In Brazil, child prostitution is a polemic topic, especially in light of the upcoming World Cup.* Pressured into this position by physical abuse, economic need, or simply because it is their best option for survival, these children sell themselves to sexual exploitation for only a few dollars. Long viewed for its sexually liberal reputation, Brazil has been a popular a destination for sexual tourism. With the growing anticipation of the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games, the issue of child prostitution has been put in the spotlight by both the Brazilian government and civil society groups as a pressing issue that cannot be ignored.
In June, Brazil expects to host over 600,000 foreigners with the arrival of the World Cup.1 However, many fear that among these tourists will be some looking for more than the thrill of the game; those seeking the thrill of spending a night with a young Brazilian. As the global gaze turns toward Brazil for this upcoming sporting event, the country has also come under scrutiny for its laws and practices regarding prostitution and the sexual exploitation of children. Although prostitution is legal there, the issue of illegal child prostitution continues to grow. President Dilma Rousseff has made a recent attempt to crack down on this problem, but it still remains to be a prominent issue throughout Brazil.
Blurred Lines and Mixed Signals
Although the issue of child prostitution has recently received more attention, the problem is largely visible year-round throughout Brazil.2 This may be due to conflicting laws, practices, and attitudes toward the profession of prostitution. In Brazil, the age of consent is set at 14, although some children begin prostituting as young as age 8.3 The laws regarding the age of consent, however, do not clearly delineate the lines between consensual sex and rape. According to their penal code, having sexual relations with anyone younger than 14 is considered a crime, punishable by 6-10 years in prison. Sex with someone between the years of 14-18 is also punishable with 1-4 years in prison for the corruption of minors.3 Despite these laws, in a case from March 2013, it was decided that sex with three 12-year-old girls was not considered statutory rape due to the fact that the victims had worked as prostitutes.4 According to Amnesty International, this decision was overturned in August of the same year after both national and international backlash.5 These mixed messages from the government simultaneously condemn and condone the act of sex with minors.
Although child prostitution is illegal, prostitution of those over the age of 18 is permitted in Brazil. Some pro-prostitution groups seek to destigmatize the profession and advocate for the rights of this group. One way they have sought to do this is bypressuring for change in Brazil’s penal code so that it differentiates between prostitution and sexual exploitation.6 This lack of differentiation blurs the lines of what is considered illegal in the eyes of the Brazilian government, endangering others who are in positions of sexual exploitation.
Although they may be working to help prevent sexual exploitation and the spread of STDs, these sex worker advocacy groups are often marginalized. In one example, the Davida organization was recently dislocated from its Rio location in order to build a hotel.6 The pro-prostitution groups also work to prepare local prostitutes for possible encounters with anticipated foreigners for the upcoming sporting events. In one case, the Minas Gerais State Association of Prostitutes in Belo Horizonte has made free English classes available to members of the association in preparation for interacting with potential clients.2 This is seen as a protective measure designed to help prostitutes during business interactions. The president of the association, Cida Vieira, stated, “This is important for the dignity of the work, the women need to be able to negotiate a fair price and defend themselves.”2
These organizations may not be alone in defending the image of the prostitute. In June of last year, the Brazilian ministry of health created a pro-prostitution STD-awareness advertisement in honor of International Prostitute Day.7 The ads featured pictures of women accompanied by slogans such as “I am happy being a prostitute” and “I can’t be seen without a condom, my love.” After receiving criticism from religious groups for glorifying prostitutes, these ads were removed from the government’s website only two days after being published. In the past, the Brazilian government has also taken measures to publicly distribute condoms and reduced the cost of AIDS medication.7 Although the government may support legal prostitution, President Rousseff has vowed to crack down on child prostitution. She also claims to combat the existing image of Brazil as a sex-tourism destination, but conflicts between policies and actions may make this a difficult task.
The Vulnerability of Children
Due to the lax nature of both legislative and cultural views of this issue, many children begin working as prostitutes before the age of consent. In the northeastern city of Fortaleza, sexual exploitation is the second highest reported crime against children.2 This city, one of the 12 that will be hosting games, has been known as a popular destination for sex tourism. Although the young prostitutes claim to be 18 though falsified identification, many of the prostitutes that roam the streets of Brazil look barely old enough to be considered teenagers.
Some groups, such as the Global Alliance Against Trafficking of Women,2 question whether or not large sporting events actually lead to increased rates in human sex trafficking. Despite this refute, these events undoubtedly put more children at risk for exploitation. Anna Flora Werneck of the charity Childhood Brazil states, "Major sports events increase vulnerability. Children are displaced due to building projects; they are not at school and are unsupervised; there may be alcohol and drugs; friends tell them sex with a foreigner could transform their life."2
For many children in Brazil, prostitution begins with family issues. A child may be abused, beaten, forced to help their family put food on the table, and see prostitution as one of their few income options. Others may be victims of incest and turn to prostitution out of shame and guilt related to their abuse.3 Still more children may be introduced to sexual exploitation through family members. In a few horrific cases parents themselves sell children to the sex trade at a young age to provide for their families.3
This vicious cycle of exploitation can also lead to human trafficking. European sex tourists may promise better lives overseas to naive prostitutes who allow these men to take them as quasi-slaves. This was the case of Rosanglea, a young Brazilian woman who traveled with a man to Switzerland. She gave birth to two of his children while there, but despite being the mother of his children, he constantly abused her, even setting her on fire on one occasion.3 Although she managed to escape with her children, many of these women are abroad illegally, lacking visas, passports, identification, and therefore cannot escape from their imprisonment. Those who become involved in prostitution often face threats or abuse if they refuse a client, creating a cycle from which they cannot liberate themselves.
The Value of a Child
Despite efforts to reduce child prostitution in Brazil, it remains an evasive problem throughout the country. Stereotypes and a liberal sexual reputation have caused some foreigners to simplify the identity of this country to a mere destination for sex tourism. With the impending influx of foreigners to the country, many fear that this issue will only grow larger as some tourists seek out young prostitutes. Thiago, an ex-pimp based in São Paulo, estimates that 70-80% of his clients at his brothel are foreigners.4
Girls who work for pimps like Thiago only see a small portion of the money that they generate through sex. Thiago admits that after the money is divided, the prostitute only gets about a quarter of what has been paid. Older prostitutes that find clients on their own still are not highly paid, receiving about R$60 (USD$25) per client. Younger children are paid much less for their sexual exploitation, at the most R$30 (USD$12) for a transaction. For some impoverished children, this is the only option. Driven by guilt, abuse, and hunger, young prostitutes are willing to exchange their childhood for survival.
Thiago also admitted, “Alcohol and drugs would help the girls to deal with everything. They wouldn’t feel anything anymore. They’d just be objects.”4 It has been this objectifying attitude that has allowed the existence of child prostitutes to continue. Impoverished families view children as just another mouth to feed, forcing them into the streets to earn a living. Society views both legal prostitutes and child prostitutes alike as mere objects of sexual desire, solidifying the inhumane abuses with which they are treated. The Brazilian government has attempted to acknowledge this by creating destigmatizing campaigns and attempting to reject sexualized stereotypes. These efforts however, have been met by minimal success to change the situation of the children who are subjected to sexual exploitation. To combat this issue, Brazilians and foreigners alike must view these children as human beings-- pushed into their situation in order to cope with human needs--and not simply as objects. The Brazilian government can only successfully conquer this issue by addressing the interlinking political, economic, and social causes that force these children into prostitution.
Upon original publication, this article erroneously stated that there are an estimated 500,000 child prostitutes in Brazil. After it had been brought to my attention that this source had cited a falsely cited UNICEF statistic, I would like to correct this mistake. According to to a UNICEF blog post written by Gary Stahl, the representative of UNICEF Brazil, in 2013, there were 10,668 reported cases of child prostitution in Brazil. His article states:
"Over the last months, there have been several articles and op-eds published by influential media outlets stating erroneously that according to UNICEF, 250,000 children are sexually exploited every year in Brazil. Please note that this is not UNICEF’s data and the number quoted has been erroneously attributed not only to UNICEF but to other institutions since 1999, without being updated in over a decade. The most recent and accurate statistics available on sexual exploitation come from the Brazilian government’s Secretariat of Human Rights hotline. In 2013, 10,668 reports to the hotline were related to sexual exploitation. A recent report showed that in the 12 cities hosting the World Cup, there were some 27,600 reports to the hotline of sexual exploitation over a seven year period between May 2003 and March 2011.”8
It is a nearly impossible task to account for the number of child prostitutes that exist in Brazil today. Although this note states that 10,668 cases were reported, I would like to emphasize that this number only includes incidents that were officially reported to the sexual exploitation hotline. More children may roam the streets in search of sex work, but unfortunately they do not possess the resources to find other forms of work, nor do they have access to the hotline and its information in order to report their cases.
1) Piston, Kim. “Brazilian Prostitutes Prepare for World Cup 2014”. Huffington Post. The Huffington Post. 18 June 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/18/brazil-prostitutes-world-cup_n_3461664.html
2) Griffin, Jo. “Child sex tourism warning for fans attending World Cup in Brazil”. The Observer. Guardian News and Media Limited. 08 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/09/brazil-sex-tourism-world-cup
3) Journeyman Pictures. “The Sick Men Travelling to Brazil for Sex with Children”. YouTube. YouTube. 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 05 March 2014.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgJMc-_yxmA
4) Gupta, Girish and Olivia Crellin. “Brazil’s World cup Raises Fear of Rampant Child Prostitution”. Time World. Time. 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.http://world.time.com/2013/12/12/brazils-world-cup-raises-fear-of-rampant-child-prostitution/
5) “Annual Report 2013: Brazil”. Amnesty International. Web. 04 Dec 2014.
6) Wilks, Lauren. “World Cup 2014: is Brazil’s sex industry crackdown a threat to human rights?”. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Mar. 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/feb/14/brazil-world-cup-2014-sex-industry-human-rights
7) Trivedi, Anjani. “Brazil’s ‘Happy Prostitute’ Slogan Gets a Chilly Reception”. Time Newsfeed. Time. 06 June 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/06/06/brazils-happy-prostitute-slogan-gets-a-chilly-reception/
8) Stahl, Gary.”Protecting Brazilian children from child labor as the World Cup begins”. UNICEF Connect. 12 June 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.