While the media spotlight shines on the fierce competition at the 2016 Olympic Games, with thousands of emotional spectators cheering for their favourite athletes in the joyful atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, concerns over children and adolescents’ rights violations continue.
Less than a month before the start of the Games, the Rio de Janeiro police rescued eight people being forced into prostitution in the beaches near the Olympic village. Three of these victims were girls between the ages of 15 and 16. Similarly, just days prior to the opening ceremony, another sex-trafficking ring was discovered by the police in a penthouse in Barra da Tijuca, where females aged 14 to 21 were lured into selling their bodies through adverts promising a “high-class lifestyle living as a top model”.
Who are the victims?
Indeed, poverty, social inequalities and the desire for a better life are factors generally associated with sexual exploitation, and the current downturn in the Brazilian economy has further exacerbated the problem. According to Matt Roper, the founder of the Brazilian NGO Meninadanca, in many cases the victims of sexual exploitation come from small and impoverished towns and villages, where they are approached by traffickers offering them jobs in a big city. In some instances, girls are pushed into sex work by their own families. As Roper states, “they think it’s just normal and there’s nothing wrong with it. In the smaller towns, out in the middle of nowhere, because of the history and the culture, there’s a kind of acceptance of child prostitution.” Major sporting events are seen as opportunities for more work.
Furthermore, a 2014 study by a consortium of Brazilian NGOs highlighted the fact that it is not uncommon for these children to have experienced physical abuse, sometimes leading to permanent injuries and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. This violence also has psychological consequences. Many victims develop a negative self-image and are afflicted by feelings of shame and fear. They become trapped in a pattern of harmful behaviour, and as a result it becomes increasingly difficult for them to get out of their situation.
While there is no definite data on the size of the problem in Brazil, UNICEF estimates that the number of children working in the sex industry increased from 100,000 in 2001 to 500,000 in 2013 – 2014, the years leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
In 2013, the Brazilian government registered over 124,000 reports of violence against children and adolescents through its hotline service, “Dial 100”. Of these, 26% related to sexual violence. Almost half of the victims were female, with a large proportion of African descent. The most frequent age bracket was 8 to 14 years old.
Who are the abusers?
Once again the evidence is limited, but studies suggest that child abusers are often adult men from all backgrounds in society, sometimes tourists, but more often locals.
For instance, research conducted by Brunel University in relation to the 2014 FIFA World Cup suggested that the construction of stadiums, hotels and shopping malls and the building of infrastructure in the major cities where the competitions were to take place could represent one of the main risks for sexual exploitation. These activities were to attract workforce from all over Brazil, mainly males, and the cities were often not prepared with suitable hosting structures for the large number of workers. The demanding construction timetables could keep these workers separated from their families for considerable time, with few options for their free time, so they would turn to commercial sex, including sex with minors.
Similarly, a survey by the Brazilian NGO Childhood Brazil determined that out of 316 construction workers at different construction sites in the states of Goias, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina, Sao Paulo and Rondonia, nearly 85% of respondents had seen children or adolescents involved in sexual trade near big construction sites. Out of that percentage, 25.4% of them were directly involved, admitting to having had sex one or more times with children or adolescents.
The sexual exploitation of children is a long-standing issue in Brazil. While large sporting events are not the cause of the problem, they create additional challenges due to the concentration of individuals looking for entertainment.
In places like Vila Mimosa, Rio’s oldest red light district with over 3,000 sex workers in more than 70 bars and nightclubs, the cost of sexual services can be as little as 40 Reals, or £9. Flyers written in English and featuring the Olympics’ five-ring logo are being distributed to tourists inviting them to take advantage of “early bird specials”.
In these settings, the dangers for children and adolescents are significant and the months leading up to Rio 2016 prove this to be the case.
Unfortunately, the problem for one of the world’s top countries for human trafficking is not going to go away after the Olympics’ closing ceremony on 21 August. As Meninadanca’s founder noted, “in a small town of 15,000 people there could be 200 children involved (…). When you do the math you’re looking at thousands of children who are forced into child prostitution due to their circumstances, by their parents, or by coercion.” This is why it is crucial that both the government and the NGO sector continue to shed light on the problem, take appropriate action to combat it, organise campaigns and further invest in education and health care for the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of Brazilian society.