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Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
Speaking Out and Providing Services

Casa de Passagem in Brazil, Ana Vasconcelos









This paper describes the history and work of Casa de Passagem in Recife, Bazil.


Beginning in 1986, while working on a voluntary basis-and before the official opening of institution-the founders of Casa de Passagem developed a working model of alternative socialization for adolescence, gender and citizenship. The model was based on the production of peer educators.

Rethinking Approaches and Objectives/ 1989

Casa de Passagem was launched in 1989 as a pioneer initiative, aimed at defending under-privileged children and adolescents in Brazil. It was original because it dedicated attention to the problems of adolescent girls on the streets of the big Brazilian metropolises. The explosion of the number of "street children" created a wave of indignation in society. The responding progressive initiatives focused almost exclusively on adolescents of the male sex.

Casa de Passagem's pioneer project in Recife raised the specific problem of the girls, demanding that their special needs be addressed. The problems of these adolescent girls, until this point, had not been raised to general society, even by the women’s movement, which concentrated its efforts on the problems of adult women.

Casa de Passagem brings into the forefront the problem of child prostitution and the sexual abuse of children and adolescents. Casa de Passagem begins its intervention by moving beyond simple denouncements to the creation of specific teaching methods aimed at seeking solutions to the problems of adolescent girls, subjected to the impoverishment that victimizes over half the Brazilian population.

The founding of Casa de Passagem coincided with an acute aggravation of Brazil’s social, economic and political problems, produced by the implementation of the neo-liberal economic model that has accelerated the impoverishment of the subordinate classes and continues to disorganize the daily life of the individual, the family and the community. The aggravation of the social crisis raised levels of unemployment and underemployment, obliging families—pressured by the immediate needs of survival—to depend, more and more, upon their children's contribution to the household income. This phenomenon has driven children and adolescents to live in the streets, on the edge of society, in the grip of hunger and crime because their families cannot afford to sustain them.

Under the current circumstances of the Brazilian social crisis, street children are the fruit of the social reproduction of capitalism that these "families" have to cope with. Instead of "disintegrated families," it is therefore probably more relevant to speak of "non-integration of families" (Casa de Passagem research, 1992).

Since family units are not formed because of destitution, the children, the "sons" and "daughters," no longer have "parents" who answer for them. The bid for the streets, to seek survival in this public sphere, may represent leaving the violence to which they are subjected in their origins and searching for "family" reference groups, or people who will shelter or help them in some way (Casa de Passagem research, 1992).

As a result of her gender and class status, the adolescent girl bears a double burden in her destitute and disorganized daily life. Her individual experience of deprivation, compounded by the urgency of basic needs required for survival. Under these circumstances there is no place left for the development of self-esteem.

Destitution is a material condition in the daily lives of these children, reinforcing emotional disturbances, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and breaking down the boundaries between the "public" and the "private." The streets represent a controlling and demanding territory where the adolescent girl becomes, in the words of Lebfreve, totally vulnerable, exposed, and controlled. The street thus becomes a site where desperate, impoverished adolescent girls attempt to escape from this misery and the magic appeal of material goods displayed in the media.

The Individual Dimension 1986-1989

"Language is the essence of the experience, and daily life the arena available to the adolescent girl, as the chief protagonist of her individuality." (Vasconcelos 1986)

Casa de Passagem monitors the trajectory of the girls from their homes to the street, using input from a survey taken in 1990/1991,"Street Girls of Recife: Dimension, Trajectory and Survival." The institutional structuring of Casa de Passagem was based on the work on the street, an approach based, in turn, on the girl-mentor relationship and dialogue with the "street girl."

In the streets, in contact with the girls, the mentors respect the basic conceptual framework that the girl herself has struggled to establish and that enables her to survive. They work with the girls, rethinking and rebuilding a new life to be assumed, if desired, on the basis of these foundations: linking in with the girl’s family, cultural, social, and racial background, her temperament and expectations, and her condition as an adolescent girl ("meninas de rua: foi porque o amor valeu...." Vasconcelos, Mendonca, Castelli, 1988).

Moving Towards the Collective Dimension 1990

The work begins by training the "street-girl" to become a peer educator. She is then prepared to do educational work among peer adolescents on the street. Once trained, she informs her peer group about the Casa de Passagem. Thus, the street girl inaugurates the informative practice of Casa de Passagem. The first thing that peer educators learn and teach is to exercise basic citizenship. By talking to the "street girls," Casa de Passagem identifies misinformation about health and sexuality, prejudices, and emotional disturbances, all of which are linked to economic destitution which has lead young women to the streets. Most of these girls are involved with drugs and in prostitution directly or indirectly. The Casa de Passagem thus formulates and applies its knowledge with respect to the following issues: "conflicts, ignorance about the body, undesired pregnancy, the loss of virginity, rapes, beatings, exploitation, forms of violence which occur in domestic groups, with poverty as a backdrop, a shared arena." (Vasconcelos 1992:10).

In March 1990, the preventive program Adolescentes Multiplicadoras de Informacoes, or Peer Educators Program, was set up with the aim of preventing running away or expulsion of adolescent girls from their homes and communities into downtown Recife.

Peer Educator's Program

The axis of the educative process is the dynamics between life on the streets and life in the Casa de Passagem. The Peer Educator's Program, or peer educator program, represents the collective social and political approach that Casa de Passagem has adopted. Aimed at prevention, it is based on a model of community socialization involving the training of adolescent girls as conveyers of information on health, sexuality, gender and citizenship. These young people are prepared for working in their communities, transmitting information and, thus preparing the path for the desired personal transformations.

The preventive Peer Educator's Program aims to train and empower adolescent girls as peer educators in outlying communities to transmit information on health, sexuality, gender and citizenship. As such, they take on responsibility for the spread of information among their peer groups. Adolescent girls with adequate training, can train other adolescents, like themselves, to become peer educators themselves. Street educators establish the first contact with the girls. They treat them with attention, courtesy, and affection. They open new and positive prospects of human relationships for these children.

As a collective approach, the Peer Educator's Program project represents the social aspiration Casa de Passagem has worked towards since the outset. Addressing prevention, it conceives a model for community socialization aiming to prepare adolescent girls as conveyers of information on health, sexuality, gender and citizenship. The main goals cultivated in this program are:

The physical space of Casa de Passagem is introduced as a place for meetings
Alert and receptive educators are always present
Girls are encouraged to speak and verbalize experiences and sentiments
Girls are taught that the care of the body is a sign of self-respect
The presence of a group as a forum for communication supports the girls, but it also "limits."

In Casa de Passagem the adolescents can spend several hours a day, take a shower, wash their clothes, rest and eat. They can talk to educators, as well as psychologists, teachers, sociologists, anthropologists, nurses, lawyers, social workers and doctors. They begin to get to know each other and build up trust. The habits acquired in the streets are gradually changed. As they learn to cultivate self-esteem and independence, the young peer educators are trained to understand their political responsibilities and the need and purpose of this social work in their communities. They take responsibility for communicating information, aware of the fact that they are progressively producing social transformations.

Casa de Passagem believes, through its daily "praxis," that with this input, the adolescent girl becomes capable of modifying patterns, mentalities, attitudes and behavior in her daily dealings with conflicts and violence, which are generated by the destitution in which she lives. The Casa also believes that the girls can develop the necessary capacity and abilities to pass on information to other girls in similar situations in the community, either through spontaneous action, or in the form of an action proposal put together by group organization. This is the central idea behind the Peer Educator's Program; the process of communicating information to a peer group, during daily social exchanges, as a permanent prevention strategy to be incorporated within the experiences and practice of adolescent girls in low-income groups.

Both proposals—of spontaneous and of organized action—are based on three essential suppositions:

1) The integration of these adolescents into the community.
2) The defense of the rights of adolescent girls.
3) The responsibility for the community through organized actions.

These principles maintain the characteristics of a social and political approach, which addresses the individual and social defense of adolescent girls.

Educators and Program Staff

The work of Casa de Passagem is sustained by an operative group of educators and program staff ideologically and professionally committed to the aims of the project. More important, however, in the current success of the programs, is the high level of personal and collective effort on the part of the educators in sustaining a daily routine that greatly differs from that of other NGOs working with adolescents. Two aspects of the Casa de Passagem methods stand out in the light of the experience as a whole:

  • The persistence in giving adolescent girls a voice to speak their desires, emotions and experiences, and
  • The caring to listen, respect and learn from what the girls say.

On these principles, the social, psychological and educative reintegration process is developed to perfection and without impediments, with the knowledge that an entire world of emotions, sentiments and ideas is being changed in the girls’ psyche. Behavior is changed. Life is changed.

What is perceived in the discussions with the team and with the educators individually is an impressive sense of responsibility, discipline and commitment to Casa de Passagem programs. This is clearly reflected in the educators’ relationships with the girls, in which the key is respect and esteem.

Girls’ Identity

Casa de Passagem works with the poorest sector of the population in the town. Its first aim is to remove the greatest number of girls from this situation of absolute poverty and attempt to prevent community girls from ending up on the streets. In this sense, Casa de Passagem manages to revive in the young women the desire for social integration, and equip and strengthen them for their struggle for citizen’s rights, for employment, for dignity in their work, for public health and education services, and for the existence of a real democracy. It combats poverty in that it gives back to the poor the reason for struggling for a better, more dignified society. It is precisely in the stimulation of this struggle that the Casa de Passagem has had an important and promising presence in the destitute communities of Recife and Olinda.

Without full comprehension of the educative process at all stages, the advances, setbacks, challenges and limits, the girls could not construct an identity; that only emerges with the perception of the reality in which they survive and the freedom of being, each one of them, a unique individual. Cut off, denied an individual identity, springing from their venture in the world, pretending to be what their mothers desired of them, even when new values are conveyed through the media, that strongly influences the lives of poor women and their sons and daughters, the girls cannot go far, if they repeat the "destiny of their predecessors," mothers and grandmothers.


Ana Vasconcelos, from Recife, Brazil, was born in 1944. She is a lawyer by profession. From 1986 to 1988 she worked on the street with girls. In 1988, she founded "SOS Child" for girls and boys who work on the street. In 1989 she founded Casa de Passagem, a SOS for girls only. Casa de Passagem is a non-governmental institution that works with street girls by giving them medical and psychological support. The organization also works with the mothers of the girls in the street trying to help mothers and daughters become friends, enabling the girls to leave the streets and go back to their domestic homes. Ana Vasconcelos has published the following books: Menina de Rua: Foi Porque o Amor Valeu, SOS Meninas, and Education through Life: A Pedagogical Experience in Brazil.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu