the influx of millions of tourists could in fact exacerbate. It’s the exploitation of children, in particular their trafficking for sex.
Youth unemployment is a big problem in Brazil. Whilst overall unemployment has fallen recently to around 5%, for young people it stands at over 15%. Moreover the actual unemployment numbers are difficult to ascertain because they count the number of people actively looking for work and express them as a percentage of the workforce. The actual number of people out of work is therefore likely to be much higher.
Although recent poverty programmes have been credited as lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty, nevertheless it’s thought around 20% of the population are living below the poverty line, although this is not a statistic that the Brazilian government tracks.
The real issue is, what do the people do to combat this state of affairs? The answer is that for many young people, prostitution is a way of life that they use to earn money. A recent BBC Panorama programme revealed that hundreds of thousands of young people – some not even in their teens – are selling themselves, or being forced to prostitute themselves by drug dealers and pimps. Worse, some young people are being tricked into human trafficking; taken away from their homes and forced into prostitution in areas renowned for child sex.
Whilst prostitution is legal in Brazil for women over 18 years, it’s thought that one in four sex workers is a child. Key authorities including the police and the owners of so-called ‘Love Motels’ - who are breaking the law if they admit people younger than 18 - are frequently turning a blind eye.
Several NGOs and the government have begun to research the scale of the problem in a bid to address it, but they acknowledge that the sexual exploitation of children has become normalised within the country. People do not seem to understand it is a problem and therefore it is harder to combat.
Liliam Sa, Chair of the Parliamentary Enquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation, painted a bleak picture in the Panorama programme saying, “Sexual exploitation and sex tourism are visible and endemic and growing all the time. We are fighting the normalisation and acceptance of this [child sexualisation].”
A fourteen year old girl who was prostituting herself for money to buy drugs, told reporter Chris Rogers, “There will be many children, girls aged 10, 11 ,12 even 9 year olds selling sex for money. Lots of my friends do it.” She charges around BRL 50 – about £13 – for men to have sex with her wherever they like. She has been attacked by clients.
A key part of the problem is the behaviour has been normalised as a way of life. A 2009 report by Childhood Brazil which looked at construction workers and the sex trade said, “In the eyes of the majority of this population of men workers, there is no sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. They are not seen as victims even as children or adolescents. Treating the phenomenon in this context, means to change the perception of these men, make the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents seen in its real context; as grave, unacceptable and a problem that needs to be addressed continuously and tirelessly...The study shows that common men are the perpetrators of this serious violence against children and adolescents. About 85% of respondents say they have seen children or adolescents involved with the sex trade near to construction areas.
66.9% of respondents claim that their fellow workers go out with people under 18 years old, 43.3% said "girls under 18 can prostitute themselves if they want", 25.4% reported having engaged in commercial sex with children or adolescents.
This connects to the reason why so many people in Brazil – far from celebrating the World Cup as would be usual – are protesting its expense. “Poor communities have been neglected by government for a long time,” said one protester. “Where is the health care, education, sanitation? The government’s throwing money away here, this will be our country’s shame. This money could have better use. There’s no healthcare, no jobs, lack of education, no reliable security.”
One mother whose daughter was selling herself for sex in the shadow of a new stadium said, “Every seat in there could pay for a family to escape the favela or to protect a child.”
Angela Goulart of the Protection of Children and Adolescents said the key was to, “Put an end to the cycle of needing to enter a socially unacceptable world in order to survive.”
Additionally the police and other protection authorities need to step up to the job of shielding children from exploitation. Liliam Sa feels that the police are part of the problem. She said, “I was shocked because the police themselves often cover up these activities.” She concluded, “Sexual exploitation is a cruel way to take away a child’s dreams. It’s a life lost.”
Fortaleza is one of the World Cup cities where Liliam Sa has specific concerns. A poorer area and more violent than Sao Paulo, it is a favoured destination for sex tourists, and she is worried that some tourists coming for the football will also be coming looking for sex with children. Trafficking of children to these areas does seem to have stepped up in the run-up to the tournament.
It’s clear this is a very thorny issue and there is no simple answer. More and more NGOs are beginning to work to help children and families, but for many the issue will only be eased when poverty is relieved and the nation no longer sees it as normal that children sell their bodies for sex.
Part of this is about raising awareness. Today the World Cup kicked off at Itaquerao the Corinthians Arena which has been related to many of the allegations of sexual exploitation of minors, and where the NGO Childhood Brazil conducted the above survey.
Last month, on a National Day to Combat Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, the stadium was chosen as the site for an event that involved around 1000 people from the NGO sector, children and protesters to raise awareness of the issue.
Now, on the day when we think about preventing child labour as well as the kick-off of the World Cup, we’re urging visitors to Brazil not to add to the problem of child sexual exploitation and to help the country combat the issue.
If you would like to learn more about the organisations which are working to end child exploitation in Brazil, check out these organisations and reports: