Eliana Sousa Silva has been a social activist from a young age. Growing up in the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro, throughout her life she has championed the rights of people and supported her favela community through a variety of initiatives, becoming president of the Maré Residents’ Association at 22. Having curated WOW - Women of the World Festival in Rio in 2018, Eliana was invited by the British Council to take part in WOW London 2019.
I sat down to talk to Eliana about her life and what it means to host Women of the World in Brazil. You can read the interview in full below, which was conducted through a translator.
Women of the World is a global movement celebrating women and girls, taking a frank look at the obstacles they face. Festivals takes place year-round across the world, and in London in March. WOW Rio will take place in November 2020.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself? I'm aware you have quite an interesting backstory...
My name is Eliana Sousa Silva. I founded an organisation in Brazil, in Rio, in the Maré favela. The organisation is called Redes da Maré (Maré Networks) and it was created in the 90s. The people involved in Redes da Maré were born and raised in Maré and deeply involved in social movements within the favela. This is my background too. Redes da Maré is designed to support people living in the favela to get to University, which very few people do (this is true in my case).
Before we created the organisation, we conducted research on the level of education in the favela community. At that time, in the 90s, we identified that less than 0.5% of the population of Maré had been to university, which is an extremely low number, and it highlighted the level of inequality in the city.
The first project we did was create and deliver a pre-preparation course to get people to university. In Brazil you have to pass a national test to get in both the federal and private universities. People with better education get into the federal university, which are the best universities, for free, and the poorer people then have to pay for the private ones, largely because they didn’t have as good an education so don’t do as well on the test. It’s a contradiction.
The first preparation course was in 1997 and among the 90 people attending the course 33 managed to be approved and get to university. This was a key moment to show what we could do in the favelas. This was the very beginning of the organisation. Access to university and education has increased from 0.5% of the population to 4% of the population. This took 20 years of very hard work and we are continuing to support people in this pursuit.
Today, the mission of Redes da Maré is to create structures to grant civil rights to the population of Maré. We chose 5 key areas that are important to the community and structure projects around these. All the projects that we do are intended to be instruments to improve the quality of life of the people in the favelas.
The five areas that we work in are:
1. Primary education.
2. Arts and culture. We advocate for the right to art and culture, not only for access but as a basic human right. We have an arts centre, we have a dance school, and a number of other different initiatives to enable this.
3. Identity, memory and communication. We consider how to engage and mobilise the residents. We have projects that look at how can we value individual backgrounds, our history, the people who created the favela, and how the favela isn’t part of the city, it is the city.
4. Territorial development. We also consider the basic needs of the favela’s residents. We look at the number of schools you have on site, electricity, sewage, and how we can claim the basic rights that people in favelas don’t always have. There’s a big inequality around accessing public services. Within this area, we work with people with experience of substance abuse, and we have an area called the women’s house of Maré, which is the area in which we first connected with WOW.
5. Public security. This is a very sensitive area for us. All the criminal groups and the drug lords live in different communities, and play upon their environments, which creates a lot of conflict. We work towards community access to rights; considering how the community can access the right to public security, something that is very often denied. We have projects to understand how the residents can be separated from this idea that everyone who lives in a favela is a criminal which is something that is often assumed.
WOW first came to Brazil in 2017. Can you talk to me a little bit about its impact and how it was perceived?
We were first connected with WOW after an encounter with Jude Kelly and the Southbank Centre. It made complete sense to collaborate because of the work we were already doing with women in the favela. When we were invited by Jude Kelly to actually make WOW happen in Brazil and Rio, we were thinking how we could also undertake our mission, which is to talk about the lives of the people living in the favelas. So the preparatory work for WOW, which took us almost two years, was about working on what we were already doing; mobilising individuals and organisations, continuing our work on women-related issues, and looking for partnerships that aligned with the perspective of improving women’s life quality in Brazil. British Council is one of the partners we looked to due to their track-record in this field.
It was essentially about weaving a web of the work that already exists and working out how to realise this festival that is usually delivered in a British context, in a Brazilian context, delivered by women in Rio de Janeiro. It was truly interesting because we tried to connect this idea that the favela, the periphery, is extremely powerful. We’ve been building a long history, a positive history, of achievements, so we considered WOW from this perspective. We wanted to celebrate what historically women have been building in the peripheries. I think we managed to do that in Brazil. We managed to bring together an extremely diverse group of women and that idea of creating a connection between the local and the global, it’s something very powerful.
All the curators of the festival considered how to bring international women, women from a national perspective, local women and women from the favela together? Each of these women had extremely different experiences but they were coming together to discuss the same things. And all of this in an area of Rio that is iconic and central and historically important to Rio. In the past it was a slave port, where the slaves used to arrive in Brazil, and it has also been an area of high prostitution. It was then all modified when the Olympic came to Rio. And then you have amazing museums, a beautiful square. We occupied this space with women and men. We wanted to bring everyone together there, emphasising the potential of the periphery.
It was the very first time that a favela-based organisation led an international festival in the central area of Rio.
We managed to bring together an extremely diverse group of women and that idea of creating a connection between the local and the global, it’s something very powerful.
What did the festival mean to people from the favelas?
The feedback I had was that it was extremely positive for them, they managed to meet many people, and some really high-profile women. There was an aim, we had this goal of trying to amplify space and time in the city of the people from the favelas. How do you magnify this time and space of living? So it’s not only travelling and things like that, but something you can also build in your own area, in a real exchange with people that will make your life span go wider.
What change would you personally like to see for women and girls in Brazil?
Inequality in Brazil reaches everyone, and especially women who are black. We have a very high rate of homicide involving the youth and black youth from peripheral areas of Rio.
The change I would like to see in Brazil is related to improving the quality of life in the outskirts of Rio and more specifically for women, since we recognise through our work that women are key for any change to happen. All the positive changes we made, if you look back through history, they were always led by women, so women need to be acknowledged as propellers and protagonists of the change that is happening in our cities.
All the positive changes we made, if you look back through history, they were always led by women, so women need to be acknowledged as propellers and protagonists of the change that is happening in our cities.
You've joined us this week to visit WOW in the UK. What does it mean for you to be here in London and what do you hope to get from this experience?
WOW this year is a bit different than the previous iterations. I expect this is a moment for us to look back and reflect on how this movement, which is growing and reaching different countries, how it can come up with an original concept, to positively impact women’s lives here in London, or in the UK, but also to encourage reflections on a global scale. This platform can be used positively to impact the local agenda in different countries. The physical encounter is always important and useful. Every year can enable us to rethink and rebuild how to go deeper into the conversations and how we can be more powerful, more united and more of an organic movement.
WOW, Women of the World, is a major global festival that celebrates the achievements of women and girls and looks at some of the obstacles they face across the world. This year the British Council will support WOW Festivals across Pakistan – including Karachi, a global megacity, alongside Hunza, a mountainous region in north of the country. We will also deliver our third WOW Festival in Nepal, a second WOW Festival in Rio de Janeiro and will soon begin preparations for WOW Istanbul 2020. In 2020 WOW London will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the festival. The British Council is working with WOW on this event, and we hope to facilitate another international delegation of women, as well as draw upon our networks to connect international artists to the festival.