Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 1992   |   Brazil

Sylvio José de Oliveira

Sylvio Jose de Oliveira has created an independent, voluntary program in the Rio de Janeiro state prison system designed to prevent AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases from spreading among…
Read more
This description of Sylvio José de Oliveira's work was prepared when Sylvio José de Oliveira was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.


Sylvio Jose de Oliveira has created an independent, voluntary program in the Rio de Janeiro state prison system designed to prevent AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases from spreading among and through the inmates. The focus of this program is to provide health and hygiene information, and at the same time enhance individual self-esteem. Sylvio's project is now being implemented in thirteen of the sixteen prisons in Rio de Janeiro.

The New Idea

While working for four years in the notorious Rio prison system teaching music, theater, and art, Sylvio saw how quickly the prisoners lost their sense of self-worth and esteem.Sylvio's interest in AIDS prevention came after a close friend died of AIDS. Sylvio was with his friend from the time of the diagnosis until his death, and he saw how the AIDS sufferer became a prisoner of the disease. He watched his friend being discriminated against and cut off. He learned how few resources were available to treat him and other AIDS patients."AIDS is different. Not from the perspective of death, but from the condemnation by society," Sylvio says. An AIDS patient dies a "social death" because society does not hesitate to condemn the HIV-positive person. "A person who is HIV positive and an inmate have a lot in common," Sylvio says. "A diagnosis and a condemnation; isolation and a forced solitude; the hope for a cure and the hope for liberty. But, on top of all this, both of these people are already considered dead by society."From the two experiences, Project Tereza was created. Its most urgent goal is to offer prisoners information about AIDS transmission and help with the prevention of the disease and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). By getting inmates concerned about AIDS, STDs, and their health, Sylvio is getting them to care about themselves as human beings.The program is called Project Tereza because in Portuguese a tereza is the term for a makeshift rope--made of towels and bed sheets--used to scale down a prison to escape.Project Tereza offers a type of rope or lifeline to escape the isolation and despair of prison life, while at the same time controlling a deadly disease. Usually the only means of getting support or guidance for the inmates is through prison pastors, and Sylvio found that most prisoners were not interested in religious counseling. project Tereza offers an alternative, wherein the educator is more than someone to talk to about AIDS. The project worker's contact with prisoners takes place weekly and on an individual basis, thus creating an "alternative friendship." The project workers gain the trust of the inmates because they are on neutral ground, not linked to any religious or political group.

The Problem

In Brazil, the rapid spread of AIDS and STDs in the prison system is a grave problem. A 1989 report by the human rights organization Americas Watch said that in some prisons as many as fifteen to twenty percent of the inmates are infected with the AIDS virus. While AIDS is a threat throughout Brazil, treating it is all the more difficult in prisons that lack basic hygiene and health facilities.According to the Americas Watch report, prison conditions in Brazil are some of the worst in the world. Inmates are often crammed into small, filthy cells that are designed for half or a third of the number of prisoners locked inside. The cells are infested with rats and roaches.Guards are known to torture and beat prisoners to obtain confessions and, in some cases, carry out mass executions of inmates, as was the case of a 1992 prison fire in Rio de Janeiro that was set by guards. Inmates will assault and rape one another, and sometimes murder other inmates as a form of protest against prison conditions.Furthermore, there is a lack of one-on-one counseling. According to the Brazilian Federal Department of Penitentiaries, only forty percent of the inmates receive visitors. Abandoned by friends, family, and society, they lack any feeling or sense of self-worth, and therefore are heedless of health precautions and basic hygiene.

The Strategy

Sylvio's Project Tereza is based on having continual one-on-one contact with prisoners in order to establish a relationship with inmates, giving them someone on whom they know they can depend. During the consultation with the prisoners, the project worker answers questions about AIDS and hygiene and talks about safe sex. If the inmate complains about a possible STD, the project worker contacts the prison doctor. The worker hopes the information he or she gives the prisoners will be passed on by word of mouth to other prisoners. Sometimes the project confronts the subject of the risks of indirect transmission of HIV. For instance, an inmate will often deny having homosexual relations, but will accept condoms for his "sons" or "family members." Meanwhile, to reach larger audiences, the project worker in each prison gives a speech once a month to groups of inmates about safe sex and distributes condoms.Sylvio hopes to further leverage his workers' impact with a mobile unit, which would allow his teams to visit several prisons per day instead of just one; it would be equipped with video equipment that would make it easier to present educational films about AIDS and STDs in all the prisons.Sylvio, whose program is already established in most of Rio de Janeiro's state prisons, now plans to extend his model to the rest of Brazil's prisons. To this end he has already been invited by the secretary of health of Sao Paulo to start the program there. He is beginning to receive requests for information about how the project works from across Brazil and even from AIDS leaders in Amsterdam.

The Person

Sylvio grew up in Rio de Janeiro, showing early leadership qualities and concern for the city's poor residents by organizing high school classmates to work in a slum neighborhood. After finishing his education, Sylvio became a writer and artist, supporting himself by working with disabled children, using his language skills, and playing music professionally. He has written two books, founded his own small newspaper, and has been involved in numerous seminars and conferences on health and AIDS issues.

Fellows working in the same sector

Harley Henriques do Nascimento

Ashoka Fellow since Dec 1998

Clemens Mulokozi

Ashoka Fellow since May 2015

Marinalva Santana

Ashoka Fellow since Feb 2014

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.