By Sarah O’Sullivan, Contributing Reporter

Boxing at Fight For Peace, Photo by Bira Cavalho.
Boxing at Fight For Peace, Photo by Bira Cavalho.

RIO DE JANEIRO – An Englishman has spent the last seven years fighting to provide an alternative for youngsters living in Complexo de Mare, a favela community in Rio’s Zona Norte (north zone), that has buried seven children in the last four years through gang violence. His boxing club is going from strength to strength, but could become another casualty of the global economic crisis.

Luta Pela Paz, or Fight for Peace, is solely funded by corporate donations, and founder Luke Dowdney is worried. “We are facing a perilous situation,” he said. “We’ve really had to batten down the hatches already. We’re not going to close tomorrow, but we need help to do this.”

Gang membership is the norm for many young favela-dwellers, with children bedazzled by the quick cash and notoriety of a life less ordinary. Teenagers walk the beat with guns tucked into their clothes. Four-year-olds fashion machine guns out of Lego, and pretend to gun down their friends. This is the reality in areas of massive unemployment and rudimentary education.

The club is open to all, but specifically targets teens at risk of gang membership, and gun violence. The club is working so well, that a sister project has opened in Woolwich, London, where knife crime is steadily on the rise. There, the project has built links with youth probation services.

The projects aim to provide practical alternatives to crime, and offer training in sports, promotion of peace, as well as jobs skills. Youngsters who have fallen through the net of other services are streaming through their doors. The Rio project has helped 800 young people to date, and boasts success stories that range from local entrepreneurs to international boxing champs. In the UK, Fight for Peace has accessed 900 youngsters since its inception two years ago.

Luke Dowdney coaching at the project in Rio de Janiero,
Luke Dowdney coaching at the project in Rio de Janiero,

According to Luke, the clubs work because young people are at their core. “The project works because the young people run the show; that’s where the difference lies,” Luke said. “We have a youth council that are part of all decisions. It’s about knowing how to access kids who fall through the net.”

Fatima Maria da Silva (46) is typical of many matriarchs living in Rio’s favelas. She moved here from neighbouring state Minas Gerais 15 years ago, dreaming of a better life. Rio was not the land of dreams she imagined, but she lacks the wherewithal to return home. She worries about her five children every day in a neighbourhood racked with gangs, guns and drugs.

Luke has studied gang culture in more than a dozen countries, and noted similar trends the world over. He believes the models being used in Rio are transferable the world over to communities with gang-related problems.

But, he worries about how the clubs will weather the global economic storm, as corporate donations invariably begin to dry up. Neither is currently in receipt of government funding, but Luke is working to open lines of dialogue with the authorities of both countries. “We’ve grown to a size now, that we are noticeable. We have shown that the project works, but we need help to continue.”

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