Caring for Rio’s Most Vulnerable

Opinion by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The recent events for which Rio made headlines across the world show the dangers of dividing a society between a few haves and many have not’s, and of neglecting those in most urgent need of government services.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

It made us remember the obvious yet long ignored necessity to integrate, through accessible and quality education, children and adolescents of our Marvelous City. The absence of the state – or in some cases its threatening presence in the form of corrupt officials and militias – is dangerous.

True, with the decisive take over of Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro’s government has done something, creating a model to be emulated by cities like Maceió, Belém and Salvador, affected by high rates of drug-related violence. This is more than can be said for authorities during the past decades and it should give us reason to commemorate. But something is not enough.

The only way to empower people and liberate them from violence, oppression and marginalization, is by granting them access to the tools to transform their own world. That first tool is education. Education is a fundamental right. Education is respect. Education is dignity.

Without the support of the Cariocas (those born and raised in Rio), Brazilians and foreigners living in Rio de Janeiro, the coordination between government, police and military forces would have gotten only so far. By opening the door for progress we took a crucial step. For that we also have reason to celebrate.

But does it mean Rio de Janeiro will now be at peace? Will residents of Rio’s slums be granted the right to lead decent lives? This is where the thorniest questions arise, and where show of might and power become of little significance.

As criminals were being arrested or killed or as they fled police occupied territories, newborns were coming to life. As things stand, these innocent children are looking at a future no more prosperous than that of today’s delinquent youth. As a society, we are failing to adequately identify and address the real problems.

We were eager to support – and subsequently loudly applaud – the necessary use of public resources to root out the “visible evils of drug trafficking”. Shamefully, most of us are not as adamant to pressure authorities to help those who have little say: Rio’s invisible children.

Will every child denied access to education engage in criminal activity? Absolutely not. Is education Rio de Janeiro’s only priority? No. But it is arguably its most important one. Drug gangs recruit younger and younger children to become soldiers in drug traffic. Youngsters who get involved usually belong to the poorest families of the slum communities and their schooling is well below the (low) Brazilian average.

A study by Observatório de Favelas revealed that most children and adolescents involved in drug trafficking activities abandon their studies at age 11 to 14, which coincides with the average age of entry into crime. Many say school is not perceived as a place for stimulation or for the viable pursuit of life goals.

On December 8, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates “how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills, [reading, mathematic and scientific literacy], essential for full participation in society,” released its 2009 results. Brazil was ranked 53rd out of 65 countries, with significant discrepancies between public and private education. The national average: 401, on a scale of 0 to 800.

As if this was not enough, on December 9th, Rio Como Vamos launched its 2010 System of City Indicators and appraisal of public elementary education. In Complexo do Alemão, the percentage of students aged with two years or more above the ideal age for their grade is of 86 percent, in Cidade de Deus it is 92 percent. The gravity of the situation is reflected in pervasively high rates of school evasion. Unsurprisingly, the study suggests that education will be the main challenge for governor Sérgio Cabral’s second term.

Now that the state has demonstrated its capacity to act resolutely and send its millions of citizens a strong signal of hope, lets demand that it do more. Residents of Rio, we are also to blame for the construction of a very strong, but as Míriam Leitão writes, unrealistic image of the fight of “good versus evil”.

Evil is not the 11-year-old who claims his dream is to become a drug trafficker. Evil is not the mother who is forced to leave her child unattended – and vulnerable to exploitation – to work as a full-time maid, earning little more than the minimum wage. Evil are those who have the power to create positive change but consciously decide not to act, or worse, to purposefully stand in the way of progress.

To be clear, it is unfair, ill advised and truly hypocritical to demand action only from the government. After all, who buys most of the drugs that lure hundreds of minors into a life of crime and subjugate thousands of citizens to a life of fear? The 15, 25 or 30-year-old attending private schools and driving imported cars, for whom knowing a drug dealer is “cool” and perpetuating the indiscriminate consumption of drugs is glamorous. While there is demand, we can be sure drug traffickers will find creative alternatives to supply loyal customers.

As our former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, wisely wrote, society needs to break free from the taboo and see that sometimes the enemy lives inside luxury homes and not only in the city’s poorest communities.

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A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.
http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com

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