Ana Maria Vasconcelos is a lawyer from Recife in Brazil's northeast. After practicing law and being active in the women's movement, she has taken up the neglected and terribly difficult task of finding ways to help the country's street girls.
The New Idea
Street girls have been an unthinkable topic, if ubiquitous reality, in Brazil for years. Ana is at work researching the problem and how best to solve it, demonstrating her approach, and forcing the issue into view -- and society to begin responding -- with a powerful spotlight.She has gradually evolved an approach that works.First, she tries to help the girls get and stay off the streets. She respects them as young women, but counsels them and their families where possible. She gives special attention to preventative work with the mothers, daughters, and granddaughters of prostitutes.Central to her approach is a house to which the girls can come daily for work, training, medical and other care, a wash, counseling, reliable relationships and simple safety. For use both inside and outside the house she has developed respectful ways the would-be intervenor can use to build effective working relationships with these often badly bruised young women.At the same time, Ana is fighting for the girls' interests. She is exposing the discrimination and exploitation they suffer from both the police and the very institutions that are supposed to be protecting them. Recently, for example, she sued a public hospital for discriminating against a female street child taken in for emergency treatment.Ultimately, Ana hopes her research and her experiments helping the girls and fighting for their interests will help Brazil and its institutions develop an honest, caring, effective approach to these least fortunate of its citizens. She has already published an influential booklet defining the problem and suggesting how individuals and institutions can best help.
There are hundreds of young girls entirely on their own on Recife's streets. And they are but a small fraction of the children at risk; UNICEF reports that several million Brazilian girls fifteen years old or younger are engaging in prostitution.Ana's research and several years' work have allowed her to construct a profile of the situation of the average street girl of Recife. According to Ana, most of the girls leave their homes as young as 6 or 7 years of age, the victims of sexual abuse or, more frequently, economic need. Once in the street they learn to confront police violence, drugs and crime, and for many, prostitution becomes the chief viable alternative. Arrested and often abused by the police, these girls generally wind up at Recife's Center of Temporary Services (CAP), a place which Ana describes as little more than a prison. When their sentence at the CAP is completed, the girls return to the street. The cycle begins again, and can be repeated for up to ten years until the girls are no longer minors.For Ana, one of the fundamental obstacles to breaking this cycle is the public and private institutions' male bias in dealing with street children. Although many social workers are women, they are frequently indifferent to the special needs of homeless girls and usually are strongly prejudiced against prostitution. Most prefer to blame the victims rather than the system for their situation. "They like street life," "they enjoy prostitution," and "they're just lazy," are common comments. In reality young prostitutes, even those in their early teens, are treated and mistreated as street women and not street children. This allows the institutions to avoid confronting and responding to their very different needs and problems.
Ana originally began experimenting with more than family-by- family intervention last year. She launched a series of discussion groups among women of all generations in a community very heavily dependent on prostitution. Mothers, daughters, and granddaughters thought together both about women's issues and rights and about possible ways to make a living other than prostitution. She plans further experiments over the next year or two.Her most immediate priority in serving the girls she has been working with is to open a house that will give both the girls and her work with them a base. In addition to providing necessary services (medical, legal, psychological, training, personal and occupational counselling), she expects that such a safe house will help the girls construct stronger identities, both individual and collective. It would also help protect them against various exploiters.A major part of Ana's strategy involves reaching the rest of society, both in Recife and beyond. She has used the press in Recife very effectively, both to educate and as a battering ram for change. She also writes for the national press occasionally and is now intrigued by organizing municipal and later national level encounters of street girls.If her pilot experiences are successful, she would like to take the model to other cities in Brazil. As her research and experience mature, she will also consider writing a book to ensure the spread of the lessons she is learning.
Ana was born in Recife and has also lived in Rio de Janeiro. Now 34 years old, she has a law degree and graduate specialization in urban and rural development. As a young lawyer, she defended prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro's Republica Plaza.Returning to Recife in 1981, Ana became active in the women's movement and with human rights organizations. In 1986 she began to meet street children through her work at the "Assistancial League of Recife" (LAR). She helped to set up a hotline that street children could call when in need of legal or medical assistance.Ana was always particularly interested in the special needs of homeless girls, and fought to have a separate program established for them at the LAR. Her experiences led her to publish a book on the lives of Recife's street girls. The volume drew much critical attention, both positive, from people who felt the system needed to be changed, and negative, chiefly from those whom the book portrays unfavorably. It helped draw attention to the problem and recruited new workers.