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Brazil's child sex trade thrives as World Cup looms

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 3 Dec 2013 12:00 AM
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(Updates paragraph 7 to clarify that estimates that Brazil has as many as 500,000 child sex workers are based on figures commonly cited by various non-governmental organisations) 

FORTALEZA, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A tiny figure in miniscule white shorts and a hot pink strapless top leaned against the metal fence of a school on a breezy night in Fortaleza, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern Ceará state.

She had plump, gloss-coated lips. Her yellow headband, holding back long, unruly hair, glowed in the lamplight along Juscelino Kubitschek Avenue, which connects the city to the Castelão arena, one of the venues for the 2014 soccer World Cup.

A car pulled up. The girl got in.

It’s a common scene around the glass and stainless steel Castelão stadium in Fortaleza, considered Brazil’s child prostitution capital and a magnet for sex tourism, local authorities say.

Transvestites also work the dusty pavements of this newly renovated thoroughfare but young girls are in higher demand.

"As soon as they hit the avenue they're picked up," said Antônia Lima Sousa, a state prosecutor who works on children’s rights in Fortaleza. "It’s really a matter of minutes. You’ll find them around town during the day too."

Despite more than a decade of government vows to eradicate child prostitution from Fortaleza and other cities, the number of child sex workers in Brazil stands at as many as half a million, according to commonly cited estimates by rights groups, says the National Forum for the Prevention of Child Labor, an organisation comprising government institutions, NGOs, unions and child-protection agencies.

That's a five-fold increase since 2001, when 100,000 children worked in the sex trade, according to UNICEF estimates.

And with the World Cup approaching in June, officials and campaigners fear an explosion in child prostitution as sex workers migrate to big cities from interior states and pimps recruit more young flesh to meet increased demand from local and foreign soccer fans.

“We’re worried sexual exploitation will increase in the host cities and around them,” said Joseleno Vieira dos Santos, who coordinates a national program to fight the sexual exploitation of children at Brazil’s Human Rights Secretariat. “We’re trying to coordinate efforts as much as we can with state and city governments to understand the scope of the problem.”

But the authorities have a battle on their hands as sex workers prepare to cash in on a bumper trade.

The Minas Gerais State Association of Prostitutes, an organization that represents sex workers in one of Brazil’s largest states, is even offering free English lessons to prostitutes in the capital Belo Horizonte, another World Cup host city.

“There’ll be a lot more people circulating in this area during the games for sure and the city will be full of tourists,” said Giovana, a 19-year-old transvestite working a corner near Fortaleza's Castelão stadium.

“I know there’ll be more work for everybody - women, girls, everybody.” 

BIG BUCKS

The tournament is expected to attract 600,000 foreign visitors to Brazil who will spend an estimated 25 billion reais ($11 billion) while traveling in the country, said the Brazilian tourism board, Embratur.

The championship as a whole could inject 113 billion reais into the Brazilian economy by 2014, FIFA has said, citing an Ernst & Young report.

For its part, Brazil’s government will have spent 33 billion reais on stadia, transport and other infrastructure by the time the tournament kicks off, as well as $10 million on advertising.

In contrast, very little is being spent on fighting the sexual exploitation of minors, campaigners say.

The Human Rights Secretariat set aside 8 million reais for World Cup host cities to set up projects to fight child prostitution, but not all cities had programs in place to absorb the funds, said Santos.

Santos’ department is finishing a review of child prostitution in key locations and will then decide what action to take. But any programs will only scratch the surface.

"We realize we’re only touching the tip of the iceberg with these actions for the World Cup, but we hope to build capacity and implement longer-lasting programs in the future," Santos said.

Beyond the Human Rights Secretariat, the government could not provide accurate data on total spending to fight child prostitution but campaigners say some programs have been shut down and they argue the government isn’t doing enough to address the problem.

"This subject isn’t really part of the government’s agenda and we don’t see a willingness to combine efforts or increase resources to address the sexual exploitation of children," said Denise Cesario, executive manager of Fundação Abrinq, a local partner of Save the Children International.

THE LURE OF FORTALEZA

Sex tourism happens across Brazil but Fortaleza – one of the northeast’s top tourist destinations with sandy white beaches and 300 days of guaranteed sunshine – is the industry's main hub.

A culture of machismo, combined with extreme poverty and drug use, has created the perfect environment for sexual exploitation, say social workers like Cecília dos Santos Góis, who works at children's rights charity Cedeca.

"Women in the northeast have traditionally been treated as second-class citizens, as objects even," she said. "Many fathers see their young daughters as a source of income and that is a cultural attitude that’s hard to change."

More phone calls are made from Fortaleza to a nationwide toll-free number to report child sexual exploitation than from any other Brazilian city on a per capita basis, experts say.

Many of Fortaleza’s young sex workers see prostitution as a way of escaping their circumstances. But for 16-year-old Jessica, a tall brunette with overly plucked eyebrows and baby blue nail polish, her escape plan landed her in trouble.

Jessica began sex work with local clients, earning about $18 a night, before graduating to bigger nightclubs and groups of foreign tourists for about $90 a night.

Police arrested her in a September raid on a club on Iracema beach, a crowded neighbourhood packed with lively restaurants, hotels and bars.

They took her to one of four shelters for underage prostitutes, a discreet two-storey house in a lower-class neighborhood, accessible only through a narrow iron gate watched around the clock by security guards.

She is waiting for a judge to say whether she can go back home to her mother.

WAITING FOR A PRINCE

Sitting in the small room she shares with three younger girls, Jessica said one of her regular clients, a Spaniard, had promised to take her to Europe.

"I told him I was 18 and I was getting my passport," she said, tucking a rainbow-colored tank top into green and yellow tropical-print stretch pants. "I paid 500 reais for a fake ID and was saving money to buy a fake passport. But in the end I was afraid to go."

Leonora Albuquerque, one of the shelter’s coordinators, said Jessica’s story was typical.

"Like so many girls who got into this life, Jessica has fantasies that she will find her prince charming – a foreign client who will fall in love with her – and he’ll take her to Europe and buy her fancy clothes, perfume, jewels," she said.

Pimps and clients are rarely punished and when prosecutors do manage to build a case against them, victims often change their testimonies and the cases are thrown out, said Francisco Carlos Pereira de Andrade, a criminal prosecutor who specializes in child exploitation.

Out of 2,000 cases before his department, which only handles sexual violence against children, only about 20 involve child prostitution.

The face of sex tourism in Fortaleza is also changing, making it more difficult to catch criminals, state prosecutor Sousa said.

Instead of working the streets, organized rings of pimps, hotel managers and taxi drivers recruit young girls. Foreign clients order the underage prostitutes before they arrive in Fortaleza and they are delivered directly to their hotels, Sousa added.

GIRLS ON THE MENU

Friday night at Iracema beach and a small group of blond German men were drinking beer at pavement tables, watched closely by the bar’s bouncer.

Six adult sex workers hovered around them, some sitting with them, swishing their hair from side to side. But the tourists had something else on their mind.

"They’re waiting for a cue to let them know the girls they ordered are ready,” said social worker Góis, on one of her routine surveillance rounds of child prostitution hubs. “The bar is involved. The taxi drivers that wait on the corner are probably involved too. And some hotels nearby are part of this network.”

While international sex tourism is prominent in Fortaleza, it represents only a third of all reported child prostitution cases. Prostitutes with Brazilian clients, from Ceará or surrounding states, are far more common, prosecutors said.

That was the case for Vanessa, who was 13 when police picked her up in late October not far from the Castelão stadium and took her to the same shelter as Jessica.

Vanessa left her home in a poor neighborhood when she was 10, after her step-father started to beat her, she said. She has lived mostly on the streets, going to shelters now and then and spending nights with clients, some of whom she calls friends.

Her chubby cheeks, perfectly aligned white teeth and sparkling eyes make it hard to believe she is undergoing treatment for crack cocaine abuse.

"I want to study. I really like math. But sometimes I just want to disappear and go and live on Mars with the astronauts," she said, laughing.

On Nov. 2, Vanessa broke into the maintenance room at the shelter, took a ladder and climbed the 2.5-metre wall surrounding the building, the shelter's Albuquerque said. She convinced two other girls, aged 12 and 13, to go back with her to the Castelão stadium area. It was the fourth time she had escaped in less than six months.

"It’s very hard to convince these girls to lead normal lives," Albuquerque added. "Most of them think abuse and selling their bodies is just a fact of life." 

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