issue 240 - February 1993
A passage out of hell
When Ana Vasconcelos talked to girls living rough in Recite, Brazil, they told her that they thought of the streets as their 'passage to hell'. When she set up the Passage House in 1989, it was named In hope of changing that reality.
On Brazilian streets, girls adrift are less common than boys. But their choices are fewer and chances of psychological damage greater. Street boys can identify with adventurous and daring male roles. For Brazilian girls, there is only the nurturing mother-saint, a far cry from the trade in street sex to which many are reduced. These girls feel spiritually lost. 'I know it is not right what I am,' said one 11-year-old girl. 'I know I am worthless.' There are thought to be 500,000 girls on Brazilian streets earning money from prostitution.
The girls come from homes that have rejected them, broken down or become intolerable from pressures linked with poverty. Or they escaped from houses where they were placed as domestic workers, from institutions or brothels. Many have been violently or sexually abused. Many sniff giue or take drugs for comfort.
Few talk of fathers - 'A father is a luxury' said one. Many speak of physical violence: 'My mother died when I was 10; she was shot and fell dead on top of me'. Many speak of anger: 'I wanted to wake up dead. I wanted the newspaper to publish my picture very large to embarrass my mother.'
Most of the girls would like to do the same jobs as street boys - car washing, shoe cleaning or petty trading. Some do, but they tend to be rejected by the boys' gangs and public attitudes can make it very difficult. 'I tried to sail people sweets, but they spat at me,' said one girl. Street girls soon find out that they have something that they can sell: their sex, If they don't name a price, it will be stolen. 'They sell their bodies to protect themselves - to avoid people doing what they want for nothing,' says Ana Vasconcelos. But this deepens society's condemnation and their own sense of worthlessness. Many blame the mother who failed to protect them.
Before the Passage House, street educators managed to make little contact with the girls. 'They wanted to organize them for the political fight,' says Ana. 'But girls had more urgent needs. What can I do not to be raped; what can I do when I menstruate on the streets; what can I do not to get pregnant? Educators were not in a position 10 deal with such questions. So the girls went away.'
The Passage House educators keep in touch with the girls on the streets and have learned how to counter their self-condemnation. 'The girls repeat the judgements of others,' says Ana. 'We ask, "Why are you bad? Look at that boy - he does the same things as you but you don't think him bad. Why not?"' They are helped to understand what has brought them to street life. Some come to realize that their 'wicked' mothers were as powerless and identity-less as they are.
At the Passage House day centre the girls help formulate the rules. Glue sniffing is banned, as are drugs or knives in the house. The girls cook for themselves and clean. There is medical and psychological support, as well as practical advice on how to live more safely on the streets. Those with children are given childcare training.
For some, this is a place of temporary respite; for others, the beginning of transition away from street life. Where possible, girls are helped to return home. Those who cannot go back, but really want to leave the street, are offered a place In one of several small residential houses owned by the programme.
Ana believes that most of the girls can change. Even the older girls - less likely to change radically - learn to behave differently towards their own daughters. But the world in which the girls seek a fresh start is more intractable. 'We have girls right new who are prepared for non-prostitution work and prepared for life, but who will give them a job so they can survive with dignity?'
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