Sylvio José De Oliveira
Fellow Since 1992
This profile was prepared when Sylvio José De Oliveira was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
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.