Vanessa, 13, who was picked up by the police on the streets, poses with a DVD cover at a shelter for girls who have faced sexual violence or sexual commercial exploitation. With Brazil hosting the World Cup next year, officials fear an explosion in child prostitution as sex workers migrate to big cities and pimps recruit more underage prostitutes to meet the demand from local and foreign soccer fans. Reuters
Her leg shook in little spasms as she ducked behind a tree to speak quietly to us.
"Tanya" has springy curls tied back, big sorrowful hazel eyes, and she weighs maybe 100 pounds. Dressed in a pink summer dress, she told us she turns tricks for about 15 Brazilian reals, or $7 CDN, on what locals call suck corner in Recife, Brazil.
She claims she's 19, but is most probably younger. She admits she started selling her body at 14, and has two kids, one three years old and the other two months.
She's hooked on crack. We spoke with her at noon. She says she had no clients that morning; at midnight she was still in that spot, carrying nothing but jeans and a T-shirt wrapped in a grocery bag.
Sexy Brazil, known for its beautiful women and liberal approach to sex — prostitution is legal here — also has one of the worst records in the world when it comes to child exploitation.
Sex with girls and boys under 18 is a crime, and the law was toughened recently, but anywhere from 250,000 to half a million adolescents, almost all of them poor, sell their bodies.
With the World Cup here, those who try to protect children are working overtime.
"It's a combination of football, beach, girls, and miserable poverty," says Rubia Uchoa, a counsellor and manager with the British- based charity Happy Child International.
In Recife, one of the World Cup venues, 120,000 soccer tickets were sold to foreigners, says Uchoa. "The girls know the gringos, as we used to call them, are coming, and they have money. They come to Brazil to have fun."
Sex tourism routine
Sex tourism is blatantly encouraged in Brazil. Hotels and taxis are part of a network that connects prospective clients with women, and often young girls.
In advance of the World Cup some sex workers were taking English classes in order to negotiate better. Some taxi drivers, we were told, have a menu of girls if you ask.
"The taxi driver will say, 'Oh yes, what would you like, a blond, brunette, fat, tall, like a girl or like a woman?'" says Uchoa. "It's sad, this is a system."
Happy Child runs safe houses for juvenile girls and boys in BeloHorizonte, another World Cup venue.
In Recife, in the northeast, one of Brazil's poorest regions, the group has just opened its first home for teenagers with babies either from prostitution or sexual abuse.
Abuse begins "very early, often inside the home," says Uchoa. "Sometimes with their own father or stepfather. When they grow up and they have a body, they realize that is the way to make money."
Sometimes, she says, a girl's parents even encourage it. "It is not about the age it is about the figure, if they look like a woman, OK, it is time for them to start."
'It's a penalty'
In advance of the World Cup, Happy Child produced a short, snappy video called "It's a penalty" to be played on some flights from the U.K. to Brazil.
Soccer stars like Brazilian David Luiz and former U.K. player Gary Lineker warn travellers that sex with underage girls is offside, and can get you charged not only in Brazil but also in countries that have reciprocal laws, like Britain and Canada.
Brazil says it has rolled out an information campaign with pamphlets, and posters in English and Portuguese warning about sex exploitation at airports and ports.
But as we travelled through five Brazilian airports we never saw any of these posters. We did see moneyboxes at hotels asking for funds to help vulnerable children.
"We hope that tourists respect our legislation" says Pedro Eurico, secretary of state for children and youth in Pernambuco province.
"In Brazil, sexual tourism is a crime," he said. "We will not accept this kind of practice, we will be strict about that."
But many people we spoke to here said that child exploitation is out of control in Brazil, and that the authorities are powerless to curb it.
In the impoverished favelas that dot the big cities, many girls don't go to school, and many that we saw were pregnant. We went to one of these poor neighbourhoods, Comunidade dos Coelhos, in Recife with Fernando Biasoli, a volunteer social worker.
He and his wife have been working in these neighborhoods for more than a dozen years, and it seems that almost everyone knows and trusts him.
We scurry past a drug deal that is going down in one of the tiny passageways and duck into a tiny, corrugated tin home where we meet "Jeanne," 15, and her five-month-old baby.
At first Jeanne is reluctant to speak truthfully about her life but with gentle encouragement from her aunt she opens up.
She's a beautiful, full-figured girl wearing denim shorts and a cherry coloured bra under her tank top. She's been selling herself since age 10, she says, with a pause while she lived with a boyfriend, the father of her child.
But now he's in jail for trafficking , her own mother just got out, so she is back on the streets to make money to care for her daughter.
"The men always pay," she says in a soft voice. They set the price, "but sometimes they don't treat me very well."
The World Cup was sold to Brazilians as an economic driver because of the increased spending on construction and the rewards of greater tourism.
Both are true but for many of Brazil's poorest — their piece of prosperity is turning a trick perpetuating a sad cycle of abuse.
"I've seen that the World Cup offered temporary jobs to different people," Biasoli says. "It also gave more jobs to girls who lived around the new stadiums under construction, for those who worked in prostitution."
He says that in Sao Lourenço, where the Recife stadium is located, "there were some street vendors selling food, and I've heard that many of them didn't sell only food, but also their kids for sexual exploitation."
As we leave the favela, the girl we called Jeanne runs up to us, emboldened now, with a few more thoughts.
"Tell the girls in Canada", she says, no longer shy, "not to get into this. It's not a good life."
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