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On the trail of Brazil’s shame

07 March 2014

This journalist is also taking practical action, says Pat Ashworth

Highway to Hell: The road where childhoods are stolen
Matt Roper
Monarch £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 

AS THE World Cup host for 2014, Brazil will be showcasing itself as a booming, picture-postcard country of sun, sea, and samba. No better time then, considers Matt Roper in this terse and angry book, to draw international attention to a parallel Brazil, where child sex exploitation and prostitution is at its ugliest and most blatant along the 2800 dusty and impoverished miles of the country's BR-116 motorway.

Entire communities live off the proceeds, and that is the biggest scandal that Roper, a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail, and his travelling companion, Dean Brody, unearth as they journey up the highway. Mothers rejoice when they give birth to a girl, not only colluding in but instigating the euphemistically called "pro-grammes" in which children wait on the verges to be picked up by truckers.

Sending their daughter off for her first programme and waiting for her to come back with the money "is as normal as her playing with her first Barbie doll", Roper observes, describing the epidemic of child prostitution as "an intolerable evil. . . where men choose to use their power to abuse, enslave and exploit without mercy, while other men invested with the power to stop it choose to do absolutely nothing".

This is a society so used to child prostitution, he argues, that it has lost any sense of how wrong it is. It is simply part of the landscape, so that rescuing girls from it and restoring their self-worth means tackling an entire culture that considers their abuse and exploitation as an ordinary and acceptable part of life.

Roper and Brody are like terriers with a rat, determined not only to raise awareness of the tragedy through vivid description and hard facts, but personally to try and do something about it. The Pink House for girls which they have set up in Medina, centred on a dance studio, is to be replicated in other towns if they can get enough support.

"Don't be the girl who fell down. Be the girl who got on her feet again," the teachers there exhort, along with a quotation from Jeremiah: "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

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