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"No Teachers, No Doctors," and More Police Violence: How the Rio Olympics May Victimize Street Children

By siphoning government money away from social services and encouraging violent police "pacification" of poor favelas, Rio's upcoming Summer Olympics may make life even tougher for homeless children.
Donna Bowater

If it weren't for the regular gunfights that break out near the pitch, 16-year-old Gabi Silva would be playing soccer virtually 24 hours a day.

Just three weeks ago, she and her friends in the city-like cinderblock complex of Penha, a poor mountainside favela of 50,000 located in the north of Rio de Janeiro, saw a boy shot dead in a confrontation with police below their quad.

"There was chaos," Silva, a shy teenager, said in a quiet but casual tone. "At the weekend, there's a big risk. When it's full of shooting, we have to hide and stop football but I'm not scared because I'm used to it already."


Read More: Rio's 'Bay of All Delights': The Troubled Waters of the 2016 Olympic Games

Penha, where Silva lives, is one of dozens of favelas in Rio to have been "pacified," or occupied by special police. Brazil launched its occupation strategy in 2008, the year after it won the right to host the 2014 World Cup and a year before Rio won its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The country's security secretary says that pacification is unrelated to either event.

However, shootings in gang-dominated Penha continue to disrupt the daily grind of those who live there, and human-rights campaigners argue that armed conflict has increased as a result of major sporting events, imposing a particularly high cost on poor and homeless children.

Police violence during favela operations and evictions linked to such events is one of the children's rights violations highlighted by the Children Win campaign, led by Swiss humanitarian organization Terre des Hommes.

According to a November 2015 report published by the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee in Rio, "lethality rates grow significantly in mega-event years." The report states that 1,330 people were killed by police in 2007, the year Rio hosted the Pan-American Games, a 300-death increase from the previous year. Similar upward trends continued in 2013 with the Confederations Cup and during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

And according to research by UNICEF, young people are increasingly the victims of violent crime. The number of children and teenagers killed in Brazil more than doubled between 1993 and 2013, with 10,500 adolescent homicides in the year before the World Cup.


That figure gives Brazil the second-highest murder rate in the world for victims under 19 years old. Many others who witness violence suffer lasting psychological trauma.

"It disrupts us because we're playing here and then the shooting starts, the police come, they get someone, hit them…" Silva said. She lives with her family close to the soccer pitch, where police and drug traffickers regularly clash.

"Since I was small, this has happened, and I don't feel afraid but it's bad. I don't think it's going to change. Not at all. Not even a little bit."

Gabi Silva (left) playing soccer at the Street Child Games in Rio. Photo by Donna Bowater

Silva, who idolizes Brazilian soccer sensation Marta and former Botafogo star Clarence Seedorf, recently was one of the children invited to take part in the inaugural Street Child Games, an Olympic-inspired event that promoted children's rights in the face of major sporting competitions. Teenagers from nine countries including Burundi, the UK, Mozambique, and Pakistan, traveled to Rio for a congress on how to protect at-risk children against abuses.

In addition to increased violence and evictions, organizers said children in Rio also have suffered from reduced social services, including healthcare and education, because government money has been diverted for the Olympics.

Rio's state government, badly hit by the country's economic crisis, has left teachers, doctors, and other public servants unpaid. Requests for medical equipment have been denied because funding has been ring-fenced for hosting the Games.


As a result of budget cutbacks, state schoolteachers went on strike in March, which meant children like Silva did not have classes.

"We believe that if you change sports governing bodies, they have the power to prevent these violations from happening," said Andrea Florence, strategic alliance officer for Children Win. "As a result of this loss of social services, these children could become, as a second impact, victims of exploitation, child labor, and sexual violence."

Following the Street Child Games in March, organizations worked with young people to write an open letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) asking for the body to commit to guaranteeing children's rights in the hosting of the Games. The message, addressed to IOC president Thomas Bach, asked for a "clear public human rights commitment" and zero tolerance of abuses and violations.

It also highlighted the IOC's Agenda 2020, a 2014 document that called for "excellence, respect, friendship, dialogue, diversity, non-discrimination, tolerance, fair-play, solidarity, development and peace." Children Win said the IOC's agenda failed to include an "explicit requirement" that host cities respect human rights, including children's rights.

An IOC spokesperson told VICE Sports that any assertion that Agenda 2020 did not include "a specific pledge to respect and protect human rights is simply not true" and that the organization "remains strongly committed to protecting human rights in all Games-related activities."


Activists counter that the IOC should carry out an assessment of each Olympic host candidate to evaluate what safeguards are needed to protect children.

"We don't contest that the primary responsibility still lies with the state, but sports governing bodies also have a responsibility to respect human rights," Florence said. "The IOC and FIFA portray values such as human dignity, development, respect, so it's contradicting to the core of their values. It should be in their core business."

Dinara de Almeida celebrates her Street Child Games gold medal. Photo by Donna Bowater

During the Street Child congress, teenagers talked about their experiences of street life, with violence a common theme. Those listening at the Copacabana Palace were reduced to tears by some of the stories.

Others were angry.

Dinara de Almeida, a 17-year-old mother from Rio, preferred not to talk about her past living on the streets, but she was unequivocal when asked if she was excited about an Olympics in her home city.

"No," she said. "It's great for the athletes but it's worse for my people, for the poor. There's no doctors, there's no hospitals, there's no schools, there's no teachers, there's nothing."

She said preparations for the Games had only improved the city's wealthy South Zone and the burgeoning west, where the athletes' village and Olympic Park will be.

Life in Jacarezinho, a favela in the north of Rio, was "horrible," she said. "There are shootings. It's violent."

De Almeida won the gold medal in the girls 100-meter hurdles at the Street Child Games. She had lived on the streets from the age of nine until 15. With the help of Rio-based São Martinho, a philanthropic youth organization, she now lives with her grandmother, mother, and siblings.


"My life was hard but thanks to God and my son, I managed to change paths and give up the streets," she said. "But here at the Street Child Games, I'm representing the boys and girls who are still there, for them to have the strength to leave like I left.

"We have the hope to change, to be someone, to live like anyone else."

The event built on the success of the Street Child World Cup, which has taken place before the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups to raise awareness of street children. After the 2014 tournament, which brought 20 teams of street children to Rio, Team Pakistan went on an 11-city tour of its home country to promote the campaign.

As a result, the National Assembly of Pakistan passed a resolution to protect the rights of the country's 1.5 million children living and working on the streets.

"Football isn't a major sport in Pakistan but it still had that impact," said John Wroe, founder of Street Child United, which organized the Street Child World Cup and the Street Child Games. "Our job is to get the countries on the side of these young people. If they see them differently, then they will treat them differently. And we know we can do that through sport. We can definitely do that through the Olympics."

Activists believe that the 2024 Olympic host city contract should take lessons from Rio 2016 and include a pledge to reduce the impact of the Games on children.

"The Olympics is great but who is really going to be celebrating?" Florence said. "It's important that everyone can be celebrating, not just a part of society.

"Mega sporting events are complex in nature. They are a microcosm of a society, but they should not be at the expense of the local population and its children. It shouldn't be a hot potato. Setting the example at the IOC level should be a priority."