Skip to content

Perspectives in Health - The magazine of the Pan American Health Organization
Volume 10, Number 1, 2005
Cover of the magazine
  • Back to Index
  • Text Only
  • Print Article

Real Men are Responsible

Life in Rio de Janeiro's favelas can be perilous, especially for young males. Programa H tries to help by persuading boys and teenage men to take pride in themselves and responsibility for their actions.
 Hispanics in the USA
Norberto dos Santos (left) discusses responsible manhood with a younger boy at Vila Aliança, a favela (slum) on Rio de Janeiro's west side. Programa H teaches young men to be caring, communicative and responsible in their relationships with women.

Two years ago, a gang war broke out in Complexo da Maré, one of Rio da Janeiro's many favelas, or slums. A criminal organization known as Third Commando, which controls the drug traffic in many of Rio's low-income areas, attacked its main rival, Red Commando, in an attempt to take over its market. Hundreds died in the bloodbath.

During the conflict, Third Commando invaded the nearby public swimming pool in Ramos, just up Avenida Brasil from Complexo da Maré, and took control of drug sales there. The group's drug lords threatened to shoot anyone wearing red. To this day, locals avoid wearing red at the pool so as not to be seen as Red Commando sympathizers.

"In the end they agreed to draw a line between our neighborhoods," says Norberto dos Santos, a volunteer in Programa H, which promotes responsible behavior among young men in Rio's favelas. "Those who crossed the line were fired upon, whether you were a gang member or not." He continues: "It was a hard time for everyone living here. The soccer field that sits right on the line stood abandoned for a long time. Nobody dared come near it. Not even the kids. It was worse for residents of Complexo da Maré. They didn't dare visit the swimming pool in Ramos."

 Wilson Junior and a Programa H poster
Wilson Junior stands near the Programa H poster in which he appears with a young woman from another neighborhood. The poster reads "A man with a capital M listens, accepts and cares. The attitude makes the difference."

Programa H is an effort to get boys and young men in the favelas to take pride in themselves and act responsibly. The program is financed in part by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is coordinated by ProMundo, a Brazilian nongovernmental organization. The H stands for homem, Portuguese for "man," and alludes to the program's aim of helping boys avoid risky and irresponsible sexual behaviors and grow into mature, conscientious men.

Dos Santos, 21, is one of Programa H's core participants. He lives with his parents in a two-story house on a street that ends at the soccer field. His two siblings and their three children also live there.

Together they watch the television news, with images of the Middle East conflict. The violence is all too familiar. More people probably die each day in Rio's war than in the Middle East, but it doesn't seem to make headlines.

A childhood friend, Wilson Junior, sits on the couch next to dos Santos. The pair started playing soccer together when they were both 13.

 Hispanics in the USA
Wilson Junior (center) and Norberto dos Santos greet a child on the streets of Complexo da Maré, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Both young men are participants in Programa H, passing on their hard-earned experience to help younger boys grow into responsible men.

"You have to stick together here," says dos Santos. "CV [Red Commando] has approached us lots of times, but neither of us has any interest in joining. I'd rather live a long life as a nobody than a short one as a king."

Junior agrees: "You have to be strong to resist. Many of my school buddies have cars and gold bracelets today. And they always get the prettiest girls. Those of us who won't take part in that don't find it as easy to meet girls. But we're a better long-term investment."

Junior has also joined Programa H and helps carry its messages to other boys in the favela. At informal gatherings, they discuss how they can take control of their own lives. There are three recurring themes: how to handle the situation if your girlfriend or sexual partner becomes pregnant, how to solve a conflict with a girl without violence, and how to remember to use a condom even when it's the last thing on your mind.

 Hispanics in the USA
Paulo de Oliveira, left, plays with other drummers during a rehearsal at a local samba school in Complexo da Maré, in northern Rio de Janeiro.

The next step for the boys is to start selling condoms. Under the brand name "Hora H," which translates loosely as "in the heat of the moment," the condoms are sold at popular hangouts during hours when casual encounters are most likely to occur—in other words, at late-night bars and clubs.

This is easier said than done.

First, sellers need to get permission from Red Commando, but the group has temporarily put a halt to Programa H until the conflicts with Third Commando have subsided.

There are other problems, too. Some of the safe-sex posters put up by ProMundo feature dos Santos kissing his girlfriend. Red Commando ordered the posters taken down. The reason: dos Santos' girlfriend is now dating one of its dealers.

"He got really pissed off when he saw the poster," laughs dos Santos. "Now we've started putting up posters with Wilson instead, with a girlfriend from a different neighborhood. It's safer that way."

"Right now, you can only get condoms at the local medical station or the pharmacy on the main street. And those are usually closed when you need a condom," dos Santos observes. But he concludes in an upbeat tone: "If this [program] succeeds, I'm certain we're going to be successful in reducing the number of teenage mothers."

 Hispanics in the USA
Teenagers practice Afro-Brazilian dances they will later perform at Rio's Carnival.
 Hispanics in the USA
Gabriela Moniz, front left, dances with other teenagers from Complexo da Maré. Says Moniz: "The only thing we girls have to worry about is not becoming moms too soon. The boys have to watch out for the bad guys all the time."
 Hispanics in the USA
Paulo de Oliveira, center, talks with fellow members of the Oxumaré dance group. Oliveira is one of many youngsters that the Brazilian nongovernmental organization ProMundo has taken under its wings.

It's a hot, steamy afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, and the pounding beat of Afro-Brazilian rhythms bounces off the cinderblock walls and corrugated tin ceiling of a cavernous room in one of the city's many samba schools.

Gabriella Moniz, 13, and a dozen other dancers twist and turn in a choreographed routine, while a group of their friends—including Moniz's boyfriend—lean against the wall in the shade, observing.

 Hispanics in the USA
(From left) Wilson Junior, Adelton da Silva, Técio de Azevedo, Assis Nascimento and Norberto dos Santos gather around a condom stand at a fair in Vila Aliança. Junior says many of his former school buddies have gotten rich selling drugs.

The group is part of Programa H and its long-term efforts to promote responsible behavior in boys. But today's agenda is limited to rehearsing six Afro-Brazilian dance numbers the group will be performing a few days later in downtown Rio during Carnival.

During a break, Moniz explains: "Growing up is obviously harder for the boys. The only thing we girls have to worry about is not becoming moms too soon. The boys have to watch out for the bad guys all the time. They are relentless. Being a boy here isn't easy."

Norberto dos Santos is the oldest of the group of six girls and six boys, and serves as leader and choreographer. He earns a living as a dance teacher in Complexo da Maré, and it was his idea to name the group Oxumaré, which combines the name of the African deity "Oxum" with "Complexo da Maré." It reflects the pride he takes in his African roots and in his neighborhood.

 Hispanics in the USA
Alex da Silva listens to funk music in his home in Vila Aliança

When the rehearsal is over, the dancers gather around the percussionists and go over the program once more. Everyone is pleased, especially with 14-year-old Paulo de Oliveira. For the first time, he's been entrusted with the big surdo ("deaf") drum, which carries the ensemble's base rhythm. After six numbers, the cement floor beneath him is wet with his sweat.

Oliveira is one of the many youngsters ProMundo has taken under its wings. As he wipes his forehead, he says with satisfaction, "That's nice. It went really well. Did you like it?"

Programa H has had its biggest success in the sprawling working class suburb of Bangú, 90 minutes by car from central Rio along the busy Avenida Brasil. The project started a little over a year ago and is run by three young men who live in Vila Aliança, a favela on Rio's west side.

On Mondays, Assis Nascimento, Técio de Azevedo and Adeilton da Silva set up their stand in the evening market in Bangú. Norberto dos Santos and Wilson Junior make a 60-minute trip from Complexo da Maré to help them out in what is essentially enemy territory. As Nascimento approaches a group of youths, dos Santos comments, "He's 19, a well-known funk [music] fanatic, and the father of two. It's easier for a guy like him to get people's attention." (Most funk music is banned from commercial radio because of its controversial lyrics describing slum life in shocking ways. It is wildly popular.)

As the sun goes down, filtered orange by the day's heat and dust, the boys set up their stand with postcards, brochures and condoms, surrounded by cotton candy vendors and other vendors who fill the plaza. A small crowd of young men gathers around the stand examining the little square packages.

 Hispanics in the USA
Leandro de Carvalho arranges condoms and postcards at a Programa H stand at the fair in Vila Aliança.

"A joint costs 1 real [about 30 U.S. cents]. A beer costs 1 real. Entrance to the evening's funk fest costs 1 real, too. So that's what safe sex should cost," Assis says, laughing.

Recently Programa H has started distributing leaflets with cartoon versions of the people in the posters. They've proven to be less provocative than photos.

Third Commando has told the three young men that they will be allowed to place their stand at that Saturday's baile funk, or funk ball, a popular but illegal event financed by drug lords to show good will toward the community and to sell drugs. If this actually materializes, ProMundo will be the first legitimate organization in Rio de Janeiro that is allowed to participate in one of the events.

"We have to be where the action is," says Nascimento. "It's mainly during the funk balls that the heat of the moment takes place. That's when the illegal funk music is played. Right then and there, we're going to be standing there with our T-shirts and caps, as a reminder that taking responsibility is also part of having fun."

A young man who has been listening quietly reaches for a leaflet. He picks up one that reads: Homem com H escuta, aceita e cuida. A atitude faz a diferença ("A man with a capital M listens, accepts and cares—the attitude makes the difference").

He says he's taking it home to show his dad.

Henrik Jönsson is a Swedish journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Douglas Engle is an American photographer, also based in Rio de Janeiro.

Back to Index

Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization
525 Twenty-third Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037, United States of America
Tel.: +1 (202) 974-3000 Fax: +1 (202) 974-3663

© Pan American Health Organization. All rights reserved.