Gabriela Silva Leite (Otília)

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1987
Teia da Vida
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Gabriela Silva Leite (Otília)'s work was prepared when Gabriela Silva Leite (Otília) was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1987 .


Gabriela worked as a prostitute for more than a decade during the 1970s and '80s, a period in which she witnessed frequent violations of her colleagues' basic rights. She became a pioneer of the prostitutes' movement in Brazil, which incorporated the anti-AIDS struggle in the 1980s as an instrument of citizenship and social control. Gabriela has a degree in sociology from the Universidade de Sao Paulo. She directs and co-founded the NGO Davida, which promotes the human rights of prostitutes and the regulation of the industry, and is a board member of the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), an informal global alliance of sex workers and organizations that provide services to sex workers. NSWP formed in 1991 to promote sex workers' health and human rights and has member organizations in more than forty countries.

Gabriela is an intelligent, highly articulate person with some college education. Economic
difficulties led her to prostitution early in her life — first in Sao Paulo and then in the Mangue
district of Rio de Janeiro. When she began working as a prostitute, she was horrified by the
existing conditions. The great majority of the women were illiterate; many were recent
immigrants &om the northeast; their food was often spoiled and the women commonly ate with
their hands. The police treated them very badly, charging them as vagabonds; later they would
come back to use the women. Virtually no health or education services were offered to these
women or for their children.

The Problem

Gabriela has mapped the several levels of prostitution: from the massage parlors and Copacabana night clubs serving tourists, to the women of the docks area, to the downtown street girls. Gabriela does not deal with the upper layers of prostitution but rather focuses on the far larger, lower groups with which she is personally familiar.
Gabriela describes the field as one governed by "special survival laws without values". These
survival laws do not include attacking the system. When one of her Sao Paulo colleagues was
killed in a police station, a group of prostitutes demonstrated and attracted press attention with
mixed reviews. Gabriela decided not to get involved, fearing for her life.
However, after eight years in the field, she saw that something had to be done. Gabriela has set
out to organize prostitutes in Rio and Sao Paulo and more broadly across the country. She has
three objectives: (1) protection against police violence, (2) education for both the women and
their children, and (3) health care including birth control, not least because of the AIDS threat.

The Strategy

Gabriela's first step toward accomplishing these objectives is to organize the prostitutes. She has
been traveling to prostitute communities in different parts of the country, discussing immediate
problems and long-term strategies. She organized the first national meeting of prostitutes to
begin defining a national agenda, and was deeply touched by the appreciation given her at this
Second, Gabriela is trying to form an alliance with human rights groups and especially with
human rights lawyers so that they will be able to handle future cases as needed.
Third, she has started to build up an education program. Gabriela has increasingly been able to
attract university students, especially education program students, as volunteer teachers.
For her health, educational, and other objectives, Gabriela is pressing for' changes in public
Finally, she is undertaking research into the history of prostitution in Brazil and gathering a
broad set of background statistics. Gabriela hopes to use this information both to build
awareness within the prostitute community and also as a part of her approach to sensitizing the
Brazilian population.
Gabriela began her organizing work several years ago by launching a simple afternoon course for
the Mangue area's children. However, the church threw her out of the facilities it had made
available when she refused to cease being a prostitute herself, having no other means to support
herself. Ultimately, teaching was re-established at a nearby School of Samba facility.
Since then, she has advanced remarkably quickly. She has clearly learned many skills, e. g. using
the press, and she is well into her learning curve of building an organization.
Gabriela's work could be extremely significant:
(I) The community she is serving in Brazil is enormous (UNICEF claims there are 2. 5 million
teenage girls working as prostitutes in Brazil. ) It is also one of the neediest groups in the
(2) By tackling the extreme case and raising it to a level of public consciousness, Gabriela
may speed the evolution of Brazil's male/female relationships.
Ashoka's help will allow Gabriela to dedicate her full time to this enormous task. It will help her
build a national effort, from the mining towns in the Amazon to the large urban centers.
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