Fortaleza, Brazil - If last year's Confederations Cup was a warm-up for the World Cup in Brazil, it was also a practice run for those working to protect children from sexual exploitation during the FIFA event.
And there's a good reason to dread the start of the football championship in June judging by last year's tournament, say officials and frontline workers in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, which will host six World Cup matches.
"We are worried about the World Cup. It is a very big event and lots of people will be coming to Fortaleza from outside," says Leana Regia Faiva de Souza, from the Secretariat of Human Rights in the state of Ceara, which is coordinating an initiative to prevent child-sex exploitation.
In many areas [of Brazil], the population does not regard it as a crime... but in Fortaleza we have a strong history of campaigns to protect children.
"We plan to use the strategy that we used during the Confederations Cup, doubling the number of outreach workers on the streets and doubling the shelter service. Two independent secretariats will monitor this work," de Souza says.
According to the NGO National Forum for the Prevention of Child Labour, there were about 500,000 child sex workers in Brazil in 2012.
Acknowledging that Fortaleza has a reputation inside Brazil and abroad for child prostitution, de Souza says the steep rise in complaints, or denuncias, of sexual exploitation reflects the success of regional authorities in raising awareness that this is a criminal act.
Figures from the human rights secretariat show complaints rose from 193 in 2009 to 2,122 in 2012 in Fortaleza.
"Fortaleza has the highest number of complaints in all Brazil so people think there is a lot of sexual exploitation here. But what this also means is that people here are very aware that this is a crime," says de Souza.
"In many areas [of Brazil], the population does not regard it as a crime and fail to see that sexual relationships with adolescents between 12-18 have to do with power and economic factors as well, but in Fortaleza we have a strong history of campaigns to protect children."
As a coastal area with all-year summer weather and high levels of poverty, Fortaleza certainly has the chief characteristics associated with sex tourism, but disentangling media hyperbole from the reality about the numbers of children involved is complex.
What is certain is that frontline workers have been seeing more children working as prostitutes as the city has attracted more tourists - Brazilians and foreigners.
"We have been seeing more underage girls on the streets," says Jacinta Rodriguez, who is with a team of outreach workers from the non-profit organisation Barraca da Amizade, who are driving around the red-light district near the newly built football stadium - the Arena Castelao - in search of young prostitutes.
"For many, they do it for the money to support their families."
On their rounds tonight, Rodriguez and her co-workers spot a new girl with a group of prostitutes waiting at the corner of Juscelino Kubitschek Avenue. Wearing a tight blue vest and tiny shorts, "Andressa" says she is 17, but looks several years younger.
|The Arena Castelao in Fortaleza has a red-light district nearby [EPA]
One of the older prostitutes tells her to go to the window of a car to negotiate a programa - on average costing 30 Brazilian reals ($12) - with the driver and his companion. This time, the deal is unsuccessful and she returns to the group.
Asked about the World Cup, "Giovanna" says the work "will be non-stop".
"The girls lie to us about their age," says Rodriguez, adding that the organisation regularly sees a 13-year-old girl who works as a prostitute to support her baby.
The NGO hands out condoms and advice, urging girls to come to their centre for classes and to arrange a medical check-up - perhaps even help to leave the streets.
But they must contend with parents who sometimes send their daughters there to make money. Young girls are most in demand, says Rodriguez, adding "by the time they are 20, many are finished".
'It's a penalty'
In a bid to tackle the sexual exploitation of children during the World Cup which begins on June 12, the UK-based Happy Child organisation launched an "It's A Penalty" campaign to raise awareness and warn football fans who travel to Brazil that they face prosecution if they engage in sex with a child aged 17 or under.
The campaign has the backing of law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom and Brazil, as well as prominent international footballers including Brazil's David Luiz and England's Frank Lampard.
Campaigners acknowledge that some football fans and tourists may be duped into having sex with adolescents.
"Teenagers may dress up to look older and say they are older. They may be encouraged by friends who say that this relationship with a foreigner is the way to a better life," says Anna Flora Werneck, a programme coordinator with Sao Paulo-based Childhood Brazil, which campaigns against child sex exploitation.
We had reports of police beating up the prostitutes to keep them away from tourists and visitors [during the Confederations Cup]. We need to be better prepared for the World Cup. I am not looking forward to it.
Werneck points out the efforts to tackle child sexual exploitation must focus on Brazilians, as well as foreigners. Research by the human rights secretariat in Ceara has shown that violations occur in non-tourist areas as well as those popular among visitors, according to de Souza.
"Brazil has very strong laws to protect children, but what we need to do is to make citizens responsible and ensure that they recognise this is a criminal act," Werneck says.
But she admits the World Cup holds particular risks. "We are looking for a better relationship with FIFA - positive actions by FIFA - to integrate the sporting activities with educational and other activities."
For the Street Child World Cup organisation, which will hold a tournament for 230 street children from 19 countries in Rio de Janeiro before the FIFA event, increasing the visibility of street children and the dangers they face is vital to minimising risks of sexual exploitation.
"Research has shown that street children are at particular risk," says organiser Joe Hewitt. "Our aim is to shift the focus to protecting the rights of this vulnerable group."
On the frontlines, however, Rodriguez says experience has taught her that the problem of child sexual exploitation in Fortaleza goes to the core of the tourism industry, which she says relies on a "mafia" of taxi drivers, hoteliers and bar-keepers, and where the involvement of some police may increase risks for sex workers.
"We had reports of police beating up the prostitutes to keep them away from tourists and visitors [during the Confederations Cup]," says Rodriguez. "We need to be better prepared for the World Cup. I am not looking forward to it."
Source: Al Jazeera