This is Elis Regina dos Santos, a confident and outspoken 21-year-old speaking to the Brazilian congress in March at a special event regarding discrimination against Afro Brazilian Youth. She is an outstanding community leader, and I’m proud to say that CWS had a role in getting her to where she is today.
A decade ago, a landslide swept away Elis’ family’s house in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Along with her father and two sisters, Elis was forced to move to a wooden house in public housing where they lived for four years where they shared a 10-foot square room and used public bathrooms. Things weren’t easy for the family, but during that time Elis met Leo Duarte. Leo, a former street child himself and a current political leader, introduced Elis to what they call “the Projecto,” which refers to Projecto Meninos e Meninas de Rua. Known as PMMR, this is our local partner who implements CWS-supported programs to support young people like Elis in Sao Paulo.
When I talked to Elis about her time with the Projecto, she said, “They gave me a VOICE! They made me understand my opinion was important and worth sharing.” She went on to say, “As I started to participate in the activities I felt welcome, I felt I could identify with the people there and it is when I started finding answers to many things happening in my life. I began to understand the social and economic context in which we live and the consequences that it has.”
As part of her participation in the program, Elis travelled to the Dominican Republic in 2011 on a CWS-supported trip. She was able to meet other youths from across Latin America. She told me, “That trip really ‘marked’ me. It was the first time I was able to travel abroad and without my parents. I had the chance to know other cultures, people from other countries… It helped me to understand that although we are different we have similar challenges. For example, I remember we had the chance to meet with the Minister of Social affairs, and I remember we talked a lot about Child Labor. I was an eye-opener for me, since although I used to see that a lot back home I never understood how big of a problem that is.” In 2012 Elis and other youths hosted a group of peers from Uruguay, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Elis’ family also faced an additional struggle: her older sister was sent to prison. Now, Elis is taking care of her niece and faces the struggles that families of people in prison face. She says, “It is hard for us. The whole family mood and energy has changed since that happened. Each moment we spend at home all together we think of her and how she is coping in prison. It is not nice. When she was taken, I was not able to see her for four years because we were young and she was being kept very far from us. It was really hard, especially for her daughter, who was only a year old at the time.”
In the face of hardship, Elis has become an amazing woman. And we’re proud of have been part of her support system.
Elis is now studying Social Sciences and, like I said before, she has become an advocate and activist. Her activism started in part thanks to PMMR, too. Every year before Carnival, PMMR organizes EURECA parades. Using samba beats, they create songs that highlight and advocate around issues affecting children and youth. They have been doing this for 25 years, and Elis and her family have participated since they first got involved. “EURECA is our way to speak up, to talk about the violation of children’s rights while we dance, sing and drum on the streets. Every year we prepare a lot for that day,” she says.
All of this culminated in that day in March when Elis spoke at the House of Representatives in Brasilia. She says the day was “historic” for her. “It was amazing. A black woman that comes from where I came from speaking there in front of those people. That is something unforgettable for me.”
Luciano Cadoni is CWS’s Program Officer for the Protection of the Rights of Children in Latin America and the Caribbean.