In principle, I love the idea of the Olympics. But Rio de Janeiro does present many challenges as a host city. While we’re hearing about robberies and gunfire, what we should also pay attention to is child prostitution and sexual abuse. With so much money in one place, Catholic Priests and Nuns have issued warnings for people to keep an eye out for children who are being sexually exploited by the rich tourists who have come to the city. Organized crime has seen an opportunity and are making girls as young as 14 available as prostitutes.
For a friend and colleague of mine, the situation is much more personal. Dr. Renata Liborio from the Universidade Estadual Paulista began a project in 1999 to interview 8 child sex workers in her home state of Sao Paulo. The stories she collected were recorded and published, mostly in Portuguese academic journals. But last year, Dr. Liborio decided she would re-contact all 8 girls, now young woman, and produce a documentary film to chronicle what had happened to them after her tape recorder was turned off. The film's trailer is tentatively titled "Unheard Voices of Brazil."
When finished (Dr. Liborio is sourcing the funding to move to full production), the film will give us a glimpse into the lives of child prostitutes as they get older. What happens to those girls who we see pictures of on the news? The ones who already look jaded and soulless on the streets of cities like Rio, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok?
What is intriguing is that they survive. Liborio tells me that the women she’s reconnected with have grown up and had children of their own. Some have continued to struggle with addictions, others have changed their lives. Some are, sadly still working in the sex trade. Regardless of where they have ended up, what is clear is that their lives were touched for the better by people like Dr. Liborio and the organization that reached out to them when they were still children.
For me, there are powerful lessons here. First, world class events like the Olympics bring with them tremendous risks for the vulnerable populations whose homes the world invades. Second, big complex problems like child prostitution need an entire community of responses, from police to clergy to researchers and, of course, the street level social workers who are willing to create safe spaces for children who want to avoid the violence they’re forced to endure.
We’ve seen the pictures of the favelas near to the Olympic venues. But the children being coerced into sexually exploitative situations are much closer to the ritzy hotels and spaces where the tourists gather.
In Rio, tourists are urged by the Catholic diocese to report child prostitutes if they suspect that they see them. That will help, but to break the cycle of exploitation, we’ll need much more than the police. Many of these children ended up on the streets because they were vulnerable to abuse at home. The child sex workers that Dr. Liborio interviewed in 1999 didn’t always portray themselves as victims, either. In some cases, they described themselves as protagonists in stories of struggle.
Even as I write that, I shake my head, wondering how any child could survive that kind of exploitation and still entertain the thought that they have power. But survive, they do. In the trailer to Dr. Liborio’s film she hints at the resilience of these women. And she reminds us that it is the very ordinary acts of kindness from strangers and professional helpers that can make a lasting difference in the lives of the most disadvantaged among us. I have heard Dr. Liborio talk passionately about the many evenings she spent tracking down her research participants and doing whatever she could to help them. I can only hope her future film, and the attention brought to Rio by the Olympics, will leave a lasting legacy. Not just one of sport and global peace, but also one of social justice and a commitment to stop child exploitation.