Every day our teams fight to rescue girls. Here, Ellen Udessane, coordinator of our Pink House in Catují, tells the story of one young life transformed.
Catuji is cut in half by the BR-116. It is also blighted by poverty and inequality, with the fourth worst human development index in our whole state. Child sexual exploitation is something that has become normal in our town.
In the five years since Meninadança arrived in Catuji, so many girls have left their mark on our lives. One of those girls is Lara. When she started coming to the Pink House at the age of 12 she was already looked down on by everyone in town. It wasn’t long before she started opening up to me. How she was first abused aged nine by a man on her street. How, when she told other local people what had happened, they didn’t help her, and other men started taking advantage of her too. That’s how she started on the slippery slope to prostitution.
When the Covid pandemic hit, when things got much worse for Lara. She left her mother’s house and started taking lifts in trucks up and down the motorway. One day she and another girl were kidnapped by a truck driver, who tied them up and drove north with them for over a thousand miles. He and another man in the truck left the girls without food and water for days, abusing and beating them the whole time. Eventually the girls managed to escape, begging a gas station owner for help. Lara and her friend were treated in hospital, then brought back to Catuji.
But the experience broke her. She got involved in the drugs gangs, who used her to ferry drugs between here and Padre Paraiso on the BR-116. She was lost in such a dangerous world and I was desperately worried about her.
One day a friend forwarded me a video of Lara standing in the middle of the motorway. The pimp controlling her asked ‘What are you, Lara?’ and she replied, ‘A prostitute’. Seeing that video broke my heart.
I started going out with other members of the team looking for her, searching everywhere, in alleyways, abandoned lots, the slum areas, calling her name, hoping we find see her so we could persuade her to come back. But we always returned empty-handed.
“I knew that each night she was on the street could be her last.”
Then one day, when I was in the Pink House, Lara appeared. We hugged and cried. She was in a real state, dirty, bruised, and emaciated – she had lost three stone. All her front teeth were broken after another man had attacked her. I told her how we’d looked for her every day, how much we missed her and loved her. She told me that every night she would come to the Pink House after midnight, sit on the steps and cry, because it was the only place where she had ever felt safe, valued and loved.
Lara started coming to the Pink House again, but she was in trouble – she was still living on the streets and had been sworn to death by the gangs. I sent reports to the council departments that are supposed to protect the town’s children, but my repeated letters and meetings fell on deaf ears.
I knew that each night she was on the street could be her last, and we had to save this beautiful young life before it was too late. That’s when Meninadança’s Justice Team got involved. They decided to take the council to court, asking the judge to force them to do their legal duty to protect one of their young people.
It was a risky move, as our Pink House was in a partnership with the town council, but we knew we had to do everything to save her. The judge agreed, decreeing that the council pay a daily fine for every day Lara didn’t have a roof over her head.
It worked – within days they found a place in a children’s home in nearby town. Lara was finally safe! You know what the first thing she asked me for after she got there? A Frozen princess dress, so she could play at dressing up.
That was nine months ago, and today Lara is a completely different girl. She is still in the home, happy and healthy. She’s had her teeth repaired, she is eating well, and she is going to school every day. Every day when she gets back from school she video calls me.
Every Tuesday we go to see her at the home, where we do the same activities with her and the other girls there that we do in the Pink House. Every time she hugs us and thanks us for saving her, for bringing her back from the dead, because now she is happy and so full of life. She is just one example of the difference Meninadança is making to so many girls like her. A life that has been totally transformed.
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