Lucas Neustadt

Rights, Opportunities and Choices: A day with Instituto Mundo Aflora

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

-Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The female juvenile detention center at Fundação CASA Chiquinha used to be a school: a central cafeteria with rooms surrounding; the walls painted with a pastel pink strip under a white backdrop; the art on the walls, collages depicting mothers, flowers, and butterflies, with quotes about blackness and growth, all feels like school. The unmistakable difference lies in the details: thick bars covering every window, sturdy locks adorning every door, and the constant clang of metal sliding and slamming into place. 

The girls incarcerated here are young, between 12 and 21 years old: these are children who should be in school. In the low income Sao Paulo neighborhoods that many of them come from, referred to as periferias, there are limited and poor options for primary school and continuing education. These young women never had a fair chance to study, or explore careers, or realize their dreams. These girls  have had their human rights ignored.

 On the anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Friday, December 10, a team from Instituto Mundo Aflora visited the Fundação CASA Chiquinha and Fundação CASA Bom Retiro juvenile detention facilities to speak to the girls incarcerated there about their basic human rights, and to present the Mundo Aflora program. 

The team outlined the intention of the Institute: to support the girls incarcerated in the facilities to create avenues to make new choices and attain their dreams, and to ensure that these young women successfully reintegrate into society after serving their sentence. The Mundo Aflora volunteers spoke about the activities they had previously brought into the centers, as well as the ways they can offer support out in the mundão (how the girls refer to the outside world). 

After the presentation the girls shared what they felt they needed in order to grow and thrive. They asked for classes in beauty, styling, and hair. They talked about computer science workshops, learning to build apps and websites. And the older group spoke about classes in women’s health, gender identity, and financial literacy.

The 26th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human rights states:Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” It is a long stretch to say that holds true in the slums of Brazil. 

 It is part of Mundo Aflora’s mission to bridge that gap. Classes and workshops offer vocational and practical knowledge to give young women the chance to take control of their lives and their futures. Bringing these types of classes to the detention center during their sentence offers a path to autonomy once they leave. 

Brazil’s descent into extreme income inequality, with the richest 5% of the population owning the same amount of wealth as the remaining 95% of the country combined, has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. Average income has decreased and unemployment has risen, pushing millions more Brazilians into poverty. 

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights states: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” A large percentage of the young women who enter the justice system are there because of drug trafficking. Unfortunately, that is often the most attainable and best paying work these young people can find.

Once they get involved in illegal activities, the criminal justice system awaiting these young people violates the rights promised by the United Nations: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” –Article 7. In Brazil, there are separate prisons for people who have graduated college, a level of education taken for granted by the wealthy yet unattainable for many. And during sentencing female juvenile offenders face harsher penalties for the exact same crimes as their male counterparts, a symptom of the discrimination and marginalization of one of the country’s most vulnerable populations. 

The poor and marginalized populations encounter a completely different justice system than the wealthy. Universal Human Rights are obscured at the ends of the wealth spectrum; the rich could never dream of losing them, while the poor cannot imagine having them. 

Aflora Mundão, an arm of Mundo Aflora, offers mental health resources as well as partnering with institutions and corporations to offer continuing education and job opportunities to the girls after their release. The team works with the girls to facilitate whatever schooling or line of work they wish to enter. There are even a few young women that have since finishing their sentence begun working directly for Mundo Aflora. The right to employment is vital to the long term independence of the girls as well as pivotal to avoiding recidivism. 

“If you change one girl’s life, you change an entire family, and on top of that the generation to come.”

Aflora Mundão is building a network of support for the girls post sentence. There is a growing group of young women who have left the justice system, understand the issues the girls face, and have worked with Mundo Aflora to change their lives. This network is at the disposal of the girls, with the expectation being that once they use it, they pass along their own contacts, and help those coming up behind them. A popular saying at Mundo Aflora is; if you change one girl’s life, you change an entire family, and on top of that the generations to come. A community of changemakers is an extremely powerful tool to support these young women.

 Mundo Aflora works with the girls during and after their sentence, however the institute also works on a third front. Within the halls of power, Mundo Aflora advocates on behalf of the girls, giving voice to their struggle, and building support for their cause. The success of the VOICES! Multipliers Program, which brought the methodology used by Mundo Aflora (the first to ever address young women in the juvenile justice system in Brazil) to 33 women working with girls in high risk and vulnerable situations around the country, demonstrates the power in pushing for structural change. The graduates of the VOICES! Multipliers Program are now certified to bring that same methodology to other people working with at-risk youth, growing and multiplying the agents of change working together in this movement. 

On the anniversary of the United Nations signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Mundo Aflora team was able to return to meet with three groups of girls at two different detention centers. During the  visit, each group of girls shared some of their skills, including singing and rapping. The talent bursting out of these young women was obvious. Hidden behind gigantic doors, burdened by an unjust system, there lies an incredible amount of potential. Mundo Aflora is working every day to restore their rights and unleash their power. Because these girls have the right to shine. The right to decent choices. The right to change their lives. 

And what about you? Could you help change a life today?

Lucas Neustadt (he/him) is a volunteer that does English language translation for Instituto Mundo Aflora. He recently went on a trip inside the detention centers with the team and felt compelled to write about his experience. He would like you to know that if you are reading this it’s a great time to donate. Every life we touch, we change. Every life we change, changes us. 

Works Cited:

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