Photos by Tom Kimmell
Recife, a city and surrounding region of more than 3 million people in northeastern Brazil, is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Tourists come to lounge on the beaches, swim in the warm ocean waters, and take in the area’s preserved Dutch Colonial architecture. Growing numbers of tourists also come for a sinister reason: to frequent the seamy world of child sex trafficking.
Brazil is overtaking Thailand for numbers of trafficked children. UNICEF estimates that at least 250,000 children are currently forced into prostitution in Brazil, mostly in the northeastern part of the country.
“Sex tourism” in Brazil is a lucrative, booming economic industry. Organized sex tourism companies market tours for European and American men. Taxi drivers, hotel workers and pimps work together to organize meetings between adult predators and the boys and girls. Pimps get children high on crack, then offer the children’s tiny bodies to the men for a few dollars.
I came to Recife because I wanted to understand the harsh environment in which Compassion-sponsored children live and the dangers they face. It is in Recife’s poorest communities that children are kidnapped or recruited for prostitution. And the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016 are making this business of exploitation much more lucrative as sex traffickers lure more children into the business.
I walked along a dirt path in a small community on the outskirts of Recife whose dump is the main source of income. I was heading to the house of my first interview — a 14-year-old girl, a victim of sexual abuse. The house was welcoming from the outside — red brick, with green foliage growing over it and a small creek winding past. This seemed to be one of the better houses in a row of shanties I passed. But when I arrived, the welcoming feeling I had outside its walls fled. I may as well have stepped onto a battlefield.
Despite the sunlight that poured through the windows, darkness permeated every room. Chaos was all-consuming and so tangible that while my mind can replay it in vivid detail, words are not enough to convey the confusion and oppression there.
The girl’s mother is a prostitute, so the house was crammed full of beds. The beautiful 14-year-old I met to interview seemed resigned to the abuse and the emptiness. Her beloved stepdad was killed here. This was her “home.”
For her, playing games, watching movies — simply having a childhood — were fairy tales. She desperately wanted to live that life — and then, miraculously, for nine months her dream came true.
A Rescue Attempt
The pastor and his wife from a Compassion partner church in the area had previously seen her situation. The girl’s living conditions were so severe that they went to the mother and asked if this young girl could live with them and receive their care.
During that time with the pastor’s family, she started to change. Her living conditions at home had been so savage that, even as a teenager, the pastor and his wife had to teach her how to eat with utensils.
She went to church where she learned of a greater purpose. She was given a different perspective from the abuse and dysfunction in which she had been immersed — and given a chance to begin to heal. The pastor’s wife even enrolled her in private school.
But one day the girl’s mother returned with an ultimatum: Take her completely or give her to me completely. The pastor’s wife agreed to take her. Then another ultimatum: To keep her, you must pay me for her absence — for the loss of the girl’s services.
The pastor’s wife refused, and legally, the girl’s mother demanded her return. The pastor and his wife are in a battle to rescue her again. They meet regularly with the mother to try to convince her to choose a different life for her daughter.
As I interviewed her, I looked into the hollow eyes of a young girl who was a pawn in a grand spiritual battle to give children a life of hope. She is one of the vulnerable prey for whom the pastor and his wife have chosen to fight in their community — and against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Laws in this part of Brazil are meant to protect children from abuse, even to pull them out of abusive homes, but they aren’t often enforced. And one of the region’s only state-run safe homes, Centro de Recuperação Rosa de Saron, is full to capacity.
I pondered what would happen when I left. Would the girl’s mother hand this precious child over to be used by a bill collector as payment in full? The pastor and his wife told me it has happened. And I wondered about other at-risk girls and boys in the city.
It is for them that Compassion’s church partners fight. When children enter the child development program, they are surrounded by staff and volunteers who are trained in and committed to child protection. It is an enormous calling to care for the most vulnerable children in an environment where home is not always synonymous with safety. But it is the calling of the Church.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit.”
When we work through the Church to defeat sexual abuse, to undo it, to help heal its victims, we take part in the ministry that, bit by bit, severs the power of evil.