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From Our Own Correspondent: Child Exploitation in Brazil

Originally aired on BBC Radio’s World Service and Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on September 13th 2013.

Olivia Crellin meets the children working in Brazil’s sex industry and hears the frank confessions of a man who once exploited them. My segment begins at the start of the programme and runs until 4:30.

Here is a transcript of the segment:

Amanda is excited about her birthday. I’m turning 14 on Sunday she tells me, playing to the microphone like a pop star. In her pink-checked shirt and cut-off jeans she gives a twirl and bounces off to the sofa to watch the cartoons on TV that my visit interrupted.

I’m sad that my reason for meeting Amanda has nothing to do with her impending birthday celebrations and everything to do with the fact that at 13 she has already spent eight years living on the streets, had two abortions and is part of Brazil’s child prostitution problem.

An estimated five hundred thousand to a million children are working in the sex industry in Brazil – only Thailand can boast bigger numbers. Amanda lives in Recife, a city in the country’s northeast which is rapidly becoming known as one of the worst cities in the world for child sex-trafficking and sex tourism.

Thiago, a former pimp and trafficker, is 27 and from Sao Paulo. He told me that he’d fly to Recife every three months to buy girls from their families for around six thousand dollars each. He explained to me why Recife was such a popular destination for traffickers: “Because there is much more poverty there,” he said. “It’s way easier to convince the girls to come down and prostitute themselves because of the poverty.”

In his brothel in Sao Paulo he would then charge customers around 70 dollars per girl per hour. The girls, he says, would receive about a third of that, after paying Thiago what he’d say they owed him for their clothes, drinks and drugs.

Still, this is more than what a girl in Amanda’s situation would get paid. Amanda started out, like many do, hawking gum and cigarettes on the street to help provide for her family. She tells me that she would often lie down with men – as old as fifty at times – just to feel safe at night. They would pay her about $3 or give her drugs or food in exchange for sex.

On the street behind the main beachfront at Boa Viagem, a stretch of uptown Recife, obviously pre-pubescent girls wait for punters in cars to pick them up. Every weekend Jonathan Costa, the Assistant Director of Shores of Grace, the charity that rescued Amanda, goes to speak with the girls. As we huddle under an awning, waiting for a burst of torrential tropical rain to stop, Costa tells me about the range of cases he has come across during his time working for the charity.

“We’ve seen everything,” he told me. “We recently rescued four girls who were sexually abused by their stepfather. They told their schoolteachers, but they didn’t believe them. When the school finally faced up to what was happening, it got worse – as older children and even teachers responded by asking the girls for sex. At the other end of the spectrum many underage girls here, not full-time prostitutes, line up on the streets on a Friday to sell sex, just to be able to buy a new party outfit or a pair of shoes for the weekend.”

It’s an endemic and deeply ingrained cultural problem, Costa admits. Only last year a judge acquitted a man who had had sex with three 12-year-olds in 2002 because those girls were found to be working as prostitutes. Even the Brazilian government has plans to lower the age of sexual consent from fourteen to twelve.

The problem is only likely to worsen next year as tourists pile into Brazil for the World Cup in June. Thiago says that nearly 80 per cent of the clients he used to welcome to his brothel were foreign – and nearly all of them asked for child prostitutes.  “Everybody preferred children to adults!” Thiago laughs. “Their bodies haven’t been used yet; they’re fresh and clean. The younger ones are prettier and they do everything.”

While demand for children runs high, Jonathan Costa and other small NGOs in Recife will have their work cut out. I’m just hoping that by Amanda’s next birthday the situation will have improved. I fear that it will not