BARCELONA, Spain — Child and adolescent poverty is rampant in Brazil, with residents of the country’s favelas bearing the brunt of staggering inequality. A shocking 63% of young people are multidimensionally poor, and the illiteracy rate doubled between 2020 and 2022.
Enter EMpower, a public foundation that partners with locally based organizations in emerging markets to empower and support the social development of marginalized young people. They have built a cluster of nine innovative partnerships in Rio de Janeiro that support young people between the ages of 10 and 24. The Borgen Project spoke with Daniel Parnetti, Senior Program Officer for Latin America at EMpower, about three of their projects in Rio de Janeiro that are empowering the youth of Rio’s Favelas.
When asked about the main issues EMpower aims to address, Parnetti identifies three broad areas: “education, health and employment. These three areas are problematic”, he says.
UmRio (OneRio) is meeting these challenges head-on. It is an education program set up in 2013 in the Morro do Castro favela, home to some 6,000 inhabitants.
The brainchild of a British Brazilian rugby fan, Parnetti explains how UmRio uses rugby as “the initial hook” to engage young people, provide academic support and life-skills training, prevent school dropouts and promote re-enrollment in the favela.
He highlights the lack of access to education as a major problem throughout the country, with Brazil ranking 66th out of 77 countries in the 2018 PISA ranking system.
Schools in favelas like Morro do Castro have a high dropout rate due to financial struggles, with some students taking whatever low-paying work they can find.
Parnetti is reminded of a 14-year-old boy who dropped out of school to work as a trash picker, making $5 per month to help his family survive. An UmRio social worker contacted him after being spotted by concerned classmates, and the organization provided the boy with a scholarship. He is now back in school, working towards a brighter future.
This year, EMpower is supporting UmRio in training 200 teachers in Morro do Castro, which will impact almost 1,700 young people. They will also support 376 former students to return to school and help improve their academic performance.
“We focus on early pregnancies,” says Parnetti, “which continues to be super high in our region.” Indeed, Brazil has 53 pregnant teenagers per 1000, exceeding the global average of 41. There is “also a lot of focus on gender-based violence.”
To address these issues, EMpower supports the provision of comprehensive sexual education in all their programs, where students “learn how to use contraceptives and prevent unwanted pregnancies,” as well as how to avoid STIs and gender-based violence.
Spectaculu is an incredibly innovative art and technology school that is empowering the youth of Rio’s favelas by providing vocational training for young people between the ages of 17-21. Their ultimate objective is to insert students into the creative industries.
The program “is focused on employability training”, says Parnetti, giving students in-demand skills “so that they can join the job market.” So far, Spectaculu has helped 7,000 underprivileged young people find employment and boasts over 2,500 graduates.
With a 21% youth unemployment rate nationally, such programs are essential in empowering the youth of Rio’s favelas by helping them enter the workforce.
The school offers courses tailored for the entertainment industry, including Photography, Set Construction and Video and Screen Writing and a new fashion course in partnership with clothing brand Carolina Herrera.
This year, EMpower is helping support 130 Spectaculu students. According to Parnetti, such financial support is vital as parents often object to their children continuing education beyond high school to meet their immediate economic needs.
To further reassure families, Spectaculu sets up regular parent meetings to ” sensitize and engage with parents” and show them the long-term benefits of staying in education.
Parnetti notes that these meetings are very impactful, increasing the likelihood of students staying in education.
Redes de Maré
Maré is a sprawling favela complex in the North Zone of Rio, home to 140,000 inhabitants and comprising 16 communities.
Redes de Maré is an organization that offers a range of programs for the local community. EMpower supports its education program, which currently helps around 360 students transition from middle school to high school. They also offer support during the first year of high school.
While students are taught traditional subjects like reading and writing, Parnettil is keen to emphasize the importance of the life skills subjects. Inspired by the 10 Core Life Skills as defined by the WHO, students learn such skills as communication and empathy. Initially skeptical about the effectiveness of such subjects, he now sees them as an indispensable part of the curriculum.
“At the start of the program, students are very shy,” he says. They avoid eye contact, do not answer questions and speak quietly. By the time they finish, “they are much more confident. They can express themselves.” These skills are essential for finding work and building a better life.
Program participants also receive mental health support due to “an explosion of mental health problems” since the pandemic.
Parnetti talks about a concept that he calls “invisible borders” in favelas like Maré. This concept refers to the fact that many people never leave the favela they were born in. Some Maré residents he has encountered have never even been to the Rio beaches.
To remedy this, Redes organizes excursions to promote a sense of belonging to the city and reduce alienation.
The pace of progress in Rio’s favelas has been slow of late, and the pandemic has exacerbated poverty. But foundations like EMpower and the projects with whom they partner empower the youth of Rio’s favelas and beyond by supporting them along their path to adulthood and toward a better future.
– Marcos Caro