The early 1990’s inaugurated a period of optimism in the broad scheme of Brazil’s children’s rights policy conversation. In 1990, the National Congress dove into the agenda, enacting Federal Law 8.069 (“Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente,” or “E.C.A.”)—which was highly praised by experts as a regulatory framework for the Constitution’s goals—as well as ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even on the subnational level, in 1992, cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro instituted their own funding mechanisms for childcare policies, relying on tax waivers.
The background for legislative shift dates back to 1988, the year Brazil enacted its current constitution, which provides cutting-edge regulation to the constitutional goal of ensuring Brazilian children the fundamental right “to play, to practice sports, and to have fun.” This established an agenda that would set the tone for Brazil’s political and policy conversation in the following years.
Ever since the Constitution of 1988 was enacted, child mortality rates have declined and access to elementary education has been universalized, leading to a significant drop in illiteracy rates. However, in a country with overwhelming social disparities spread out through a continental-sized territory, complex social and political challenges such as enforcing the fundamental rights of children still demand breakthrough policies.
In the developing world, the scarcity of resources puts pressure on governments, who in turn, have no alternative other than to start thinking of ways to do more, and better, with less. It was in this context that in 2019, almost 30 years after E.C.A., São Paulo City Hall enacted its Child-Friendly Clubs: a public policy inaugurated specifically to take advantage of the city’s sports infrastructure to prevent human rights abuses towards children in the heart of São Paulo, Brazil.
By turning the city’s public sporting complex into outposts of safe environments for millions of children, the Child-Friendly Clubs deployed massive improvements to São Paulo’s childcare policies, allowing for the realization of children’s rights in the urban landscape. The array of available policy solutions was enhanced and the regional reach of existing solutions was expanded in a timely fashion with smart use of public resources. Its preliminary results alone can already prompt improvements to children’s quality of life, by intimidating potential criminals from practicing sexual exploitation in a much more monitored environment.
Back in 2019, I was working as a Policy Advisor and Head of the Department of Sporting Facilities at the São Paulo City Hall’s Secretariat of Sports and Leisure, which allowed me to take a small part in the ambitious effort of placing children’s rights as an “absolute priority,” as envisioned in Brazil’s constitution. I helped draft the policy’s goals, articulate the project with experts, and engage local communities, after the agenda of the Secretariat of Sports and Leisure was bolstered by social inclusion and human rights mindsets with the help of international organizations and non-profit institutions.
Addressed by Target 16.2 of Sustainable Development Goal 16, sexual exploitation is one of several types of violence, along with human trafficking or physical punishment, that takes advantage of the particular vulnerability of children and adolescents. It was time the city faced the issue as a priority.
In a time when national governments in major democracies, such as the United States and Brazil, have adopted hostile rhetoric against the human rights discourse, shifting the social policy agenda from the politicized national debate towards the pragmatic landscape of human rights realization on the local level is an underestimated tactic. The case of Child-Friendly Clubs of São Paulo offers an insightful illustration of how international human rights can bypass national gridlocks and become reality.
The idea was simple, but not obvious. In order to ensure that a key children’s rights policy could be implemented even in the farthest and poorest areas of the city, it was high time that the City Hall took advantage of its already existing and strategically placed sports facilities throughout São Paulo. If the clubs started being acknowledged not only as a hub of courts and gyms, but as safe environments for children to access their rights to play, the city would benefit from a fast and smart expansion of its public service for children’s rights.
There was no shortage of motivation either. Then-Secretary of Sports and Leisure Carlos Bezerra, Jr. was sworn in by Mayor Bruno Covas with the explicit mission of changing the Secretariat’s mindset towards more socially driven policy goals. As a medical doctor trained as a gynecologist, and having had grassroots leadership experience as an evangelical pastor in São Paulo’s eastern upskirts, Bezerra had built a political career rallying for improvements in the national conversation on childcare. He also brought his prior years of experience as city councilor and state congressman to the new job.
On the other hand, there was still a long way to go from abstract legal guidelines to building the effective street-level bureaucracy that truly matters in big urban communities. The issue at hand is the textbook example of a taboo. In a world where there is no shortage of public issues to tweet about, the idea of a child being sexually exploited is so abhorrent people often choose not to even talk about it.
Effective law enforcement against child exploitation becomes challenging, as criminal complaints tend to place the spotlight on victims. Evidence is hard to collect, as such violence does not necessarily happen physically and, when it does, body marks are not always detectable. It is then possible for the perpetrators of sexual exploitation to escape while victims are punished twice by carrying the scars of social stigma and personal trauma.
The task was not for the faint of heart. Sexual abuse, a crime that is often perpetrated by adults known to the victims, such as family members or neighbors, was not our only enemy. Brazil’s loose regulation of its multimillionaire sports industry, combined with the country’s national identity as the world capital of soccer, makes the dreams of young athletes a vulnerable market for more profitable criminal activities. Throughout Brazil’s countless soccer fields and dojos, adult exploiters are skilled at reaching out to young talents, building trust, promising career opportunities and paths for professional triumph, often contributing to international pipelines of child pornography and grooming.
Reliable data on the sexual exploitation of children in Brazil suffers from the same issues that hinder other efficient enforcement policies in other fields. A lack of democratic governance among stakeholders prevents comprehensive insights into the size of the matter nationwide. The courts—state and federal—do not always engage in conversation with state and federal social assistance agencies. Public prosecutors do not see dialogue with local and state federal systems as a priority. The nonprofit sector struggles to make sense of the lack of anchored pluralism. Additionally, they all collect and parse data in different ways.
Between 2011 and 2017, 203,275 formal criminal complaints were presented through “Disque 100”, an official telephone channel for denunciations of sexual violence managed by the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. In the same period of time, data from the Ministry of Health—which is part of the very same federal government structure—received 141,160 criminal complaints about the very same kind of crime. Throughout Brazil’s 27 states and over five thousand municipalities, data is much more rare and even less organized.
So, what does a sports club have to be so children can safely exercise their right to play, to practice sports, and have fun? This question was supplemented with conversations between the Secretariat’s childcare experts and physical education professors in countless surveys held in the clubs, as well as visits to the 47 Sports Centers spread across the city. What they came up with was a minimum policy framework for a common ground of safety in São Paulo’s public sporting complex.
The policy framework that emerged encompassed eleven quality standards, the first of which enabled local personnel to quickly respond to suspicious attitudes by adults and offered easy instructions to children themselves, should they feel comfortable reaching out about any violence they suffered.
The subsequent quality standards included incremental improvements in the written policy’s content, including the establishment of a code of conduct that protected both children from harm and adults from careless behavior and unlawful accusations.
According to Quality Standard 8, formation and training cycles on how to deal with suspicions and potentially harmful situations for each Sports Center’s personnel would become part of the routine. Further quality standards would add increasing levels of engagement in the cycles by local and public community authorities, such as school teachers, primary health care professionals, and law enforcement officers.
The toughest challenge would naturally be implementation. The city of São Paulo’s public sporting infrastructure is made up of 47 Sports Centers with hundreds of square kilometers of gyms, pools, and soccer fields directly managed by the City’s Secretariat of Sports and Leisure; there are additionally over 250 Community Clubs (“Clubes da Comunidade”, or “C.D.C.s”) run by local non-profit institutions, whose management is supervised by the Secretariat. Sports Centers offer citizens dozens of different sports and physical education classes, oriented every week by the Secretariat’s body of physical education experts, with special activities prepared for elders and handicapped people.
Such an ambitious initiative had no choice but to start from the beginning, concatenating steps and prioritizing the consolidation of the very basic policy frameworks. We chose to place a bet on didactics and communications with local communities. After all, perhaps the most crucial aspect of the policy’s implementation process was the need to make its guidelines understandable to the general public with an emphasis on parents living in the outskirts of the city. The challenge was to communicate how the formal requirements of each implementation phase would qualify each Sports Center as a safe environment for children or not.
The tip came from the athletes: the policy seemed a lot like a race to the podium, they said. The quality standards system thought up by the Secretariat’s childcare experts was very much like the reasoning that oriented both their daily goals and professional dreams. It was all about winning a competition for the safest environment for children in town.
Following the layered approach strategy chosen by the Secretariat’s childcare experts, the original 11 quality standards were merged into 3 Olympic medals. A bronze medal would be given to Sports Centers that at least applied for the program and delivered a preliminary risk and scenario analysis of their facilities. A silver medal would be given to Sports Centers that, after qualifying for bronze medals, would also enact and enforce the written policy—which the Code of Conduct was a part—for the club’s personnel and regulars, besides starting formation and training cycles. Finally, the gold medal would be deserved by Sports Centers that enacted both clear, visual communication of the program’s guidelines around the club and a permanent monitoring system, with the participation of local communities and local authorities.
And then the time came for the pilot initiative. Parsing data from São Paulo’s Map of Inequality and internal records on each Sports Center’s average frequency of children per day, the Department of Sporting Facilities and the Department of Sport and Leisure Policies came up with eleven Sports Centers for the first phase of the program’s implementation. The goal was putting together a pilot initiative that, if successful, would accumulate the political and policy substance for developments, including an expansion to private sporting and social clubs in the city.
By mobilizing a layered approach to implementation, key personnel were gathered for extensive formation and training cycles. Within months of weekly meetings, club managers, professors, and analysts were trained by experts on how to identify risky contexts for children—such as children being left alone on playgrounds or in locker rooms.
Over 200 professionals were taught how to look for emotional signs of aggressiveness and introspection that could indicate recent violence suffered by children that regularly attended their Sports Centers. Comprehensive orientation was given by children’s rights experts on how to handle potential cases and how to contact the appropriate authorities.
After the first experiment, the red tape was ready to be cut. With the accumulated feedback of a preliminary pilot initiative, it was time for the program’s first results evaluation. Community leaders from seven of the eleven regions where the pilot initiative took place let their respective Sports Center’s manager know of positive feedback from regulars. The Secretariat’s Press Department engaged in conversations with local newspapers and issued pitches to large newspapers, rallying for support. The program was now ready to receive public funding and be formalized into legislation. On September 16th, 2019, Secretary Bezerra presented the program and its first results to UNESCO in Brasília, months after initiating its brainstorm with the input of UNICEF’s local representation in São Paulo.
On December 3rd, the Child-Friendly Club Program was officially inaugurated through a ceremony held at the gala auditorium of Brazil’s Soccer Museum, located inside the premises of Pacaembu Stadium. Hélia Rogeria de Souza, also known as “Fofão,” former volleyball player and gold medalist in Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics was announced as the program’s official Ambassador to an audience filled with children and parent regulars in the city’s Sports Centers.
On December 11th, City Councilor Patricia Bezerra presented the city’s Municipal Chamber with a bill consolidating the Child-Friendly Club Program as an official São Paulo City Hall public policy regardless of future mayors’ discretion. The bill is currently awaiting review in the body’s Constitution and Justice Committee and must still be included in the order of business for the following committees before reaching the floor: the Public Administration Committee, the Education, Culture and Sports Committee, the Health, Social Promotion, Labor and Women Affairs Committee, and the Budget Committee. On December 18th, Bezerra proposed an amendment to the City’s 2020 budget, including a label of 300,000 Brazilian reals destined for the further implementation of the Child-Friendly Clubs.
As hundreds of millions of children see their lives dramatically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic all over the world, the story of an unlikely goal that became public policy in the largest city in the Southern and Western Hemispheres might help policymakers get the record straight on how the future must be shaped not only as a new normal but a better normal.
The contemporary scenario for human rights realization is hindered by national governments which have been replacing its agenda with populist priorities. Meanwhile, cities are still privileged arenas for rights implementation, as they are close enough to the territory to build horizontal alliances with local civil society and prioritize pragmatic approaches to human rights, and local governments are among the most dramatically involved political agents in the effort of translating general rights prescriptions into practical results for people.
At the time of the first anniversary of its formulation, the program still has not become legislation, which places a successful policy within the tight boundaries of the political discretion of future administrations. While the topic is indeed a taboo, policymakers—and the international community—have a legal obligation not only to reject their comfort zones but to move the public and private sectors towards solutions to existential threats to our way of life. The sexual exploitation of children and adolescents is one of them.
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