A ray of hope in Rio's bleak slums. Fighting apathy and poverty, women band together to build a future

Rats feed on the garbage strewn across the hillside slum of Santa Marta in Rio. Pistol-toting drug dealers patrol the warren of passageways that snake up the hill amid makeshift houses fashioned out of old boards, cast-off cinder blocks, and tin sheeting.

A year ago, drug traffickers fought for control of Santa Marta in a battle that killed several people and left residents feeling as though they were caught in the middle of a war.

In February, mudslides caused by heavy rains killed nine of the people who live in the slums, known as favelas here, and destroyed 22 of the homes perched precariously on this hillside overlooking downtown Rio de Janeiro.

But amid the poverty and suffering, a group of women has come together to try to create a future for themselves and their children. Working with an American priest, they have established a number of self-help programs that provide a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak existence.

The women have had to overcome not only widespread apathy within Santa Marta but also the traditional view that a woman's place is at home raising children and taking orders while men do as they please. With the determination that life should offer more than hunger, filth, and violence, they have gotten more than 100 women and 200 youths to participate in the community project and have created:

A day-care center that serves 68 children whose mothers work.

A program through which sponsors pay school costs for 130 junior-high and high-school students.

Tutoring classes for 30 potential school drop-outs.

A cooperative that gives loans for rebuilding unsafe homes.

A weekly bazaar of used clothing and household items.

Typing, sewing, and handicraft classes.

``By working together, we've improved our lives a great deal,'' says Marlene Castro, a mother of two children.

The community project operates under the Brazil-based Ecumenical Center for Action and Reflection, an offshoot of the Federation of Organizations for Social and Educational Assistance (FASE), which was founded by the American priest, Rev. Edmund Leising, in 1961.

Fr. Leising, who came to Brazil in 1946, had been director of Catholic Relief Services in Brazil, but had come to believe that traditional food-handout programs ``do nothing but create a whole new generation of beggars.

``Until we get the poor to change their own attitudes about themselves, it's absolutely useless to give them anything,'' he says.

Today, FASE exists in 500 communities throughout Brazil, employs 250 people full time, and serves some 1 million poor people. Leising says that Santa Marta is one of the most successful self-help community projects in Brazil, where two-thirds of the 140 million inhabitants live in poverty.

The Santa Marta project evolved from meetings Leising began having in the mid-1970s with three women who lived in the favela and who had been discussing ways to better their lives. Leising insisted on letting the women take the initiative in proposing and developing specific programs.

``Change has to come from the bottom up,'' Leising says. ``If the outsider does all the work, the community project becomes his, not theirs.''

In 1976, the women formed a sewing class with funds that Leising raised from the United States and Brazil. This was followed with a cooking class.

After a child strangled himself accidently by a rope with which he had been tied to his bed while his mother was at work, they resolved to build the day-care center.

The women found that the hopelessness that pervades Santa Marta was their biggest obstacle.

``These people have been taken by everyone,'' says Leising. ``Politicians want their votes for an election, the church wants them for converts, companies use them for cheap labor. They've never been permitted to exercise any of the basic freedoms that Americans take for granted. They've never been respected. They have no roots, no foundation. They've never had a solid job or stability.''

But emboldened by the success of the sewing and cooking classes, the group of housewives convinced residents to help out. They built the day-care center, carrying bricks, boards, and other materials up to the site in the middle of the favela by hand.

``Nobody thought we would achieve anything,'' says Anita Barbosa, who was one of the project's three founders. ``But some of us believed we could bring about change, and we were able to convince others of this.''

Ms. Castro also enjoys a better life thanks to the project. She used to stay with her two children at home, where she says she felt like ``a prisoner.'' She now organizes the museum and circus trips.

``I'm doing things I never thought I could do,'' says Castro. ``I'm helping others and myself at the same time.''

The day-care center has been particularly beneficial. ``By taking care of the children, we not only allow mothers to work but also ensure that every day [the children] get two meals to eat, a bath, and supervision,'' says Ms. Barbosa.

Leising says he isn't discouraged that the Santa Marta project has grown slowly and that a vast majority of the favela's 18,000 dwellers remain uninvolved. ``You won't raise the favela by getting everyone involved,'' he says. ``You need small groups that will create pressure for change - this will create a ripple effect thoughout the favela.

``But it's a slow growth process,'' the priest adds. ``Change doesn't come overnight. You move ahead one foot and back nine inches. Sometimes they get discouraged, and you have to tell them that good things have occured.''

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