By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – Deep in the heart of the Baixada Fluminense, the seemingly never-ending low-lying suburb stretching out through the north of Rio, lies a progressive new cultural center – the “Casa Cultural de Baixada” – giving locals of all ages the opportunity to learn new skills and explore their talents. Besides this, though, it has also become the focus for a program supporting abused women which, along with the DEAM police station for attending solely to women in central Sao João de Meriti and the new exclusively-female hospital, is helping hundreds of women escape the cycle of domestic abuse.

Choir members get ready for practice at the Casa Cultural in Sao João de Meriti, photo by Doug Gray.

When The Rio Times visited the center there was a tangible buzz surrounding the prospect of the new facilities, whilst the regular ballet, football and singing classes were all underway adding to the sense of activity. What sets the work in this “Casa Cultural” apart are the ‘morning tea’ sessions where local women from surrounding neighborhoods began to meet up and discuss their lives, including the recurring problem of violence suffered from family members in the home.

These meetings, under the simple name Fêmea (female), discuss everything from the rights of children to abuse and domestic problems, and what began as informal conversations between mothers of children taking part in courses there, has, according to one mother, had a huge impact on the lives of many local women;

“Previously such subjects were hidden, kept in the home. It is not a subject that is discussed much in Brazil. But these forums gave women a chance to reflect on and share their situations, gain some self-esteem, and have involved and helped around 250 of us so far.”

The kids go through their paces at the football school, photo by Doug Gray.

Another regular at the center spoke of her feelings of suffocation as a result of her domestic situation, and the support she received there helped her decide to leave home. “Some men are still too macho. The idea of independence, financial and mental, for women is very important, and helps break the cycle of abuse,” she said.

This sense of independence pervades those using the Casa Cultural, clearly empowered by what it provides them and what they get out of it, in an area of the city largely forgotten by the council and government’s initiatives and social services. “For the children here its more than just about learning ballet or football. Its about respect, becoming a citizen, having the opportunity to be valued in society” she continued.

This month also sees the inauguration of two somewhat unlikely but nevertheless important new elements in the center’s development; a bakery school and a cinema club. The kitchen is already in place for classes in the former discipline to get underway, while the cinema club fills the gap in the neighborhood’s entertainment with the nearest cinema several kilometers away.

Though Action Aid has been a key partner in the Casa Cultural’s fight for abused women, they are still seeking partners for ongoing and forthcoming projects, and you can find out more at the site www.casadaculturabaixada.org.br

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