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Casa Renascer helps sexually exploited girls in Brazil

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In Natal, Brazil, many young girls are lured into prostitution to escape poverty, but they open themselves to greater risks such as HIV and abuse.

By Thomas Nybo

NATAL, Brazil, 19 December 2008 – To an outsider, the beauty of this coastal city evokes a lifestyle that is carefree, with lazy days of surfing, swimming and walking barefoot on the sand. But when night falls, the back streets fill with young girls selling their bodies.

They stand on street corners and linger in night clubs, exposing themselves to HIV, homelessness and physical and psychological abuse. Many drop out of school and never learn proper parenting skills, which later in life can perpetuate a vicious cycle.

Brazil already has a steady influx of sex tourists, and that is being compounded by the Internet, which is being used as a means to arrange sex with children.

A common nightmare

Luisa (not her real name), 17, started sleeping with men for money and gifts when she was only 12. It all began after a man offered her a free cell phone, which he later used to arrange sexual encounters with her.

"The men would call me on the mobile phone, just like they call other girls,” she says. “These men know exactly what the girls want. They'd say, ‘You need clothes? I'll give you new clothes in exchange for sex.'"

Her mother was overcome with fear that Luisa would die young. She began worrying when Luisa disappeared for weeks. Concerned neighbours reported seeing Luisa on the streets with older men.

Louisa's mother found herself confronting a nightmare shared with thousands of other mothers in Brazil: how to get their daughters off the street and out of the sex trade. 
‘It’s not just about money’

Luckily, Luisa's mother also found Casa Renascer, a non-governmental organization and UNICEF partner whose name means ‘house of rebirth’. It sits behind secure walls in a quiet section of Natal, and includes a team of psychologists and educators, as well as a lawyer who informs girls like Luisa of their legal rights and intervenes on their behalf when bringing charges against those who have sexually abused or exploited them.

© UNICEF video
Girls involved with Casa Renascer continue living at home with their families but have daily activities at the centre, including art therapy, which helps them deal with the often violent episodes in their past.

"We focus on three elements when working with young victims of sexual exploitation and abuse," explains Sayonara Dias, a social worker with the programme. "First, [we provide] an integrated approach with a team of professionals, including a lawyer and psychologists. Second, we focus on the individual girl and help her create a life plan. And third, we work with various institutions, beginning with the family and the schools."

The girls continue living at home with their families but have daily activities at the centre, including art therapy, which helps them deal with the often violent episodes in their past in a creative, healthy way.

Talking about sexual abuse is rarely easy, especially for young girls, so the team at Casa Renascer takes a patient, diligent approach. They encourage the girls to talk about their lives at their own pace, in the way that feels most comfortable. Tales of abuse and exploitation often emerge weeks or months after a girl's arrival.

Incentive to stay off the streets

But Casa Renascer also looks to the future. Through SENAC (the National Commercial Training Service), it offers year-long vocational classes that encourage the girls to re-enter mainstream society by paying them a salary while they're still students. If they make it through the programme, they're given a bonus equivalent to more than two months' salary.

This incentive reduces the temptation to return to the streets to earn money. The two careers offered, hair styling and fashion design, have proved immensely popular with the girls.

“We need love, attention – somebody who will listen to us,” says Luisa. “It's not just about money. Most girls leave their family to look for something they're not getting.”




November 2008: UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on Casa Renascer, a centre that helps girls who have been sexually exploited.
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