Amanda sits curled up on the sofa watching cartoons on television. She will soon turn 14, but her youth belies her past. The young girl has suffered two abortions already, the result of exchanging unprotected, adolescent sex for a pack of cigarettes or a couple of dollars. “My life was complicated. I was on the streets and taking drugs,” she says.
Poverty in the favelas of the northern Brazilian city of Recife was the main driver for a life in prostitution. “I lived with my grandmother because my mom couldn’t provide for me. My grandmother also looked after my other siblings. She made me go out and sell gum on the streets, to help her provide for us all.” This was around the age of five. “I was in so much danger, exposed to so much, all because of money.”
Amanda remains in Recife though now lives with a family that has adopted her, under the care of a local charity. Yet, in Brazil where prostitution above the age of consent is legal, there are many more children selling sex like Amanda — 250,000, according to Unicef. Local charities believe that number is likely to grow as the country looks forward to next year’s World Cup. Brazil is already one of the world’s top destinations for sex tourism. The country’s age of consent is 14, however official reaction to sex with minors here can be disturbing. Last year a court in Brazil decided that sex with a 12-year-old did not necessarily constitute statutory rape, in part because the girls in question had worked as prostitutes. The ruling was described by Amnesty International as giving “a green light to rapists.”
In Recife’s downtown square, Praça do Diário, pre-pubescent girls sell packs of gum, just as Amanda described in her own past. Others, slightly older, wear tight dresses and seductively smile at passers by. Emmanuelle —who says she is 19, though looks much younger — is one of them. She is clad in a colorful and revealing dress. “I know girls here who are 10,” she says, talking about the prostitutes in the square. “I’ve been coming here since I was very young,” she adds, shying away from admitting exactly when this was. Recife is one of the 2014 World Cup venues and will host fans from the U.S., Mexico, Germany and Italy.
Thiago, 27, has worked as a pimp and trafficker across Brazil, convincing the mothers of girls like Amanda and Emmanuelle to hand over their daughters for some $5,000 to $10,000. “I sought the girls in Recife because there is so much poverty there,” he says in São Paulo, asking that his last name not be published. “It makes it way easier to convince the girls to come down and prostitute themselves.”
In São Paulo, underage girls would earn much more than they do on Recife’s streets. Clients would be charged some $60 for sex; the prostitute would take about half of that, minus debt for clothes, drugs, alcohol and cosmetics. “Realistically, the girl would get about a quarter of what the client paid,” says Thiago, who admits enjoying underage girls himself. “Alcohol and drugs would help the girls to deal with everything. They wouldn’t feel anything anymore. They’d just be objects.”
Thiago left the business after receiving death threats and eventually found religion. “I destroyed their lives,” he now admits. When asked whether he thought there was anything wrong with selling sex with minors at the time, Thiago is pragmatic. “Sex was sex,” he says. “For me, it was normal. The girls were looking for something—so were my customers.”
At hotels in Recife, it is possible to ask for a “menu” of local girls—some very young—and take your pick for the night. If they are not to the client’s taste, hotel staff and taxi drivers are able to point sex tourists in the right direction. “The foreigners are coming from Europe and the U.S.,” says Jonathan Costa, 25, a director at Shores of Grace, a religious charity working with prostitutes in the city. Costa and his organization oversaw Amanda’s rescue from the streets, a long process that began two years ago. “She asked me to take her to a salon and do her hair,” he says. “That broke my heart; that’s the dream for a girl on the streets! They’ll sleep with a guy just to have protection overnight because it’s dangerous out there,” he says, adding that his organization has found girls as young as eight working as prostitutes.
Brazil plays host to the World Cup soccer tournament in June 2014, which will likely lead to an increase in demand for sex workers. “We’ve seen more girls on the streets since the Confederations Cup began [in June this year],” Costa says. “That’s only the Confederations Cup, not the World Cup where this will increase hugely.” World Cup hosts often see an influx of prostitutes hoping to cash in on fans from around the world. Brazil is expecting some 600,000 foreigners for the soccer tournament, according to authorities here. Thiago, the ex-pimp, says that 70-80% of the clients at his São Paulo brothel were tourists.
The Brazilian government under President Dilma Rousseff has attempted to bring in some measures to both put an end to child prostitution and make life for older prostitutes safer. At major festivities such as Carnival in recent years, the government has distributed thousands of kits containing information on how to report child exploitation. However, the government’s more recent “happy being a prostitute” campaign, which aimed to persuade sex workers to use condoms, backfired when launched in June. “We are fighting childhood prostitution and here comes a campaign encouraging it,” said Federal deputy Liliam Sá at the time, according to Reuters. One NGO is currently helping by offering English lessons to sex workers but relatively little is being achieved to curb the industry in child prostitution, despite former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva making it one of his campaign pledges a decade ago.
Back in her safe house, Amanda looks forward both to her 14th birthday and life ahead. “I dream to have a husband and family. I’d like to be an engineer,” she says. But she keeps running back to her life on the streets. Says a disappointed Costa: “It is heartbreaking but it needs to be her choice to move on.”