Change and Continuity in Rio’s Favelas: the Quest for Inclusion over 4 Generations

Living conditions in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro have come a long way over the last four decades but the struggle for security and inclusion remains a part of daily life. In a recent RIO+ Talk hosted by the RIO+ Centre in Rio de Janeiro, Dr. Janice Perlman painted a powerful picture of her longitudinal study of social and economic conditions in the favelas since 1969. With personal stories, touching anecdotes, and photos she documented the dramatic changes that have taken place over nearly 4 decades.

Through interviews and primary research Dr. Perlman compared favela residents in 1969, many of whom were migrants to the city, with how their children and grandchildren fared. There were considerable advances over the years. Over 1/3 of the descendants of the original sample population still lived in favelas, but 25% were in some form of public housing and 31% were in legal formal apartments or houses of their own. She also found that consumption and living conditions had dramatically improved. Today most houses are made of brick and have electricity, toilets and running water and most people have televisions and mobile phones. In terms of consumption they are roughly on par with the average median ownership in the rest of the city. However, Dr. Perlman argued, median ownership should not be mistaken for middle class and it has not translated into equal levels of dignity or opportunity.

There were also tremendous gains in terms of education. For the original sample population, 71% of their fathers and nearly all of their mothers were illiterate. Among the grandchildren, 100% were literate and 21% had completed university. Unfortunately these hard won advances have not sufficiently led to jobs and employment to the same degree as they do for others. One study found that for the same number of years of schooling as people in other parts of the city, the income levels of people in favelas were much lower. The more educated they were, the larger the gap in their income.

Dr. Perlman explored the reasons behind this marginalization. Respondents reported feeling discriminated against in job interviews based on their address. Over the decades the stigma related to race and gender significantly decreased, but not the stigma associated with living in the favela.  Violence has also been a significant factor in people’s lives in favelas, in particular the between military police forces and drug traffickers – with 1 in 5 reporting that someone in their family had been murdered. Over time this has translated into a decrease in the levels of trust in government, with interviewees reporting far lower levels of trust than in 1969 during the military dictatorship, a very bad sign for state of democracy.

RIO+ Talk with Janice Perlman in Rio de Janeiro

RIO+ Talk with Janice Perlman in Rio de Janeiro

The level of insecurity is not limited to gun violence. Forced evictions, once considered unthinkable, are still happening in 2016. Construction projects and the Olympics have taken priority even in the face of bloody protest. Resettlement efforts over the years have landed people in remote locations, with no access to transportation and far fewer opportunities. Some respondents noted that it was not enough to work multiple jobs for decades and to raise educated children. Despite their best efforts to make it, they still considered themselves invisible.

On a positive note, Dr. Perlman found that young people in the favelas are reacting to their situation and the very high levels of distrust of the government. She was encouraged to see how, with the help of social media young people are connecting across the favelas and suburbs, to see their common challenges and to mobilize for change.

See the recorded webcast of the event here.

The RIO+ Talks is a series of public lectures to broaden the global debate on sustainable development topics. Hosted by the UNDP RIO+ World Centre for Sustainable Development, the series brings together the public and private sector, academia, civil society, and the diplomatic and expat communities in Rio de Janeiro to strengthen ties of cooperation and ongoing dialogue.

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