Rio Child Sex Trafficking 'Epidemic' Could Rocket During The 2016 Olympics - Here's Why

'It’s a scandal involving thousands and thousands of young girls.'
Child prostitutes have worked on Copacabana Beach, which runs alongside the Olympics road cycling route.
Child prostitutes have worked on Copacabana Beach, which runs alongside the Olympics road cycling route.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

On beaches near Olympics venues in Rio, children’s bodies are being sold.

Girls as young as eight are used as child prostitutes in Brazil, in what experts call an “epidemic” involving hundreds of thousands of children.

Girls like Ana Gabriela, who was recruited from her hometown in the state next to Rio, by a woman who promised her a job at a snack bar on the beach during the World Cup in 2014.

“She ended up being held captive in a favela, and made to sell her body right in front of the Copacabana Palace, which is the main hotel in Rio, on the Copacabana beach. She was 15,” says Matt Roper, the British founder of Meninadanca, a charity which helps girls involved in child prostitution.

The spot where Ana Gabriela was forced to stand, and sometimes be raped by up to eight men a night, was alongside this week’s Olympic cycling road race.

Her story reflects a fact that many ‘mega’ sporting events like the Olympics are seen to increase the risk of sex trafficking, as gangs try to take advantage of the influx of people to sell more girls.

The 2004 Olympics in Greece saw a 95% increase in human trafficking victims that year, while Germany’s 2006 World Cup is estimated to have brought in 40,000 trafficked sex slaves - though the numbers are disputed.

Two girls who were approached by traffickers.
Two girls who were approached by traffickers.
Matt Roper

Sex with Brazil’s child prostitutes can cost as little as two Brazillian Real - 49p - according to one charity, and sex work is said to be taking place at the heart of the Games, including the district of the Olympic village where athletes are staying.

Many girls are pushed into prostitution by their own families, then taken to cities by gangs who promise them work and a “life-changing” opportunity.

There is a concern that the number of tourists attracted by big events increases the exploitation of women in vulnerable situations. It happened during the Fifa World Cup, and we are worried that it may happen again now during the Olympics,” says Glauce Arzua, Head of Campaigns at ActionAid Brasil, who has already dealt with many cases since the Olympics began.

“Poor girls and women are at greater risk of ending up involved in situations of violence and exploitation, lured by promises and illusions of a better life.

It’s difficult to know how big the problem is, but it is estimated that at least half a million children are prostitutes, according to Brazil’s National Forum for the Prevention of Child Labour. “Child sexual exploitation is an epidemic, it’s a scandal involving thousands and thousands of young girls,” says Roper.

In Brazil, almost all sectors of society use child prostitutes, he explains: “It’s anybody. They are the police, they are local politicians, they are shop owners, they are poorer people – we’ve had a case of a mayor.”

The country’s dire recession is making things even worse. “I was speaking to prostitutes in the red light district of Rio and they were saying that over the last few months the number of girls, particularly younger girls, who’ve arrived has gone up quite noticeably,” Roper says. “People are losing their jobs, they don’t have any options any more.”

Athletes in the Olympic Village.
Athletes in the Olympic Village.
Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images

In the case of the Olympics, he argues, more girls will undoubtably be enticed to Rio by traffickers hoping to make extra money.

“Traffickers or even people who think they can take advantage, will cause an increase in trafficking, if not an increase in actual prostitution, but then that will ruin the lives of many girls.”

Where do these girls come from?

Though every case is different, there’s a common pattern of girls from small, poor towns and villages being approached by traffickers who offer them a job in a city like Rio. “Sometimes its work, in a shop, on a beach, or sometimes it is [more openly] to come and do prostitution,” says Roper. “Most of these girls have already had a few years when they were doing it anyway.”

Many children have already been pushed into sex work by their own families, driven by poverty and a long history of social injustice. “They think it’s just normal and there’s nothing wrong with it. In the smaller towns, out in the middle of nowhere, because of the history and the culture, there’s a kind of acceptance of child prostitution.”

“Their mothers also were, and their grandmothers also were, it’s kind of a generational thing.”

A girl might become a prostitute aged 10 or 11, he says. “By six, they are already being abused at home, that’s how it starts. Often it’s a way of initiating them.”

Two girls who were prostitutes at the World Cup in Rio 2014.
Two girls who were prostitutes at the World Cup in Rio 2014.
Matt Roper

Research from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime suggests most are black, female, and single but with children. They often have low levels of education and have suffered sexual abuse and violence at home, as well as outside of it in on the streets or even in school, which makes them vulnerable.

It is so normalised that parents see daughters as a way of making money when they reach a certain age, and often squabble with their daughters over the money they make. “The main complaint of the parents whose girls are in prostitution is that they don’t get any money from it,” Roper says, “not the fact that they are in it.”

Traffickers will see the Rio Olympics as an opportunity to “go into the interior and find a 12 year old who is already involved in prostitution, promise them stuff and take them away.”

What are their lives like?

Maria, the 15-year-old who was held captive in a Rio favela, was maltreated, threatened, not given enough food and beaten if she didn’t make enough money at the end of the night. “She talked about men just picking her up and throwing her to the floor – one time she was so badly treated she shouldn’t walk,” says Roper.

He has worked with girls who have been drugged and kidnapped - one was dropped out of the door of a raised truck by a driver once he had finished with her, Roper says.

But others work from their home, voluntarily, to try to alleviate their poverty - and “get used to that kind of life”, he says, though they too are subjected to violence.

Roper has also worked with girls like 12-year-old Leilah, who stood on the side of the BR116, one of the country’s biggest motorways which passes Rio, offering herself to truck drivers who travelled past her poor area.

Matt Roper

“You should not underestimate what they are really going through,” says Roper. “All in all it’s a life of suffering. They are treated as nothing, as objects, and men have no qualms about harming them.”

Who are the traffickers?

“They are local criminals - some are women - who are just involved the drugs scene and the illegal world that goes around it. Things merge into one, so if the woman who deals drugs knows of a good-looking girl who is easy prey, she will know the underworld of those places ”.

The majority are men, but 43% are women, who act particularly to recruit victims, according to Brazil’s United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Other studies have suggested a 41% increase in female traffickers in recent years.

Trafficking gangs are not highly organised like those in Eastern Europe, Roper says, but “there’s a network of people who are involved in illegal activities and prostitution is part of that.”

Matt Roper

Why can’t the girls leave?

When they are taken to the big cities, many girls never go home. “They get caught up in that world, or they are forced to stay, or get sold to someone else, or even abroad,” says Roper.

The trafficking routes mean that children moved to Rio are often moved to other international hubs. “I’ve seen brothels in London and a lot of them were Brazilian, that’s how they arrive there, small town, bigger city, then taken away to another country. Once they’re in, it’s difficult to get out.”

Who is using these girls?

Not necessarily Olympics tourists, although its possible that some are paying for sex while in Rio for the Games. “We are not saying that tourism is directly connected to sexual exploitation. But there is an increase of the attraction of men and it may make women more vulnerable to the exploitation when they are under age and/or exploited by middlemen. There is a connection with the stereotypical way that Brazilian women use to be portrayed.”

But fears of this are overblown, claims Julie Mollins of Thompson Reuters. “It plays into a whole stereotype of who sports fans are - sex mad, rampant sports fans who are not indeed there for the sport, they are there to buy sex... which is quite unfounded in terms of what we know about human behaviour.”

Roper points out that the more likely buyers are locals who usually use the girls - many tourists will avoid the dangerous areas where trafficking is taking place.

It’s also likely the trafficking of children under 15 is far more hidden than on the main beaches. “You won’t see a ten-year-old girl on a beach,” says Roper. “People looking specifically for child sex tourism won’t come to a big event”.

Roper’s own work is with girls who work on the BR116 highway, a practice which sprung up due to the location of their deprived neighborhoods. “Twenty years ago, it was a lot poorer and people didn’t have enough to eat.

“The only people who had any money were the truck drivers driving up and down the motorway which runs past their homes. So doing prostitution by the side of the motorway just became an occupation that almost every women did in that level of poverty.”

Poverty and historic gender discrimination mean it is seen is normal by some groups. “In Britain, a teacher who has an affair with a 17-year-old student would go to jail, but in Brazil having sex with a 12-year-old girl is not seen as paedophilia, or rape, or a crime, by a lot of people,” Roper explains.

Did this happen during the London 2012 Olympics?

Many agencies in London feared a rise in sex trafficking, and in human trafficking generally, at the 2012 Olympics. There were particular concerns that Roma people would be trafficked for begging and street crime.

London invested in projects to help stop this beforehand, and councils were warned to put plans in place to stop children going missing from care.

London's Met police said the 2012 Games didn't see a direct rise in trafficking
London's Met police said the 2012 Games didn't see a direct rise in trafficking
Oli Scarff via Getty Images

“I certainly think there was an increase in people trying to take advantage by recruiting girls,” says Roper, but it’s not clear to him that prostitution itself actually increased.

London’s Met Police said although it investigated one case it saw no rise in trafficking directly connected to the Games. But Laura Godman, a spokeswoman for the Met Police, pointed out that this was “difficult to measure” because victims often don’t realise they are being trafficked or “that the life they have been coerced into is not normal.”

Georgina Perry, who manages Open Doors which supports sex workers in London, said the hype around the issue actually made some sex workers avoid health services for fear of being criminalised, putting them at risk.

What happens after the Rio Olympics?

The problem won’t go away after the closing ceremony - Brazil is the second top country in the world for trafficking women, according to women’s rights group CAMTRA.

“In a small town of 15,000 people there could be 200 children involved,” says Roper. “When you do the maths you’re looking at thousands of children who are forced into child prostitution by their circumstances, by their parents, or by coercion.”

Campaigners will be hoping the international attention on Brazil for the Games will leave a legacy that could help. But there is also concern that as soon as the country is no longer under the scrutiny it has been in the run-up to the Olympics, things will get far, far worse.

“Once people leave and there’s no reason to put up this [positive] image of Brazil to the world, a lot of people feel things will get worse due to the complex economic situation,” says Roper.

Post-Games, there will be no additional investment in education, health and police, meaning life for the most vulnerable - children - will get harder.

Crisis-hit Brazil is not thought to have put as much attention on social investment for its Games as the UK did. “Rio de Janeiro lost the opportunity to invest in the promotion of a true social legacy for the Olympics, reducing poverty and inequality, and investing in the quality of public services, which could open paths for young women to reduce the risks of involvement in such situations, which are criminal and disrespect human dignity,” says Arzua of ActionAid Brasil.

She claims that instead of social projects that could help these girls, Rio saw evictions, reallocation of families to places with no infrastructure and no investments in sports projects, poor neighbourhoods or public schools.

“Rio has lost an opportunity to become a city safer for women.”

What can be done to help?

Although Brazil has progressive laws around prostitution, cases against perpetrators are rare and the networks that traffick children are hard to track down.

“The Brazilian government does not have a consolidated structure to address the problem,” Arzua from ActionAidBrasil.

Despite this, projects like Roper’s Meninadanca are taking action on the ground, setting up “pink houses” where girls involved in trafficking can be safe.

Ahead of the Olympics, it staged a 100km walk along the BR116 motorway where many girls are abused, tying pink ribbons at every kilometre along the way and asking people in the UK to ‘sponsor’ a kilometre to raise awareness.

Brazilian charity Camtra is giving out 20,000 information packs at some of the busiest Olympics venues, in Portuguese and English, explaining the risks and signs of prostitution. Working with ActionAid, it is handing out leaflets, holding public hearings with local authorities, and putting on seminars and marches.

It also trained 120 girls during the World Cup in 2014 to be ambassadors spreading the message against exploitation. “It’s important to empower children, adolescents and adults to reject the offers made to them” says ActionAid’s Arzua.

Anyone at the Olympics, or in Brazil, suspects a child is at risk of trafficking or prostitution, call the country’s official helpline on 100 to speak to someone anonymously and in English.

Can attitudes change?

“I’d like to think so,” says Roper. “Certainly more people. Obviously the country has taken a downturn, but as Brazil develops, and more and more people go through the education system, and it eventually gets better and more and more people know more of what goes on in other countries. Slowly, it’s moving and people are beginning to think differently.”


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