Empowering women in Brazil
It often happens that the first step in exercising solidarity is exploring the lack of self-esteem among people who are marginalized. In one women's group participants were asked to draw something that expresses: 'Who am I?' Elizabeth complained that she couldn't draw. 'You don't have to be an artist,' it was explained, 'just any rough picture that helps you say who you are, or how is your life just now.' She drew a cockroach.
The discussion began. Why did she choose that? Her reply came softly at first until she felt secure enough to express the real anger she was feeling:
"What do you do when you see a cockroach," she asked? "You step on it and try to kill it. This is what has been happening to me all my life."
Starting from this low point, it takes a lot of patience to help women to accept their true worth, to realise their potential and begin to explore their talents, which may hopefully lead to some capacity to generate even a small personal income.
Sister Sheila Campbell works in the city of Salvador with women from the poorest class of society, trapped in prostitution by illiteracy and poverty and traumatized by violence since childhood. Alcohol abuse and drug-taking are other traps for these women.
"Their health needs are my special concern," she says. "As well as all the range of sexually transmitted diseases you would expect, most also suffer from stress-related illnesses: hypertension, gastritis, cardiac problems. Many suffer from the violent behaviour of their clients or their home partners but are reluctant to go to the police to complain, as their complaints are not treated seriously. Last year we had three women assassinated by clients.
"One of our pastoral responses to this situation is to set up literacy classes. This gives a better chance of integrating with the wider society. Lucia taught me this yesterday. She is 46 years old, and came to Salvador as a teenager from another state. She works all day in a brothel near the port. Lucia told me how excited she was when she managed to join up her letters and how much she was enjoy ing her literacy class. Last year she bought a long distance bus ticket to go to visit her mother, but missed the bus because she could not read the name of the destination written up on the front. 'I will never miss my bus again,' she said happily."