Dispatches from Brazil: Part Two

Monday, 7 March 2011










Our trip to Brazil is certainly shaping up to be a trip of contrasts. After the frenetic pace and crowds of Rio we've spent the past two days getting away from it all in the northern state of Parà, right on the Amazon in the city of Santarém.

It's a place which is as far removed from Rio as you can imagine. It took us three flights and a whole day to get there, for a start. The pace of life is slower, the streets have a sleepy atmosphere and the heat makes stepping outside feel like stepping into an oven.

But in just two short days we've managed to fit in a night at carnival, a trip right into the Amazonian countryside and some well-earned chillout time on a strip of white sand in the middle of the river which was unforgettable. There were rowing boats, water lapping at the sand and cold beers. Leaving was hard.

That's not all we've been doing, however. The majority of our visit here was spent with Santarém's GADA youth group – formed a year and a half ago to provide training to young people in issues surrounding sexual health, reproductive rights and gender violence. ActionAid has supported the group through training and although it's no longer providing help, the plan is to replicate GADA's work in Santarém at the centre in Maré.

And it's truly fantastic work. Something I feel needs pointing out right now is that I have genuinely never met teens of both genders who are so motivated and well-informed about these issues and what they're doing in their community.

They spend their time talking to people in doctor's waiting rooms, presenting talks at schools, handing out leaflets and thinking of strategies to effect change among their peers. As we spent time with them, it was plain to see how their lives have been impacted by the project.

They told us how they've set up a system of contacts and helplines to enable young people to report sexual abuse or violence, of how they've had the opportunity to travel to events all over the country and of how they've seen their friends and families changed.

Plenty of you will be familiar with the outrage expressed by certain UK newspapers when it has been suggested that schoolchildren should be educated about sexual violence. I've blogged about it more than once, focusing on outrage at proposals for education about domestic violence and also at Rape Crisis's packs for schools.

The former story lambasted the government's 'equalities agenda' and the obviously nefarious influence of feminism in Westminster. It was the first thing I thought of as I sat watching the GADA group perform a fantastic presentation to a group of younger children at a church-run club about sexual violence and gender roles. Here was an age appropriate presentation. It had the children engaged. And they were given resources which they could take home to show their parents.

It's the sort of thing that would have many a right-thinking Middle Englander apoplectic with rage, but in Santarém, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive and to be honest, it really hammered it home to me why we fight for equality and that when we do, it works.

18-year-old Lucas Gomes is one of the group members we spent a lot of time with while in Santarém. Whether he's talking to children at the church club, showing us the videos GADA has made and chatting to us about his life he's incredibly open and confident in his opinions.

“I am really proud to be part of GADA,” he told us. “We live in a really sexist society and men treat women like they are nothing. But I have been able to help people understand about gender violence and my friends now come to me for advice, particularly about sexual health.”

Like his contemporaries in Maré, Lucas thinks that domestic violence is a major issue but also feels that people are starting to take action against it more and more, as women in the community become aware that they have the same legal rights as men.

“Following one of the activities two of my friends did, they helped a girl to tell the police that she had been a victim of sexual violence,” he said.

“We all felt motivated to help this girl and it made us feel happy that our work is not in vain.”

As we listened to Lucas talk about his desire to see gender equality among the people he knows, I thought how much of a shame it is that young people, as mentors and community educators, are tragically underused.

All too often they're seen as apathetic or as troublemakers. Work like the project GADA has implemented in Santarém proves that this isn't the case and that young people can in fact be amazing advocates for social change and education. The teens we spoke to have had the opportunity to attend international conferences and it has enabled some of them to find jobs. They're so proud to be part of such an initiative but for all of them, the best thing is seeing other people impacted by what they do.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image: Lucas Gomes at home in Santarém.

Photos: Eduardo Martino / Documentography / ActionAid

 

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