Construction provides a path for Rio women to rebuild their lives

Video posted May 5, 2012 in News, Brazil by Jennifer Swales and Jill Knight


RIO DE JANEIRO -- When 19-year-old Paloma Cristina Terra’s boyfriend, Felipe, left her, she was terrified. Five months pregnant at the time, she had no idea how she would support herself. Like many other girls who come from Rio de Janeiro’s poorest slums, she had dropped out of school in sixth grade and never held a job.

Milena Vicente Silva de Santa Rita, 25,  found herself in a similar predicament. A single mother of two from Nova Iguaçu, a poverty stricken city just outside of Rio, she hadn’t held a steady job in five months. Occasionally, she would find temporary work cleaning, earning the equivalent of about $53 a month, but that was hardly enough to support a family of three.

Cworld news brazil women 01Both women could have done what many poor women in Brazil do and take up full-time jobs as maids. But a typical maid’s salary – equal to $265 a month – would not have provided a real escape from poverty. So they decided to try something different.

In February, Terra and Silva de Santa Rita joined 58 other participants in Projeto Mão na Massa, or The Hands On Project -- a program that trains and certifies women in construction jobs. Now in its fifth year, the program offers training in masonry, carpentry, plumbing, painting, and electrical work, as well as basic language and math skills – all for free. When the women graduate, they will typically earn more than three times what a maid makes.

With Brazil’s economy booming and demand for new housing on the rise, there is no shortage of jobs in construction here. On top of that, the country is also hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games -- two huge international sporting events that are already requiring massive investments in infrastructure, creating further jobs in construction.

For Terra, the prospects of a career in construction are far more promising than life as a maid.

“The Mão na Massa project provides women with a unique opportunity to become independent, and I really want to achieve that,” she says.

Silva de Santa Rita has been fascinated with construction since she was a young girl and has long dreamt of becoming an architect.

“This is a dream I’ve nurtured since I was a child,” she says, adding that she hopes this program will someday lead her in that direction.

Norma Sá, the coordinator of the Mão na Massa project, holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social responsibility. She says her expertise in these fields has been essential to her work at the project.

“Most of the girls come from a very vulnerable situation,” she notes.

The project targets those on the bottom rung of Brazilian society: battered women, school dropouts, single mothers in their teens, and residents of Rio’s poorest slums or “favelas” -- shantytowns that often lack proper electricity and running water and are known to be centers of drug trafficking. Some of the program’s participants spend up to three hours a day commuting to and from their classes, which are held in a small three-story stucco building along the train tracks in Rio’s Rocha neighborhood.

On a typical morning, Terra feeds and dresses her 6-month-old daughter, Maria Victoria, before dropping her off at a neighbor’s home at around 7 a.m. She then walks several blocks through the dilapidated and neglected Jacaré slum to catch the bus to Rocha. Silva de Santa Rita wakes up at 4:40 a.m. so that she has time to drop off her two children with relatives before catching the extremely overcrowded train for a 40-minute ride to the project.

Many of the students at the Mão na Massa project say their main motivation in signing up is to obtain the skills that will enable them to refurbish their own dilapidated homes, often built out of discarded wood and other debris. The project administrators, though, are also seeking out women interested in working in the construction industry.

“We want people who are not only willing to build their own houses but are also willing to work for companies,” says Sá.

Breaking into the construction industry

It has not been an easy road for some of the graduates of the program entering this male-dominated field, especially considering that gender stereotypes are still deeply rooted here.

Cworld news brazil-women 4Flávia Paula dos Santos, a 2008 graduate of the program, works for COFIX, a large construction company based in Rio. She is helping to construct a new high-rise in Barra da Tijuca, an upper income  suburb near the beach with breathtaking views of both the downtown skyline and Brazil’s distinctive mountain ranges.

“At first, men would frown at me,” she says, raising her voice as she tries to drown out the loud, repetitive stutter of jackhammers and other machinery in the background. “They would say, ‘Oh, you can’t even handle a hammer.’ This prejudice is because I’m a woman.”    

But Francisco Guimarães de Oliveira, a co-worker, says that men like him are slowly starting to accept the presence of women at construction sites.

“Before they were here, we used to think that this was no place for women, but that has completely changed because we saw them working, and we saw they are as skilled as we are,” he says.

In many ways, he adds, women have had a positive influence on conditions at the site: They bring their own brand of humor and force the men to control their foul language.

“The guys who were cursing a lot have been cursing less out of respect for their presence,” he says.

Paula dos Santos says her family had a harder time coming to terms with her choice of profession than did her co-workers.

“My dad died on January 15 of this year,” she says, “and he has never accepted the fact that I work in civil construction.”    

If this land of samba and super-models is begrudgingly coming to accept the presence of women on cranes, the wildly popular soap opera, Fina Estampa, deserves some of the credit. Pereirão, an audience favorite on this evening program that recently went off the air, was a single mother who donned overalls and did handiwork to support her children.

Cworld news brazil-women 5“Low income people are very TV-oriented, so what is shown on soap operas affects them considerably,” notes Sá.

Gender stereotypes still prevail in Brazil, though, and women training in construction jobs are concerned this may prevent them from getting hired at all.

“Not all companies are willing to hire women,” says Sá. “We are trying to break this resistance over time.”

Companies have assured her they are not concerned that women lack the physical strength to work in construction, since they wouldn’t even consider forcing women to do jobs that require heavy lifting. Rather, they say, they worry that they will not be able to properly accommodate women: Brazilian construction sites are required to provide locker rooms with showers for their employees, and many sites do not have separate facilities for women.

“Basically, the main problem that employers point out is that they don’t have female locker rooms,” notes Sá, who is now trying to encourage companies planning new construction sites to incorporate locker rooms for women as well.

The Mão na Massa project was the brainchild of Deise Gravina, a civil engineer and president of Federação de Instituições Beneficentes, a network of over 260 charities. Several initiatives launched by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also proved instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

Gravina had noticed that many of the women who brought their children to the local daycare center had no formal skills and, therefore, had few options but to work as maids.

She knew from experience that women made good construction workers and was keenly aware of the shortage of trained construction workers in Rio. But there were no programs around that trained women in construction. To see whether her idea could take off, Gravina surveyed more than 200 women and asked them if they would be willing to work in construction given the opportunity; the answer was an overwhelming yes. Thus was born, the Mão na Massa project.

Two government-sponsored initiatives provided the project with further impetus: Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento, or PAC, a program launched in 2007 to promote investments in construction, energy, sanitation, and transportation; and Minha Casa Minha Vida, or My House My Life, a campaign launched in 2009 to build 1 million low-cost housing units in Brazil within five years.     

Cworld news brazil-women 1Since its inception in 2007, some 370 women have participated in the Mão na Massa project, and now similar programs have sprouted up around Brazil. The program is supported by Brazilian corporate heavyweights like Eletrobras and Petrobras, as well as the Inter-American Foundation.

Janete Ferreira de Lima, the director of social projects at Eletrobras, says her company, the largest electric power company in Latin America, targeted  the Mão na Massa project because it was making a big difference in women’s lives.

“The project is located in a high social risk place,” she says, “so the women involved really need qualification.”

For Terra and Silva de Santa Rita, the process is just beginning. They are now participating in the first part of the Mão na Massa project’s three-part program—comprised of basic education, theory classes and an apprenticeship.

Altogether, they will receive 460 hours of instruction. The project provides them not only with tuition-free studies, but also with books, lunch, transportation, uniforms, and protective gear at no cost.

Cworld news brazil-women 3Upon graduation, each student receives her own toolkit as she sets out into the professional world. As an incentive to those still trudging along, samples of the tools they will receive, including saws, mallets, and screwdrivers, are prominently displayed in a hot pink wheel barrel in the school's main congregation center.

Beyond providing them with practical training, many of the participants say the project also empowers them and gives them a sense of family.

Lining the edge of the chalkboard in one of the yellow-painted classrooms are brightly colored stars made out of construction paper. On each, a student has written her dream.

Terra’s dream is that she and her daughter will enjoy health and happiness.

“I want a better house,” she says. “I also want good schooling for my daughter. … I want to provide my daughter with a better life.” 

About the Contributors

Jennifer Swales's photo

Jennifer Swales

Senior / Journalism and English

Jennifer Swales is a senior at Penn State University in both the College of Communications and the College of Liberal Arts pursuing dual degrees in print journalism and English. She is a member of Kappa Tau Alpha (journalism and mass communication) and Alpha Sigma Lambda national honor societies.  She recently traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in an international reporting class in collaboration with the McClatchy news service. The story produced was published in McClatchy newspapers across the country. She has also been a freelance writer for the Centre Daily Times newspaper and is currently a science writing intern with Penn State. Upon completion of her degrees, she would like to pursue a career as a newspaper or magazine journalist and would like to spend some time as a foreign correspondent.