Rio de Janeiro: Reintegration of young mothers into society

Street girls - and street girls’ girls and boys

Von Hans Meier / World Vision Schweiz

More than 700’000 people in Rio de Janeiro live in abject poverty. Many children try to survive on the street, which exposes them to great danger. Especially young women are vulnerable. Since 1999, the two NGOs World Vision and Ex-Cola have worked together annually with 20 young mothers, to help them regain self confidence and acquire practical skills so that they become able to treat their children better than they have been treated themselves.

Rio de Janeiro is surrounded by 600 slums (favelas) where approximately 700’000 people live. Many children go to Rio de Janeiro from these slums to beg or sell goods on the streets. Due to the distance many children do not have the possibility of returning home at night. Some of these children had been expelled from their home; others suffered abuse by their family and ran away. Thus many of them live on the streets under inhumane conditions.

The situation of poor children in Rio de Janeiro is both difficult and dangerous. In the period between 1970 and 2000, many thousand children were killed.

The street children are neglected and have been forgotten by the NGOs, churches and the state for a long time. Due to the dimension and complexity of the problem of street children, organizations have recognized the necessity to join forces and to avoid competitive interventions. Of these Street Children the most vulnerable are girls.

These girls living on the street are exposed to violence, abuse, illness, early pregnancies, drug consume, etc. About 90% of the girls are infected with syphilis and some of them are HIV positive. Some girls, less than ten years old, try to survive by begging, stealing, or selling of small goods or even drugs. When they get pregnant, they often leave their children back home or with someone else. If they are able to live with their children, they tend to look for protection in abandoned houses or in a backyard, where they can find shelter and protection for their children.

Giving young mothers a vision for the future

The “Young Mothers’ or Street Girls’ Project” was founded in 1999 and is implemented through a partnership between World Vision and Ex-Cola, a local NGO with much experience working with street children. The name Ex-Cola (ex glue) denotes an institution working with children who sold glue to drug addicts. These girls and boys living on the streets also began to sell and consume other drugs such as marihuana and cocaine.

The project started to work with girls after more and more girls began appearing on the streets. Girls tend to be more vulnerable to exploitation than boys.

The aim of the project is, whenever possible, to get the girls and young mothers away from the streets and to reintegrate them in their own families and communities. To achieve this, values of spirituality, respect and non violence have to be established. The topics of the training courses were defined by the young mothers themselves; they include pregnancy, exploitation, drugs, infectious diseases, lack of protection, shelter and crime.

The project works annually with a group of 20 young mothers and their children and even partners. With their intensive and integral approach each person of the group counts. There is not a percentage of success; all of them have to succeed. Even if one of the group appears in class under the influence of drugs, she will not be excluded. Classmates and facilitators work with her to avoid similar behavior in the future.

Analysis of their personal situation: In the first six months the young mothers go to the project to talk over and analyze their situations and to receive an orientation. With support from the project team, they receive a medical check-up and if necessary, vaccinations, tests including HIV/AIDS, dental check-ups and treatment of their children as well as themselves. All of them need to get their personal documents such as identity cards, etc. in order. They also need literacy training, to refresh what they learned during earlier school attendance.

Cultural aspects of the training come from the participants themselves in answer to their specific experiences and needs for reflection. With elements from their own lives and sufferings and with support from a trained person of the project, the young mothers produce a show or a theater. This kind of cultural and psychological analysis on how to succeed in their lives helps them to understand and shows them how to improve their situations. Music gives them another means to express their grief and joy.

For these young mothers - mostly younger than eighteen years old - their children play the most important roles, giving them a vision for the future. In most cases this vision helps them to stop consuming drugs.

Self esteem and Human Rights: These young people, abandoned and living a marginalized life, are treated in the project with respect as adults and called by their name. They learn that everybody has the right to be respected and thus they learn to also treat their own children with affection and without violence. Slowly values grow in themselves and they become able to treat their children better than they have been treated themselves. Only this way can their children have a better future. Due to this change of values, the young mothers are able to improve the relationships with their children.

Financial support: During the first period, the girls cannot earn money on the streets because they attend classes at the project. Young mothers are given a monthly minimum of money for food, so that they don’t have an excuse to skip classes. They have to keep and show written reports of their expenses every month. This way they learn to use the money in a responsible way.

Young mothers organizing their life: During the second six months, workshops are carried out to help build up self confidence and self esteem, a process that was begun in the first half year. In this period, emphasis is placed on preventative health care issues, taking into consideration cultural aspects concerning the use of condoms in prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Girls also have a natural desire to know their bodies and to have a certain understanding of its’ functions. With better understanding they are able to transmit this knowledge to other girls in their own language. Such knowledge disseminated by peers is better accepted than when coming from health professionals. With this training, and their own personal painful life experiences, many of these girls become leaders who are able to reach other girls and convince them that perspectives for change and success exist.

During this period, the project team helps and encourages the girls whenever possible to again establish contacts with their families and their communities of origin. This process of reintegration is often quite complicated for these young mothers, who left their communities many years ago. It takes time, because the young women need to do it by themselves. They learn to be autonomous, question their needs and demand their rights. Unfortunately it is not always possible for these young women to go back to their community.

Skilled young mothers get better opportunities: One focus set by the girls was hair dressing and beauty, since they want to be beautiful. They begin to appreciate their bodies, want to be respected – and so try to achieve the dignity of human beings.

During the second training period the young mothers receive the first instruction and practical training in hair dressing and beauty treatments from ex-students of the same school. Finishing their first year of training, each young mother receives a kit for hair dressing so they can treat their own customers.

Additional vocational training: The training in hair dressing twice a week for half a year is not sufficient to be skilled enough to do a good job. The project then offers a second year of classes in professional skills to alumni. For the next year, the young mothers attend additional training twice a week. This training is voluntary but so interesting, that all of the young women attended the follow-up course. In these advanced classes, they learn haircutting, cosmetics, afro look, etc. In this second year they no longer receive any scholarships. For this additional training they use the rooms of the project with all the necessary equipment. After learning to apply their practical skills, they offer their service to companies and offices to do hair dressing and manicure.

With the additional classes and the practical training the girls become well skilled and secure in their work. After this additional year, they are able to get a job in a beauty salon or to do hair cutting and manicure in their homes.

Towards public responsibility

Nguacilene, a young mother from the course of the project in 2001, lives in the Favela Santa Cruz in a suburb of Rio. She teaches 16 other young women hair dressing and beauty treatments for a fee of 40 to 60 USD per month. She organizes everything for the training by herself and only gets logistical support from the social assistant of the Pastoral do Menor (Catholic Church). At her home Nguacilene wants to start her own beauty salon.

During a meeting held with the “Young Mothers” (Street Girls) all the young women mentioned that they like hair dressing and beauty training. They all wanted to work after this training and either to work in a beauty salon or work at their homes. They also remarked that they are learning to take better care of their children and themselves, getting to know their bodies, learning to cook, and acquiring knowledge about HIV/AIDS and its prevention. They also know about drugs and how to respond in case of violence from their partners. They say that on the street they are not respected but by living in a house or in their own room they are respected.

The project doesn’t want to assume responsibilities which belong to the government and the municipality. Shelter, health and education are responsibilities of the state. Therefore the project demands these services from the municipality for the children and young mothers (Advocacy). With this attitude the project contributes to awareness raising for the rights and needs of the poor in public sectors such as health, education, social assistance, justice, and security.

* Hans Meier is programme coordinator of World Vision Switzerland for Latin America. Contact:,