Last year it was Africa, this year it was Brazil. Every summer I always try and build International experience, as my heart and head has always been with those who are less fortunate, especially those living in unreasonable standards of living at the hands of corrupt governments. It was very easy to get attached to Africa, the people are wonderful living in resilient rural communities, and the red sun in the evening and of course, the wildlife! The trip was with a non-governmental organisation called First Aid Africa, teaching and treating in overseas sustainable first aid – it was a great opportunity to raise awareness of the extent of minor and major injuries in sub Saharan Africa (overtaking rates of infectious diseases and HIV).
However, I was given an opportunity to volunteer in health promotion, and conduct research for the United Nations Development Programme in Brazil, a once in a lifetime opportunity for an early days academic/researcher, one me nor anyone else would refuse. It is easy to become emotionally tied to a place you love, but to work across the globe you need to expand your travels. Brazil in the months leading up to the trip was a constant feature on the news, demonstrating local anger at the huge investments into the World Cup 2014. I knew immediately from its rife inequalities and social unrest that Brazil would give me a completely new experience than the one I had in Africa…Sold!
The Brazilian Government has spent billions of dollars preparing stadiums, infrastructure and security for the competition but as the eyes of the world will be on what happens on the pitch, a harrowing story is already taking shape on the streets. Beauty is only skin deep when it comes to Brazil’s second city, Rio de Janeiro. Beyond the iconic scene of Copacabana Beach lies unimaginable poverty in Favelas sprawling as far as the eye can see.
My research would be focusing on service preparation to support sex workers over the period of the World Cup 2014. My contribution would feed into a UN publication – “HIV and the Law: risks, human rights and vulnerabilities”.
The research was a very rewarding experience, to use the research methods I had learned in my MSc, as well as embracing myself into the realities faced by sex workers. One of my favourite moments in my life so far was my invite to speak at the State Civil gathering of organisations working with HIV/AIDS where I found many activist sex workers and services striving for livelihood improvements for sex workers. I was asked to introduce myself, my research and my own background. I was shocked to get called up, especially when I was sitting up in the far back row observing people. It was an absolute pleasure.
Another great moment for me was meeting an organisation just outside of Rio de Janeiro who has set up interviews with sex workers for me. SOS Vida was beyond helpful and became overwhelmed by the professionals working in the organisation as volunteers! It is nice to see people pulling together in tough environments. Many of them work on improving rights for sex workers, especially universal rights they are in fact already entitled to – a really fantastic organisation that I most definitely will be keeping in touch with.
I managed to conduct all the research I needed, and typed up a 35 paged (just over 10,000 words) to the United Nations Development Programme. The key findings were:
- The majority of those interviewed expressed concern about the negativity the World Cup 2014 will have on sex workers, particularly regarding safety concerns
- Some HIV/AIDS support services are in place, however many feel that more work needs to be done to provide security and encourage further social acceptance of sex workers.
- Police brutality was always brought up as the first challenge faced by sex workers
- The majority believe that there will be a demand in sex services over the World Cup period
- The majority feel as though they are not supported in any way by the government, unless it is an HIV/AIDs related target. The only way Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) can get funding are those who work with sex workers is if they have a strong focus on HIV/AIDS
- Research participants suggested a new law protecting sex workers against violence
- NGOs fear for their future due to a lack of funding, leaving volunteers, staff and sex workers in a worrying situation over the future provision of support services
The activities through the health promotion project were a true eye opener to a closer examination to the extent of what it is like to live in a Favela. I appreciated the location of the community facility where I and other volunteers taught children as well as a small outside clinic. The focus of the clinic was sexual health and blood pressure checking. I was happy to see so many community members taking an interest, often queuing for their turn. I was annoyed and when I saw the favelas, but equally impressed by what people can put together as a means of a home to live in. Would you be able to build a favela? With a lack of resources, forced from your home? It was impressive many had running water and electricity and can say if I lost my home today, I could not build one, but these communities are tight nit and small, they help each other and I am not convinced neighbours would be as helpful back in the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, I did have bad luck in Brazil. I had rats in my room which looked like a dark dungeon and we faced a robbery in our guesthouse, when I was feeling quite poorly. The robbery changed views and feelings for everyone on the trip. I was horrified about it, and many can argue, “you went to Rio, what did you expect”? – okay that may be true, and often we were having to look over our shoulders, but there is only so much mental preparation you can do, but it all boils down to experience.
Once you experience a life changing event, you take a lot from it. It just so happens it was me who witnessed the robber (I know, can’t you tell how lucky I am?) It was 3am in the morning; I was tossing and turning all night long. I didn’t hear anything, but woke up to witness someone walking into our bedroom in the guesthouse, which is situated at the far back of the house. For a second I tried to figure out what was going on, but it didn’t take long after to realise we had a robber in the house. Oh goodness I was scared, but working in pre-hospital care/first aid over the past few years of my youth had given me more strength in responses to life/death/dangerous situations. Anyway the robber was right beside my bed; all of my processions were on the far corner as I had to move bedrooms and was just settling in. He saw me awake and we both froze, I was going to be anything alarming seeing as there was 5 other girls in the room and we are in Rio. The man quickly swept up my laptop and quietly, but very quickly left the room. I ran to the door, put a sheet under it and switched on the lights. I explained to the girls what had happened and we ended up going to the bathroom since it has a lock. We were unaware if they were still there, or if there was more of them. We were in the bathroom for a good hour and 15 minutes, contacting our project coordinator asking to call the police and waiting in a state of shock. Once help had arrived we discovered so many possessions had be taken. It was our temporary home and the feeling of strangers going into your personal environment was upsetting to say the least.
The trip ended on a high, one many won’t forget, but it is an experience, one which has opened the doors for me to do a PhD in the future, as well as research with the United Nations. An experience, good or bad, is still an experience, and once such as the above will set you up for researching abroad in places where you will be out of your comfort zone.