A Grass-Roots Project That Helps Brazil´s Poor Mothers and Children

Interview with Director, Zilda Arns Neumann

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ROME, OCT. 9, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Among the candidates for this year´s Nobel Peace Prize is an organization of the Brazilian bishops´ conference, Pastoral Care of Children.

In the 32,000 poor communities where it is active, infant mortality has been reduced by 13 to 17 for every 1,000 live births, meaning that about 5,000 children´s lives are saved every year.

Because of this work, Pastoral Care of Children has been proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize with the support of 800,000 signatures, including that of Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso.

The group was created in 1983, in Parana state, at the initiative of Geraldo Majella Agnelo, the current cardinal of São Salvador da Bahia.

In this interview, Dr. Zilda Arns Neumann, director of the service of Pastoral Care of Children, explains the challenge she faces in a country in which 57 million people, 37% of the population, survive on $42 a month.

–ZENIT: What contribution does Pastoral Care of Children make to the struggle against malnutrition and infant mortality in Brazil?

–Neumann: I will answer with some facts. Each of the 150,000 volunteers of the Pastoral Care of Children works with 10 to 20 families.

They are taught very simple things — they are generally people with very little education — but indispensable for the children´s health: nutrition of pregnant mothers, maternal breast-feeding, oral hydration, vaccinations.

We take care of the education of 1.6 million children from birth to 6 years of age. Moreover, every year we teach 32,000 adults, almost always mothers, to read and write.

All this helps to reduce infant mortality and the illiteracy of the country. Family disintegration in Brazil is a plague. The men often abandon their wives and children.

–Q: So your activity is directed to women to a large extent?

–Neumann: Yes, the women are very interested in being agents of change. They want to learn to be able to raise their children better.

Of our 150,000 volunteers, 130,000 are women who belong to the same environment. They learn quickly and they meet a family in the Pastoral [group] and have God as their point of reference.

–Q: So, there is a strong religious orientation in the poor communities?

–Neumann: Many of our volunteers don´t practice any religion. However, the principles we teach them are profoundly Christian, such as solidarity and social justice.

–Q: What has been your greatest success over these 17 years?

–Neumann: The reduction of infant mortality by 60% and of malnutrition by 50%, and the lessening of violence within families. There has never been this type of popular education in the history of Brazil. The percentage of children who live in abject poverty is very high.

–Q: Do you think the Brazilian government should be more committed to improve their lives?

–Neumann: Statistics show that school attendance is increasing and also the level of health. This proves that the government´s commitment is effective and growing. However, the Pastoral believes that, in order to get better results, much attention must be given to the social fabric.

This is why, among other things, we try to create solidarity networks in poor communities. The objective is to increase the self-esteem of the poor and their human potential.

Sometimes we find illiterate women with four or five children who feel they are nothing. When the Pastoral extricates them from privation, teaches them to read and write, and gives them hope, they succeed in starting a new life for themselves and their children.

–Q: What are the objectives for the next few years?

–Neumann: We are concentrating many resources to instruct the population on these subjects: nutrition, health, citizenship and education for peace. We have organized debates on these problems in all the communities, so that each person we attend to will find a path of peace for their own family.

The Pastoral is aware that the people´s problems arise from a hostile environment. Where there is illiteracy, poverty, lack of opportunities, it is more likely that there will be delinquency and drug trafficking.

This is why the Pastoral is centered on children younger than 6 years and pregnant mothers, to free them from this hostile environment. And both those born as well as the unborn can develop to the maximum of their capacities.

We have 100 community premises, where the children remain for some hours, accompanied by their parents, so that their relatives will learn the value of child development. In this way, the mothers are also socialized and improve their mental health. Within the next two years, an additional 200 such premises will be established, all in areas of extreme poverty.

–Q: In all this social work, how is education for peace inserted?

–Neumann: The Peace Begins at Home campaign was launched in 1999 and is geared to preventing violence against children in the domestic environment.

Through monthly meetings, we teach families to adopt attitudes that help to improve family relations and build a culture of peace. The Christian message of co-responsibility is present in all of the teaching: not just to wait for help from others, but to see what we ourselves can do.

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