On Brazilian Time

25 Nov


The title of this post refers to the manner in which I’ve decided to write this months after I’ve already returned to the United States. In Brazil, the concept of time is not the same as we view it in the United States. Deadlines are flexible. Meeting times are subject to change ten minutes prior to the start of the meeting (even past the ten minute beforehand mark it’s sometimes okay to make the “can we meet fifteen minutes later call”…chances are both parties are running late…it’s Brazil). The mentality of Bahia is sometimes characterized by the  “why worry about something you didn’t do today when you have all day to do it tomorrow” mentality. Talk about low pressure and stress-free expectations. No one does the casual ” fashionably late” like Brazilians (o jeitinho brasileiro).

So, months later, after plenty of time to reflect on my research and travel experiences and add perspective to how these experiences will affect my academic and professional career goals, I can say with absolute certainty that (1) I love Brasil, (2) my experiences there have been the most meaningful and most fun times of my life, (3) not a day passes when I don’t reflect on something I learned in Brasil.

In Brazil–and in the US to some extent–I work with HIV/AIDS prevention among female sex workers. A wide array of reasons led me to pursue this cause. You can read about them in detail in my other posts, specifically this one or my “about me” section. But, in summary, I am a public health/health policy major, studying health disparities from a sociological, human rights, and policy perspective, and these interests have led me to studying health disparities and HIV prevention.

Brasil is a country renowned for its model HIV/AIDS system, in addition to a universalized health care (long post about this). While organized prostitution (brothels, the management of prostitutes through a pimp) is illegal in Brazil, it is not illegal for one to work as a prostitute. The high rates of HIV among female sex workers, despite the highly successful model of the nation’s HIV/AIDS program and the legitimization of the profession, drew me toward investigating this study. One would reasonably assume that a profession which is legitimized and acknowledged by the federal government is accompanied by some form of regulation. This does not appear to be the case in Brazil . Despite the Brazilian government’s attempts to exercise tolerance toward a marginalized group, female sex workers still disproportionately account for high rates of disease transmission, representing a principal disparity in women’s health in Brazil. For a country with an exemplary HIV/AIDS program, this seems paradoxical, and it is this line of thinking that served as my impetus to pursue a research project in Salvador, Brazil where this disparity is highest.

I spent my summer working with O Projeto Forca Feminina, a non-profit, Catholic-based organization located in Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. The organization’s goal is to work in solidarity with women who are involved with prostitution, providing women with a safe haven they can go to during the day. The sex workers participate in self-esteem building exercises which empower them to see alternatives to sex work or, should they choose to remain in their profession, to do so in a manner in which they are educated about their rights as women and as workers. The primary focus of the organization is to combat violence against women in all forms: physical, mental, verbal, or sexual. Whether the manifestation of violence is physical bruising, mental anguish, or the spread of sexual disease, the goal of the organization is to empower women to realize that any form of violence against women is unacceptable, and whether or not women choose to leave prostitution, they can take preemptive and proactive measures to defend their health and well-being.

I helped to coordinate English classes, belly dance classes, and art activities for the female sex workers at the organization. On the side, I conducted formal life history interviews with the workers. In my interviews, I was interested in learning how women entered their profession, what experiences they have had with gender-based violence, if any, and what factors contribute to whether or not they engage in protected sex in their encounters with clients. The last question is key for prevention of disease transmission and was the main focus of my study. For reasons why condoms were not used, women cited incentives of cash bonuses for engaging in sex without a condom, drug use or intoxication/impaired judgement, pressure from clients, and instances of rape and violence from clients and the police as the primary factors that contributed to the lack of condom usage among workers.

The results suggest that public health policies should promote prevention methods that engage female-controlled forms of disease prevention(e.g. female condoms and microbicides designed to kill sperm, bacteria, and viruses). These methods should be emphasized in both classrooms and public health campaigns and be made more available to the public sphere, perhaps distributed in the same locations where condoms are made readily available. Furthermore, sexual education courses should also incorporate female-specific forms of protection.

While the primary focus of my trip was to conduct my research, I found that most of my time was spent listening to the stories of the women at the organization, their struggles and near-death experiences. The saddest story came from a woman who I became very fond of through my English class. She told me how her ex-husband abused her( “he tortured me for months”), burning her, hitting her, and eventually leaving her with nothing. With three children to feed and no education, she felt compelled to enter prostitution. She saw my English course as a way to make her more marketable for other work. She is only one of many women with whom I have worked with who have similar stories, a multitude of intense trials and tribulations which they had to overcome. Hearing these stories have inspired me to continue my work with human rights and pursue a line of work addressing gender disparities and women’s health.

Beyond my research, I have so many wonderful memories from this past summer. I have a large group of Brazilian friends, with whom I am very close to. There are like family to me. After weeks of experiencing life without speaking any English, or being near any other American, I began to feel really integrated in the culture, and when I was there, and I felt that it…nothing could feel more perfect. I don’t care how many grants or scholarships I have to apply for, how many cover letters I have to send out, even if I have to wait until after I graduate from medical school…Aut viam inveniam aut faciam (either I will find a way or I will make one)…I am going back.

Here is a drawing that a sex worker made for me after I finished interviewing her. She told the most incredible story. It’s says “Rachel, you are this rose. Kisses. -Haide”.


The night time view from my apartment…..If I have ever at any moment in my life felt at loss words, thoughtless and full of emotion all at once, it was here. Countless hours spent gazing over the balcony at the Atlantic ocean. Que saudade….



2 Responses to “On Brazilian Time”

  1. Israel Qualms November 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Interesting article on Brazilian healthcare disparities. Good luck with your dreams of trying to better women’s health.


  1. “Who Cares about Us–We are Just Women of the Street” (Honors Thesis) | blue devil banter - September 15, 2013

    […] working with HIV prevention and sex workers, you can read more about my experiences in the field in one of my previous postings. And for those who are interested in the socio-cultural backdrop of the project, you can read about […]

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