Returning Home: A Reflection on Progress in Brazil

Carmen Barroso, Regional Director

Earlier this summer, I returned to my home country of Brazil, where I was reminded of the old adage that looks can be deceiving. Despite Brazil’s recent rise as a global economic giant, a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line.

Like many countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the enormous gap between the rich and the poor extends beyond income to all spheres of life. While wealthy Brazilians increasingly choose to purchase private medical insurance for health care, the poor must grapple with an inadequate public health system. Public hospitals are often overcrowded, understaffed, and lack necessary resources to provide services to the millions of Brazilians who desperately need them. These disparities inevitably translate into unequal access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, especially for young people who face additional barriers of stigma and discrimination. Take, for example, the favela of Cachoeirinha.

Located 20 minutes outside of Rio de Janeiro, where luxury resorts and high rises rule the skyline, many of Cachoeirinha's 37,000 residents face violence, high rates of unwanted pregnancies, and a lack of educational and economic opportunities. For youth in the favela, this reality is changing. Thanks in part to the dedication of our local partner, BEMFAM, the number of teenage pregnancies in Cachoeirinha has fallen by nearly ten percent in the last ten years.

During my trip, I had the opportunity to visit Cachoeirinha and participate in BEMJOVEM—or “good youth”—a popular BEMFAM program that provides young people with information about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, protect themselves from HIV infections, and access health services and condoms. As I listened to the young people's engaging and animated discussion about how they view sex, I realized the effects of BEMFAM's work go far beyond reducing unwanted pregnancies and ensuring reproductive health.

Like young people in the United States, Brazilian youth care about their friends, family, going to college, getting jobs, raising families, and having fun. One glaring difference that emerged, however, is the lack of accessibility to many of their hopes and dreams. Faced with extreme poverty, limited educational opportunities, and the threat of violence, young Brazilians often find it difficult to reach a better future. BEMFAM's work is helping to turn that around.

Four years after joining BEMFAM’s youth program, 22-year-old Luciene da Silva Nascimento is about to enter college. An energetic and creative young women, Luciene loves to write poetry, read, and educate young people about their bodies, their rights, and their choices. To listen to Luciene today, it’s difficult to imagine that she was an insecure and shy person just four years ago. Her experiences at BEMFAM helped her to gain confidence and empowered her to make her own life choices.

By the time I left Cachoeirinha that afternoon, I was inspired and excited. The enthusiasm of the young people at BEMJOVEM reminded me once again that the key to ensuring a just and sustainable world is investing in our youth.

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