The Heartbreaking Issue In Brazil We Should Be Talking About

Photo: Plan International / Natalia Moura.
Girlene was abused by her father, raped by her stepfather, and left to live on the streets at 13.
Editor's note: Girlene, who asked that her last name not be used for her protection, is a survivor of sexual abuse from São Luís, Brazil. She is now battling the widespread violence against girls and women in her home country. Her personal essay was provided by Plan International, a nonprofit organization working to end child poverty. The views expressed here are her own.

My mother was abused by my father. I was so little I didn’t notice. Soon after he physically abused my mother, he also abused my sister and me. My sister’s nose was broken, and my collarbone was fractured. My mother eventually left him. I was about 10.

That’s when I started working as a maid in a house, but the abuse continued. I was only allowed to go home once a month. I would leave the money I was paid with my mother (about $15 a month) and return to the house where I was fed very little and forced to sleep on the floor. After six months, my sister and I were totally exhausted and couldn’t take it anymore, so we returned to my mother’s house.

By that time, my mother was living with another man. The first days were amazing — he treated us well and we went back to school. Then he started to get upset when we were there. We weren’t allowed to turn on the lights to study, and when we arrived after school, he’d throw away all of the food. My mother was supportive of him, and when our neighbors saw what was happening, they fed us.

I lay on the floor trying to understand what had happened…To this day, I have flashes of that moment even though I’ve tried to erase it from my memory.

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I had enrolled in a dance course at school — I loved to dance. When I arrived home after class, I went to take a shower. The shower was outside and there was no door, just a shower curtain. As I was showering, my stepfather barged in and put his hands on my mouth and forced himself on me. I was 13. When he left, he pushed me. I lay on the floor trying to understand what had happened. I was in a lot of pain and there was blood. To this day, I have flashes of that moment even though I’ve tried to erase it from my memory.

My stepfather told me my mother wouldn’t believe me. He was right. When I tried to tell her the following day, she wouldn’t let me finish the story. She interrupted, saying it was in my mind.

I spent some more months living there. He kept harassing me and continued to touch me inappropriately. If I was in the kitchen, he would grab my hair, or my butt, or touch my breasts… I was afraid to stay at home with him. If my mother was away, the harassment was worse.

My mother’s relationship was deteriorating. At one point, she tried to send him away, but the next day she went and brought him home. They had a really bad argument, and when I got home from school she said she didn’t want us there anymore. She said she was happy with him, and she didn’t want to leave him at any cost. Then, she opened the front door and asked us to leave.

My sister went to live with her boyfriend. I spent two days sleeping on the streets. I wanted to stay with my eldest sister, but it didn’t work out. My older sister is white. My middle sister and I are Black, and they didn’t want me there.
Photo: Plan International / Natalia Moura.
Girlene said she has found hope through dancing, and is sharing her story so another generation of girls doesn't suffer like she did.
That was when I met two social educators who are so important to me and my life. One of them invited me to live with her and her family. I stayed for a few years. I totally lost contact with my whole family until I was 16.

I started to grow in confidence. I was participating in many workshops, including those run by Plan International Brazil. I learned about sexual exploitation, my rights, and youth advocacy. I used to be very shy, but they encouraged me to find my voice. In fact, after I took part in a communication project, I finally found the strength to tell one of the social educators what happened to me when I was 13.

I also found hope through dancing. Dancing is everything to me. One of my favorites is "Samba de Gafieira" because it is happy and uplifting. Dancing has helped me fight this big monster that’s been at my side. When I danced, I grew bigger and stronger than the monster.

I get emotional talking about the dance because nowadays I don’t feel pain anymore. In my first dancing contest, I came in first even though I had no experience, just passion. I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I mean, I don’t feel sorry for myself. Dancing has set me free from the demons that so often kept me awake at night. Dancing, from samba to waltz, makes me feel like I was an ugly duckling who became a beautiful swan. There is no money that can buy this feeling.

Dancing has helped me fight this big monster that’s been at my side. When I danced, I grew bigger and stronger than the monster.

Sexual violence is a serious issue in Brazil due to a lack of public policies, and it stems from a lot of other issues. In my case, my mother suffered, too. She wasn’t sexually abused, but she suffered physical violence. She had to work to provide for us. When she saw she could be safe with a man, she didn’t want to lose the security he brought home because of us. If these issues are tackled through awareness sessions, girls could have a different future. Over time, I’ve learned to forgive my mother, and we have a good relationship now.

For me, I wish I hadn’t held my secret for so long. I felt like I was the one to blame. Now I’ve realized I’m not guilty. The survivor is never guilty. How can you be guilty when a sick person thinks they can rob you of your childhood?

Today, I’m 30 years old. I have graduated, I have my own dance studio, which I co-own with my husband, and I am an educator. I’ve achieved everything I wanted because I spoke out and those who believed in me made me realize I can make a difference.

A big part of my life has been pain, but today, I’ve set myself free. When I see my past, I put my present in front of all that, and I see the things I achieved from the moment I spoke up.

To all the girls and women who have suffered like I have, please, speak up! Don’t let anyone get away with it. Talk to someone you trust, who believes in you — and someone you know can make a difference. Let’s show society we don’t have to stay quiet.

If you live in the U.S. and have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). This personal essay has been edited for length and clarity.
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