The shanty town of Cachoeirinha in Rio de Janiero is no different from most poor neighborhoods in Brazil. Its 37,000 inhabitants lack educational opportunities and good infrastructure, their lives are characterized by violence, and drug trafficking is rampant. Old sofas block the entrance of the neighborhood to cars and people they don't know. A little further on, drug dealers keep and eye on neighborhood happenings.
But one thing has changed in the last 10 years: the number of teenage pregnancies in Cachoeirinha has fallen from 25 percent to 16 percent. Ten years ago NGO Bemfam launched a project to help young girls aged between 13 and 21 years of age in this part of town avoid unwanted pregnancies. The organization provides medical care and holds workshops for residents about sexual awareness and the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Iasmin C., 17, said, since she began participating in meetings her eyes have been opened. "Before, I didn't know there was the morning-after pill that you could take if the condom broke, I didn't know about [sexually transmitted] diseases, or which contraceptive methods were available and how they worked."
A question of sustainability
This information allows Iasmin the freedom to choose a different path from that of her mother, who was pregnant at 16 and working as a domestic servant. "I want to be in the navy," said Iasmin.
The empowerment of women is closely linked to the issue of sustainability, which is the theme of the Rio+20 summit taking place in Brazil until June 22. "Environmentalists are convinced there is no sustainability if the lives of women are not sustainable," said Carmem Barosso from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
Women hold the purse strings, so it is ultimately up to them to decide how the population grows. They are the ones who do the shopping and cook for their families, said Barrosso. "The faster the population grows, the harder it is to implement sustainable policies," she said. Uncoordinated population growth meant the burden on already endangered natural resources would only continue to increase.
Strengthening women's rights
Women don't always have the opportunity to consider their wishes when it comes to planning their families. A woman's right to choose freely when and if she has a baby cannot be assumed in Brazil, said Barroso. Abortion is prohibited, except in the case of rape, when there is a severe risk for the mother, or fetal deformation.
Brazil's population growth is slowing down according to the country's statistics agency: from 2.48 percent in the 1970s to 1.17 percent during the 2000s. Brazil's birth rate was 2.3 children in 2000, but it was down to 1.8 children in 2010.
One of the main reasons for this is what Carmem Narroso calls the "strengthening" of a new generation of women, "the birth rate has declined, because women have become stronger through modern legislation, entry into the labor market and better educational opportunities."
Support for family planning
"We are convinced that the empowerment of women is crucial when it comes to change and new concepts to get states to act for the environment and sustainable development," said Ney Francisco Pinto Costa, chairperson of Bemfam.
Bemfam operates throughout Brazil, in coooperation with similar organizations in Latin America and Africa. In 2011, more than six million Brazilians were offered counseling from Bemfam, with a focus on contraception, early detection of cervical cancer and AIDS.
Author: Nadia Pontes, Rio / jlw
Editor: Michael Lawton