A pair of breasts has more pulling power than a hundred carriages.
“When the girls begin to think about the future, about what they will do when they leave here, then we can stop worrying.”
Who: Abrigo Rainha Silvia
What: Offers protection to young women who are pregnant and victims of violence.
She is 31 years old, and her abuser and the father of her coming baby, her fourth, is a 16-year-old gangster. All her other children have fathers who are either in prison or are being hunted by the police. Beatriz has never known any other life, and yesterday evening she started packing to leave the home. After receiving her child allowance, she was thinking of going back to the 16-year-old and giving him the money, so he could buy his crack and be ‘nice’. At lunch, she sat demonstratively at a table on her own, talking quietly to herself.
Just for the moment, however, she appears to have changed her mind.
“The first days are the most crucial,” says the manager of the home, Swedish priest Stefan Martinsson. “Most of the girls just want to go home.”
Abrigo Rainha Silvia is located behind low walls in the town of Itaboraí, outside Rio de Janeiro. It was a run-down plantation when Stefan Martinsson found it in 1989.
He had come to Rio de Janeiro some years earlier to close down the Swedish seamen’s mission. There were, quite simply, not enough Swedish seamen. But there were vulnerable children. International media had drawn attention to the situation for Rio’s street children – execution patrols roamed the streets and shot sleeping children – and millions in aid poured in to help. Was this something the Swedish Church should get involved in? Or should they try to do something about the street children’s background? The children all had mothers who hadn’t been able to look after them, and many of the girls on the streets became pregnant too, far too early and far too alone.
The children all had mothers who hadn’t been able to look after them, and many of the girls on the streets became pregnant too, far too early and far too alone.
Thus the idea of Abrigo Rainha Silvia, Queen Silvia’s Home for Young Mothers, was born.
Queen Silvia of Sweden, who was born and grew up in Brazil, does not herself have much to do with the day-to-day running of the home. Although she is the Patron, and does a great deal of PR work for the home, the funding comes from a number of parishes in Sweden and Norway.
When we visit the shelter, there are nine young women living there with their children. This is fewer than usual. Priority is given to girls who are pregnant or have just given birth, most of them aged around 15-16, although they also take other young women, those who need protection from a violent relationship.
“Some come via the police or social services,” says Stefan Martinsson, “but sometimes they just turn up and knock on the door. We have a better chance of success when they come here because they want to.”
How can you see that you have succeeded?
“Sometimes it’s something really insignificant. Some girls come straight from the streets and have never learned to do basic housework. In cases like that, just to see them bake a cake feels like a huge victory. When the girls begin to think about the future, about what they will do when they leave here, then we can stop worrying. Most of them do well.
The girls receive education and help with childcare. The nursery school takes children of both women who live at the Dos Santos home for mothers and women who have moved out into society, as well as other children from Itaboraí. Most of the mothers stay for about a year.
Elisangela is one mother who has moved away from here. She is 23 years old and has three children. She never knew her own mother. She and her twin sister spent their first three years in a children’s home, before being adopted by a family in São Paulo. Everything was fine at first, but the older the girls grew, the more badly they were treated. When they were 13, their adoptive parents simply handed them back to a children’s home. There may have been a number of reasons. Elisangela says she knows all about sexual abuse. She will always do what she can to protect her own daughters. That is all she will say.
Elisangela was only 14 when she met a man, left the street and moved in with him. When she was 15, she gave birth to a daughter.
The twins ran away from the children’s home with some other girls, and lived on the streets for a year and a half altogether.
“We collected rubbish from the tip and sold it. It was quite a good time.”
Elisangela was only 14 when she met a man, left the street and moved in with him. When she was 15, she gave birth to a daughter. The man who had promised her security, love and a home turned out to be a drug addict incapable of supporting his family.
“I had no food, and I had to use rags as nappies. When I couldn’t breastfeed any longer I gave the baby coffee diluted with a little flour.”
The man spent time in prison for robbery during Elisangela’ s second pregnancy, and she tried to leave him, but he went looking for her. Then she was pregnant again and the abuse grew worse.
“I came here when I was expecting my youngest daughter. Now I’m taking responsibility for my life myself.”
Elisangela has moved out with her three children and is working as a home help in Rio. She wants to study to be able to find a better job. Maybe as a cook.
“No-one complained about my food when I was learning to cook.”
On the bench in the sun, Beatriz is laughing at a small girl who is kissing an even smaller boy so passionately that he falls over. She has started talking to the other women. Maybe she will stay, after all.
Maternal deaths: 58 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.18
Abortion legislation: Abortion is not legal. It is only allowed if the woman’s life is at risk or if she has been the victim of rape or incest.
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: 41,532 women were murdered in the years 1997-2007. That implies 10 women every day. The majority were murdered by men they knew. In the first six months of 2010 over 40,000 incidents of violence against women were reported.