WhatsApp Support Groups And Homemade Anti-Zika Meds: Being Teenage And Pregnant In Rio’s Favelas

'When the Olympics were announced, everyone was so excited... but it was just another empty promise. Why spend millions on a tourist attraction, when people can’t afford to eat?'

WhatsApp Support Groups And Homemade Anti-Zika Meds: Being Teenage And Pregnant In Rio’s Favelas

by Corinne Redfern |
Published on

'The first time I ran away, I was eight years old. My biological father had left my mum before I was born, and she’d started dating another man when I was two or three. I don’t think I ever liked him, but I still can’t remember when the violence began. I guess it was just always there, in the background, making everyone sad. Over time, I learned to anticipate it – to learn my stepfather’s routine and pick up on the patterns.

'Like a wave, he’d withdraw; drunk or stoned or high, spending his money – our money – in a dingy bar or local brothel; only to come crashing down on top of us every time. A hand. A foot. A fist. A knife. My mum’s tears. If my older sister or I tried to intervene, he’d turn on us too. One day, after he’d made us kneel bare-legged on grains of uncooked rice until it felt like my bones were breaking, I limped out the front door and down the hill to my friend’s house. But when I got there, her living room was full of drug dealers, all weapons and guns and mean, hard stares. That’s when I realised there was no escape. Everyone in the favela is either really scary or really scared. I stayed there for three days, then went back home.

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'I don’t know how many favelas there are in Rio, but if I look out of my bedroom window, they seem to stretch on forever. Small, hand-built shacks are stacked, one on top of another into the steep hillside. One community blends into another – only residents know where the borders lie, and non-residents rarely visit because it’s so dangerous. You can’t just walk around freely: access depends on who you know, and which dealers are in control of which streets. The rules are different here, and the punishments for breaking them are harsher. Everyone knows someone who’s been shot at some point or another, and I can’t imagine what it feels like to wander down a street alone and feel safe. I try to protect myself by keeping my money in my bra, and only ever carrying a small bag to avoid attention, but it doesn’t always work. Last week, a man on a motorcycle stopped me in the middle of the afternoon – pushing me up against the wall with the barrel of his gun pressed against the small of my back until I gave him my money and my phone.

'That was one reason why I was so worried when I first found out I was pregnant, although to be honest, I can’t list them all – it would take far too long. I didn’t want this to happen. My stepfather used to accuse me of having sleeping with everyone – that was his go-to insult – but I only lost my virginity on February 2nd this year with my now-ex boyfriend, who was 23. I remember the date because it was such a big deal, and I’d texted my best friends afterwards to tell them. But we didn’t use contraception. I knew condoms existed, obviously, but nobody had ever told me how important they were. My mum has worked two full-time jobs for as long as I can remember, cleaning houses and working in an old people’s home in the centre of Rio, so she was never around to talk about things like that, and you don’t get taught about sex at school. To be honest, you don’t get taught anything at school – there are about 50 pupils in every classroom, and there isn’t even any running water. Nobody cares if you show up or not. These days I probably go once or twice a week.

'At first, I figured I’d get an abortion. It’s illegal to terminate a pregnancy in Brazil, but everyone just does it anyway. It’s not even that hard. You can make a tea using leaves from a plant that grows in the dirt between the houses, or you can pay to go to a secret clinic, but that costs about £85 – which is half a month’s average wage for grown ups, and I don’t have that kind of money. I figured I’d ask my friend for the recipe for the tea – she’s in her 20s and already has five kids, and I know she’s aborted others – but before I could contact her, my mum heard me throwing up one morning, and told me she knew I was pregnant. She sat me down in one of the two rooms in our small house and said that she’d had my sister when she was 13, and if she could do it, so could I. Then she said she’d throw me out if I had an abortion – so in the end, I didn’t really have a choice anyway.

'I’m not the only pregnant teenager in the favela, which makes things easier. There are about 20 of us at the moment, and we all have a big Whatsapp Group together, called ‘The Happy Pregnant Mothers’. Most of us are about 15 or 16, but the youngest girl is 12. We probably exchange about a thousand messages every day – planning baby showers, where we’ll paint smiley faces on each others’ bumps, and trading tips on how to avoid Zika. We can’t afford mosquito spray, so we mix marijuana leaves and alcohol in the blender and then leave it for three days before smearing it all over our bodies. I think it works pretty much the same. I hope so, anyway. Healthcare is free in Brazil, but you need a national ID number, which my mum was always too busy to get me, so I haven’t been able to get any check ups during my pregnancy so far. The local clinic was shut down recently anyway, so if I do get the number then I’ll have to travel for a couple of hours to see someone.

'I really want my baby to be a boy. If I have a daughter, then I want to name her Valentina, but life is harder for girls here. Two of my best friends have been raped – both by their family members – and one girl I grew up with got hooked on cocaine, so now she’s involved in prostitution. Sometimes I run into her at parties, and she looks thin and sad. It’s awkward, because I don’t know what to say to her any more. Still, there are laws to protect us - if a man is caught raping a woman, then the dealers who hold all the power within the community will find him and kill him. But it’s hard to prove, and if your stepfather is the one who’s assaulting you, who are you supposed to tell? My friend Dione didn’t even realise that she was being abused until last year, when we went to a community project for teenagers at one of the local churches. Sitting in a circle, a psychologist told us about sexual assault and domestic violence, and how it was important for women to know it wasn’t their fault. By the end of the session, half of the group was in tears because it had happened to them.

'Even though I know this is what my life is like, sometimes I still get carried away hoping that things will change. When I told my boyfriend I was going to keep the baby, I thought he’d stand by me. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but I imagined that we could get our own place – just the three of us, away from all the drugs and the violence and the fear. We’d be our own little family, and things would be different. But he said he wasn’t ready to commit, so we broke up. Now I’m not sure what to do. I would rather sleep on the streets anywhere else in the world than raise a child in the favela, but I’m out of options. I think everyone here feels like that sometimes. You get your hopes up over little things, and then you always get let down. When the Olympics were announced, everyone was so excited – we read stories online about how Rio was going to be transformed, and how it would help with unemployment and poverty. There was even an advert asking for contractors to help build the stadiums, and hundreds of men from the community went down to the office two days in advance to queue up – that’s how desperate they were for work. But then on the day of the interviews, nobody showed up to meet them. One guy I know hung around for the following day too, just in case. But it was just another empty promise, and now everyone is angry and resentful. Why spend millions on a tourist attraction, when hospitals and schools are being closed down, and people can’t afford to eat? It doesn’t make sense. But then again, nothing here does.'

As told to Corinne Redfern

Support women and girls like Maria at www.worldvision.co.uk

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Follow Corinne on Twitter @CorinneRedfern

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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