Together with our partner Casa da Mulher do Nordeste and thanks to the support of Comic Relief, for the last 3 years, we have been running a programme with Afro-Brazilian girls aged 10-18 who live in the community of Passarinho, on the outskirts of Recife. The young girls spend most of their time on the street. Many use alcohol. Some are users of cocaine. Many are single-mothers and/or victims of domestic and sexual violence. On paper, this project is tough stuff.
It is amazing what words on paper simply cannot show. My visit to Passarinho revealed a community with limited services, including health care and schooling. There is one school for primary education but after that, you need to travel out of the community to attend secondary school. There is a public bus terminal in the centre but the lack of street lighting was glaring.
Community members live in small houses surrounded by dirty, unpaved streets. I saw old women and wondered how they walk home safely at night, up and down the sloppy dirty streets. I wondered how people dispose of their rubbish as there seemed to be piles of it, here and there on the streets. There is one “bridge” that you need to cross to reach the homes. It can only support 2 people at any time. Its planks are loose and the bridge sits above a dirty river of mud and rubbish. Crossing it, I cannot help but feel that this forces community members to live without dignity.
New houses are being constructed, but not for the people of Passarinho but for the government to bring in people from outside, relocating them from one space to another to address the housing shortage in Pernambuco but with limited thought given to the impact of a growing population in this tiny community. This new public housing complex will come with a crèche, but there is already an unmet demand that exists in Passarinho for child care. Growing demand for limited services can only heighten community tensions.
We prepared for our lantern walk – a night walk with street lights to draw attention to the lack of public lighting and how this increases women’s and girl’s vulnerability to violence. A little boy who could not have been more than 7 years old beat his chest and said to us, "Don't worry, I’ll walk with you. You'll be safe, I’ll protect you." It was just one example but I could not help but think how gender roles and stereotypes get engrained at such an early age.
But I also saw another side. These young girls – yes, heavily made-up and looking far older than their teenage years – were happy and confident. I spoke to two sisters who looked nothing alike and we chatted about my two older sisters, with them challenging me to guess who was the older of the two.
We chanted together,
The city we want has no violence,
as community members came out of their homes to watch. Many are evidently grateful. We have helped provide a support network for these girls. They are going to school and they are role models for their peers who are not part of the programme. Teachers in Cabo where we also run the programme have asked for more girls to be included, as it is genuinely making a difference in the school environment.
But the best hope of the day came at the end of our lantern walk. Our Comic Relief project is just about wrapping up. A little girl spoke to my colleague at ActionAid Brazil,
We don’t need the free sandwiches. You don’t need to bring anything. Can you still just keep coming, even if it is only 1 day a month?
Our hope is that the young girls continue to organise and continue to meet. Our hope is that we find ways to support young girls in the community who are just turning 11 or 12 to form similar girl’s groups. Many of the girls who started the programme are now turning 17 and 18 years. We hope to find ways to support them to plan their futures, to decide what it is they want to do with their lives and pursue these dreams. These girls have a right not to live on the margins of society and we will continue to support them to make that right a reality.