Dilma Felizardo Ferreira
Fellow Since 1994
This profile was prepared when Dilma Felizardo Ferreira was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.
Having worked with street children for more than a decade, Dilma Felizardo is now engaged in an innovative venture that is helping the economically destitute mothers of street girls and young prostitutes acquire new skills, earn stable incomes, and bring their daughters back into their households. The central focus of the initiative is a "factory school," in which the mothers learn hammock-making skills and receive other support that enables them to set up small hammock-making operations in their homes.
The New Idea
In most major Brazilian cities, the presence of large numbers of street children, separated from their families and eking out miserable existences in the midst of squalor, crime, and violence, is a long familiar phenomenon. Over the past fifteen years, although public agencies have done very little to address the problem, a growing array of private, nonprofit organizations have developed programs that respond in various ways to street children's health, educational, psychological and emotional needs.A psychologist with a strong commitment to protecting the rights of especially disadvantaged people, Dilma Felizardohas been deeply engaged in such efforts since 1984, when she was a university student in Recife. In 1989, she played a pioneering role in establishing the first program that focused on the particular needs of street girls in that city, and in 1991 she moved to Natal (the capital city of the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte), where she established a similarly path-breaking program for street girls and young prostitutes.In her work in Natal, Dilma became increasingly aware of the critically important roles of mothers of street girls in forcing the girls to the streets, and she also became convinced that the reuniting of mother and daughter is, in many cases, a critically important ingredient in the viable long-term resolution of street girls' needs. But she also observed that the vast majority of the mothers of street girls were destitute and demoralized and saw few prospects for acquiring sufficient economic means to sustain a household.Convinced, therefore, that their mothers' lack of income-generating skills is a critically important obstacle to the development of effective solutions for street girls' needs, Dilma decided to create a program to equip the mothers with the skills and other means required for generating steady, albeit modest, incomes. After examining several possibilities, Dilma decided, with appropriate outside counsel, to develop a small hammock producing industry around the nucleus of a "factory-school."With financial assistance from foreign and domestic sources, a building was purchased, equipment was installed, and the factory school began its operations in March of 1995. In addition to the training that it provides in the use of a simple hammock-making machine, the school offers its students literacy instruction and facilitates their participation in a wide range of community-organized social and cultural events. After a period of several months, when the needed skills have been acquired, program "graduates" obtain the equipment and raw materials required for home production of hammocks through loans from a school-operated revolving fund, and they subsequently repay the loans from their hammock-making earnings.
In the Northeast region of Brazil, a complex array of poverty-related social forces drives, and lures, young girls to the streets. But Dilma's research and other studies have clearly demonstrated that the origins of that phenomenon can very often be traced to the desperate situations and hopelessness of their mothers.Mothers who forcibly expel or otherwise drive their daughters from their homes live at the margins of society, in conditions that can be fairly described as sub-human, and they lack both the financial and emotional resources required for attending to their children's needs. In many such households, men are either absent or, if present, the perpetrators of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse against both mothers and daughters.Dilma's experience has also revealed that mothers of street girls, (the vast majority of whom are black and some three-quarters of whom have migrated to the coast from interior towns and villages), are almost invariably illiterate and unemployed. Many of them formerly worked as washerwomen, cleaners, seamstresses, or domestic employees, but they are no longer able to contend successfully for declining numbers of such jobs. Not surprisingly, most of them are deeply demoralized and despondent.In pushing their daughters to the streets, they condemn their offspring to lives no betterand quite possibly even more demeaningthan their own. For the girls, the principal advantages of the streets are a limited taste of freedom, and the company of other girls who mirror their own unhappy experiences and thus offer a welcome form of consolation and support. But street life is replete with deprivation and life-threatening risks. To escape from the pangs of hunger, many street girls resort to drugs (glue sniffing in particular), begging, and theft. The step into prostitution is a short one, and it all too often leads to AIDS and/or unwanted pregnancies. In addition, there is the ever present threat of violence from any number of sources, including the police and death squads who bring the lives of untold numbers of street girls and boys to a tragic end.Unfortunately, most public authorities in Brazil do little or nothing to address the needs of street children, or to combat the many problems that force them to the streets. Therefore, any realistic hope, for effective responses to their needs lies in the work of innovative and dedicated not-for-profit organizations.
Shortly after moving to Natal in 199l, Dilma established a new organization, the Brazilian Center of Information and Orientation for Social Well-Being, with a broadly defined mandate focusing on the strengthening of democratic society and the promotion of effective citizenship through volunteer activities. Under the aegis of that organization, she established a program for street girls and young prostitutes in 1992 (Casa Renascer) and the related Factory School initiative to provide street girls' mothers with income-generating skills (Fábrica-Escola Redes Renascer) in 1995.The building for the factory school was acquired with the assistance of Misereor (a German church-related development funding agency), and the needed equipment was purchased with a Canadian government grant. With additional financial backing from a small business assistance agency of the Brazilian government, the Factory School opened its initial training program in hammock production in March of 1995. The training and subsequent apprenticeships for in-factory hammock production proceeded more smoothly and rapidly than anticipated, and at the end of a three-month period, the first group of graduates were ready to set up hammock production in their own homes.To assist the transition to home production, the program has established a revolving loan fund that enables its graduates to acquire the necessary equipment and raw materials. (The loans are eventually repaid from hammock-making earnings.) The program also operates a market stall, at which hammocks are sold to the general public, and it is developing a more ambitious marketing plan that includes sales for overseas markets. Not surprisingly, the production initiative has encountered a number of teething problems (e.g., in equipment maintenance and quality control), but those are being addressed with technical assistance provided by its financial backers.Training in hammock-making skills is accompanied by other support services, including literacy instruction and psychological counseling (for mothers and daughters). Although sufficient time has not yet elapsed for a thorough evaluation, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that the factory-school initiative is producing its intended effects on the economic circumstances and self-esteem of the substantial numbers of mothers whom it has served, and Dilma is confident that it is thus setting the stage for the rebuilding of mother/daughter relationships and the return of growing numbers of street girls to their homes.Because of its path-breaking focus on street children's mothers and its promising results thus far, the program is attracting considerable attention and receiving numerous visitors from social service and development assistance agencies, and it is already being viewed as a model for replication in other parts of the country.
Dilma was born in Ceará and has lived and worked in several neighboring states in the Northeast of Brazil. Brought up in middle-class surroundings and educated in church-related schools, she was an avid reader at an early age, with strong interests in the humanities and social sciences. As a university student in Recife, she obtained professional training in the field of psychology.Politically engaged and strongly committed to protecting the rights of disadvantaged people during her student years, Dilma traces her special concern for street children to a course in social psychology in 1984, for which she read a journalist's account of the violence-filled lives of street children in Recife. Deeply troubled by that account, she thought about her own responsibilities, as a fellow human being and Recife resident, in the face of such suffering and indignity. She soon decided to establish contact with such children on streets that she regularly traveled, and she has worked ceaselessly in their behalf ever since.Upon completing her university studies, Dilma spent her daylight working hours as a psychologist in an institute concerned with intelligence, aptitude, and personality testing and, later, in the personnel division of a private firm. But her evenings were increasingly occupied in coping with the problems of Recife's street children, and in 1989, she left her private-sector post in order to devote her full energies to street children and their needs.During that same period, Dilma became increasingly preoccupied with a related set of issues concerning the emphasis, in most studies and service programs for street children, on the problems of street boys and the corresponding neglect of street girls and their needs. Accordingly, as one of the founders of a new initiative in Recife, she decided to develop a specific focus on the special problems and needs of street girls.