To help Palmeirinha, a favela in the northern zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Lays dos Santos, 21, started a youth-driven Eu Vivo Favela (I Live Favela) group to assist the community.
While identifying the most urgent needs in the area, the group discovered the recent development of sub-favelas inside the favela. These are areas where people are living without basic sanitation, in very precarious conditions.
The group then organized a support network to help the most vulnerable people living in those sub-favelas. One of the actions that was taken, thanks to a strategic partnership between UNICEF and some companies, was to distribute hygiene and cleaning kits and food, prioritizing newly formed families. Among them are recyclable waste collectors without proper living conditions and families with a high number of children.
“We were a sigh of relief and hope to some families during these chaotic times. When delivering donations, we tried to pass on hope and peace and assure them that everything was going to be fine,” Lays said.
Tatiane Leite Silva's family was visited by the youths. Pregnant and unemployed, she supports two kids and her mother by collecting recyclable trash. In the small place where they live, the family has to coexist with the recyclable items Tatiane collects to sell.
“It's difficult because we live in a very small shack. But we try to be cautious: we wash our hands and wear masks when outside. I received hand sanitizer and cleaning products in the kits that I didn't have and will start to use now,” she said.
The vulnerability of families such as Silva's was exacerbated with the crisis brought on by COVID-19. Most of the people receiving kits said they hadn't received benefits from the government or emergency financial assistance.
Most of the waste collectors don't have basic sanitation and, to survive, start to look for recyclable items farther and farther away, which increases the risk of infection.
“Social distancing in a favela is an impossible reality, as most of the inhabitants are informal workers or perform essential services. They said: 'if I stop, I starve'. There's no option to remain safely at home and this increases their vulnerability and risk of infection,” Lays said.
She explained that Palmeirinha was a small shanty town that lacks everything. Because they were living in social exclusion and relative isolation, she believes it's important to promote a change in the mindset of the people who live there by helping the youth become more aware of their rights. “We understand that we can protect these youths by better informing and empowering them.”
Lays started to work in her community as a teenager, after losing a friend to violence. His death, and many other deaths since then, awakened lots of questions in her and the desire to do something that would lead the youths from the favela on a path to safety, belonging and ownership.
From the desire to promote dialogue, discussion groups were formed in the schools. This was how Eu Vivo Favela was born, based on youth participation and social engagement. Their work continues despite the pandemic.
“It's important that we become the power, the voice of the favelas. We need to take over the discussion and own our speech,” she said. And the group already has in place strategies to implement once the pandemic is over. The next step is to create a podcast on mental health inside the favela, offering emotional support, especially for pregnant teenagers.