This morning I ventured the opposite direction from Rio Centro where the UN Rio+20 negotiations are taking place, and travelled with colleagues to the Cachoeirinha (I was told it means “waterfall”) Favela in Rio de Janeiro. These shantytowns are quite common in Rio, well over one million strong, located within and around the city limits. This particular one has 37,000 residents. We made the trip to visit the BEMFAM reproductive health and family planning clinic there, and were treated to a gathering of youth already discussing the facts of life, and more, with a BEMFAM counselor. This is especially poignant because youth in Brazil, similar to youth worldwide, are key to the issues we are debating here at the UN Rio+20 meetings just a few miles away. The Brazilian youth demographic, and the world’s, is the largest ever in history—it’s called the “youth bulge”—and from favelas, to cities, suburbs and rural areas everywhere, they represent the decision makers for the world’s future at all levels.
Here at the BEMFAM clinic, an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s array of family planning clinics worldwide, youth have weekly meetings and can come in daily if needed for their reproductive health needs. We entered to find about 25 adolescents sitting in a circle in very animated discussion about how they viewed sexuality, reproductive health, being young, their feelings and emotions about this period in their life. Through translators we learned so much from these adolescents and young adults, and once revealed I can’t help but feel how similar they are to our own youth. They cared about their friends, family, (how much their parents don’t know), going to college, getting jobs, raising families, school, and having fun. One glaring difference that emerged however is accessibility to many of their hopes and dreams—resources to come by any of their plans are scarce, and few will likely see college or even jobs from what they told us. This however did not make them dour or negative; they were bright, committed, compelling, cheerful, very well-spoken and passionate about all they relayed to us.
Snippets of their dialogue in the discussion today centered on the importance, but lack of education about, reproductive health issues for most favela dwellers. Many of them are “Youth Peer Counselors”, trained to provide information to their friends and adolescent family members. Asked what motivated them to be involved in the BEMFAM youth program, they replied it made them feel privileged not only because they were well informed about RH and healthcare in general through the clinic, but also because it made them very popular at school, they were most sought after as the ones in the “know”—able to impart knowledge about RH and other health issues to their peers.
One of the main challenges they said they faced on these topics was the taboo around speaking about sexuality and reproductive health. (Sound familiar?) The Brazilian youth depend on peer advisors especially because their parents and other adults are understandably working or busy, so not very available to advise on these topics. They said there is no separation of church and state in practice (there is in principle) and it is not condoned in church circles, and schools don’t allow SRH education. This heightened the need for the youth peer educators’ involvement. Some of the youth added that they have good RH services but that the education around it was most lacking, particularly from authority figures.
On a different tack relating more broadly to Rio+20, when asked about the opposition some countries are demonstrating during these Rio+20 deliberations to gender equality and reproductive health and rights, they were quite clear and adamant: “Tell them to send their own daughters to live in our favela for one month, without any access to RH as they suggest, then when they get pregnant the leaders will see for themselves what it is really like, and maybe they will change their mind.”
Other messages from the favela youth:
When asked about the main challenges they face, their responses centered on lack of opportunities and finances for college, jobs, and healthcare (they have public health services but they are only available during the weekdays/daytime, and they wait for days for “emergency” services, so most just go without).
Once the discussion came back to the Rio+20 conference and what they would say to the world leaders, they were full of ideas: make water available to everyone equally (there is scarcity in many parts of Rio), clean up the water in the Rio canals and air pollution in Brazil, and in particular the garbage and waste they see in their favelas. And, to include RH, because it was all connected. One youth favela resident has travelled to New York to the UN to relay her message about population and development topics through the eyes of a young Brazilian, she sees the need for youth to be more included in national and international dialogues not as a sideline but with the weight of adults from other nations.
Back at the Rio Centro complex I understand nations are still debating about language on women and reproductive health. The Women’s Major Group organized a silent protest, and advocates are mobilizing to fend off the conservative governments. My advice to them after seeing the favela youth—send your daughter to stay for a month, then maybe you will change your mind!
Tomorrow I will blog about our side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s Lives: A Cross-Generational Dialogue” which will feature grassroots women and youth’s personal stories from Uganda, Nigeria, Pacific Cook Islands, Philippines and Miscopy, US.
Vicky Markham is the director of the Center for Environment and Population, a Tides project.