To young girls living in poor, rural communities along Brazil’s longest, busiest motorway, prostitution is a way of life, writes Emma Clayton.
Along the 2,819 miles of the BR-116 are nearly 300 places where children are known to be sold for sex.
In many communities along the highway, prostitution is an accepted way of making money – and for girls as young as ten abuse and exploitation is a normal part of childhood.
But thanks to a place called the Pink House, there is a glimmer of hope for these girls.
When dance teacher Lauren Batty first arrived at the Pink House from Ilkley, she found girls standing at the back of the room, arms folded, nervous, with low self-esteem and reluctant to speak out. But when she turned the music on their faces broke into smiles and they started to move.
Gradually, through building trust with Lauren, the girls have learned to see their bodies as more than just something to sell and, with increased confidence and new life skills, they’re looking to a future free from sexual exploitation.
The Pink House is a safe house in Medina, in Minas Gerais state, attended by around 60 girls aged ten to 17. It is run by Meninadanca, a charity helping young prostitutes re-claim their lives. Meninadanca – meaning ‘girl dance’ in Brazilian – builds confidence, self-esteem and skills through dance and other ‘girl-specific’ therapies. Following assessments by professionals, the girls work with volunteers using their own skills to help them.
Meninadanca was founded by British journalist Matt Roper who, after seeing a young girl selling herself on a roadside early one morning, was horrified to discover the extent of child prostitution on the BR-116. Travelling along the highway, he found entire communities caught up in child sexual exploitation and became determined to try to re-build traumatised young lives. Matt started working with teenage girls living on the streets in Minas Gerais, many addicted to crack cocaine, and in 1998 he opened a dance class centre. The girls called the project Meninadanca.
Last year Lauren spent six months as a volunteer at the Pink House in Medina. A dance and drama teacher, with a degree in performing arts, she worked with Bradford Youth Services and heard about Meninadanca through a colleague. Attending a conference held by the charity, Lauren was shocked to learn of the scale of child exploitation and, when a vacancy for a volunteer dance teacher arose, she found herself travelling to rural Brazil in January last year.
“Medina is surrounded by mountains, many people travel by horse rather than car,” says Lauren, 25, from Ilkley. “Nobody speaks English. There were two other British volunteers when I arrived but their stay was coming to an end, so for a while I was the only English-speaking person.”
Lauren stayed with a local pastor and his wife, gradually picking up some Portuguese, the main language of Brazil. “They treated me like a daughter. Living with them in the town meant I learned about the culture and way of life,” she says.
It didn’t take Lauren long to see that, because of culturally ingrained attitudes, putting girls on the streets was acceptable to many parents. “These are poor families and it’s an income. It has been going on a long time, through generations. Mothers who were young prostitutes themselves are now getting their daughters to do it,” says Lauren. “Authorities tend to turn a blind eye; child prostitution isn’t widely acknowledged.
“The BR-116 is heavily used by truck drivers and there is trafficking – girls are often picked up and taken to cities. When the World Cup comes to Brazil this year the road will be a lot busier.”
When Lauren first met the Pink House girls she was heartbroken. “What hit me most was how hardened they were. They’d been robbed of their childhoods; prostitution was the only life they knew,” she says. “There was a reluctance to speak out, I had to gain their trust – but dance is a great way to engage them and build trust.”
Lauren used dance therapy to help build the girls’ confidence and self-image. “Dance helps with confidence, posture, spacial awareness, co-ordination, self discipline. It’s empowering,” says Lauren. “Initially the girls danced provocatively but that wasn’t something we wanted to encourage. I showed them how to consider their bodies in a different way.
“Our aim is to empower girls to change their lives, believe in their abilities and equip them with life skills to escape poverty. By changing one girl’s life, we hope to change the direction for generations to come.”
Meninadanca aims to establish more safe houses in towns and villages along the BR-116. The charity also works with girls’ families, trying to change attitudes and break the cycle of poverty and prostitution. Through its Changing Minds Programme, engaging with wider communities and encouraging people to see the girls differently, Lauren organised dance shows at public venues.
“It was so rewarding seeing the girls’ confidence grow,” she says. “When the music came on their faces were filled with smiles. There are three rival communities in Medina and girls from each of them now attend the Pink House together. Meninadanca has brought about integration never seen there before and it’s gaining support from communities, families, local authorities and the police.”
Lauren plans to return to Brazil this year, to broaden the range of skills to teach. She has been raising funds to buy a sewing machine and material – and she has learned to sew so she can help the girls.
“I want to teach them to make clothes, bags, accessories and do alterations,” says Lauren. “A couple of months ago I’d never even used a sewing machine, never mind made anything, now I’ve learned how to make pyjama bottoms and a draw-string bag from scratch. l’ve bought material and resources to equip the Pink House sewing-room.
“My hope is that teaching the girls new skills will lead to a way out of abuse and prostitution and give them hope. It’s investing in their future, helping them make a living for themselves. I want to involve their mothers in sewing classes too.”
Lauren is also helping to run a Pink House salon. “We work with the girls holistically around health, body image and self-esteem, and teach skills in hair and beauty. Some girls have gone on to become mentors,” she says. “We want to set up a garden too.”
Through a Christmas present donation scheme – asking for £1 donations to buy presents – Lauren has bought items like dolls and fashion accessories to take out for the girls. “Many of them are still little girls, they haven’t had a childhood. They go to school in the mornings and come to the Pink House in the afternoons,” says Lauren supports herself while she volunteers and is raising funds for flights and living expenses. “I’d like to thank my network of supporters,” she adds.
Lauren’s life has been “turned around” by working with Meninadanca and aims to return to Brazil on a regular basis. “There’s not a day when I don’t think about those girls. There will always be a part of me there,” she says.
- For more about Lauren Batty’s work with Meninadanca, call her on 07907 775287, read battysblog.co.uk or visit meninadanca.org.