An engine for change

Many rest stops along Brazil’s highways are hubs for various forms of criminal activities. Poor children are also exploited sexually in exchange for money at these locations, for example by truck drivers who have stopped to rest and take a break. According to UNICEF, almost four out of ten children in  Brazil are poor. Poverty, combined with social vulnerability, is an important explanation for why children start to hang out along the highways. These children are often very young – the majority are between seven and fourteen years of age.

It has now been a little over a  decade  since  Childhood Brazil made its first study which revealed the extent of truck drivers’ exploitation of children. The 2005 survey of 572 truck drivers from throughout the country showed that the behavior of exploiting children  for sex was both accepted and widespread in the industry. Four out of ten drivers replied that they had bought sex from minors at some point in the last twelve months.

“Through interviews, we found out that some drivers actually thought they were helping  the  kids  because they got the money they needed and  wanted.  So  I thought we had to change the  drivers’  mindset,  and there was only one thing that could make them change attitudes and behavior – and that was education,” says Ana Maria Drummond, who works with Childhood Brazil’s project On the Right Track.

Agreement with the employer

The aim of On the Right Track is to improve  the  situation of vulnerable children along the  roadways,  and the idea is to achieve this by  starting with the  situation of the truck drivers – and then trying to change their social norms. Truck driving is a low-status profession in Brazil, and drivers often have poor working conditions. Childhood had an idea that drivers who were  treated with respect by their employers might be more interested in taking on responsibility in their jobs, and would also find it easier to identify children in vulnerable situations when they are driving. At best, they could take on a new, protective role in these children’s lives.

Together with the International Labor Organization, Childhood Brazil presented a  special agreement, called  a corporate pact. The companies that signed the agreement would commit themselves to actively taking  a stand against the purchasing of sex from children. The hope was that the attitude of drivers  would  change  if the companies who employed them took responsibility for the issue. The decision to involve transport companies would prove to be extremely successful. But the positive reactions were not immediate.

Companies taking social resposibility new in 2006

“Back in 2006, the idea of companies taking social responsibility was very new in Brazil. And some of the first entrepreneurs I talked to thought I was crazy, and that the sexual exploitation of children had nothing to do with their business. They also thought we were interfering with their operations, because one of the points in the agreement was that drivers would be treated better,” says Eva Dengler, who is responsible for the program today.

Yet more and more companies began to sign the agreement. Childhood Brazil also began  a  collaboration with the Federal Highway Police. At Childhood’s behest, they developed a special map showing the areas where children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable. The map is updated every two years, and today it covers 2,487 rest stops along the national highway routes. Many of the worst truck stops, where the most children and young people are exposed to sexual exploitation, are close to national borders where international drug and human trafficking is most extensive. In some of the most critical locations, the  police have  set up extra surveillance, which has produced positive effects.

However, the Federal Highway Police are only responsible for the national highways. In Brazil there is also another form of highways controlled by the so-called Military Police, a kind of military police force. “So now we are hoping that the Military Police can start working in the same way as the Federal Highway Police. We have started to cooperate with the local authorities, but it will be a big challenge – we have 27 local states, and the police must be trained in each of them,” she says.

Providing education about children´s rights

Today, 1,800 companies have  signed  the  agreement. This corresponds to approximately 65 percent of the transport companies in the country. In order to  influence drivers’ attitudes, selected employees receive training from the companies, and they in turn come interact with the other drivers. A total of one million truck drivers have now undergone the training, which not only raises questions about children’s rights and how the sexual exploitation of children can be counteracted, but also deals with issues directly related to drivers’ working conditions, such as safety, the use of alcohol and drugs along the roads, and how to remedy the fact that the drivers are often far from their families for extended periods of time.

“During these talks, we make sure to ask the driver if he has seen any children along the roads who seem tobe in a difficult situation. As he often finds himself on these roads, we ask him to  help by  acting as  an  “agent for change” and contacting a  specific telephone number  if he sees something that seems wrong,” she says. Over time, companies have realized that  they  also have a lot to  gain –  including financially –  from taking full responsibility for the work situation of their drivers.“We have heard managers say that staff turnover isn’t as high anymore. When  the  drivers  get  treated  better by their companies, both as people and as important citizens in society, they don’t change jobs as fast. They  are also more meticulous and helpful towards the company,” says Eva Dengler.

Survey studies indicate a clear change in attitudes. In 2015, 572 truck drivers were again asked whether they had engaged in sex with a minor, and this time almost nine out of ten answered no. However, 13 percent still said yes. “But it’s totally different than twelve years ago. Many drivers now realize that the children  who  along  the roads have been forced to go there. They also feel that they can change the situation for the  children if  they are in danger. And many drivers are helping –  with the  help of the Federal Highway Police, we have saved 5,000 children,” she says.

Text: From the book “For a childhood free frpm violence” by Swedish Center for Business History, photo: private