Writer: Renata Daou
Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat
Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul
I remember one day, late at night in college, I was talking to one of my friends from India. I don’t remember exactly what the conversation was about, but I do remember commenting on the caste system in India and how I could never imagine something like that happening in my country.
His response, even over a year ago, still resonates with me:
“Don’t act as if you guys don’t have the same thing, just without the name.”
His response shocked me at first. Brazil doesn’t have castes; what was he talking about? However, after a little bit of reflection, I understood what he meant. In Brazil, over 27% of the income belongs to 1% of the population. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), whose inequality list is based on the Gini coefficient that measures inequality and income distribution, Brazil is the seventh most unequal country in the world.
Not only that but just like in the Indian caste system, social mobility is almost impossible in Brazil. In a ranking made by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with 30 different countries, Brazil is the second worst when it comes to social mobility. This study was built according to the "intergenerational income elasticity," which estimates that the children's income level is determined by that of the parents. That means people who were born in a certain economic class will most likely stay in that class all their lives, with little to no chance of ever improving economically. The rich are likely to stay rich, concentrating a large percentage of the income, while the poor are likely to stay poor, almost never changing their social class.
A lot of economic inequality in Brazil has to do with race too. As remnants of the period of slavery in Brazil, economic inequality is deeply tied to race. According to the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (IPEA), in English, Institute of Applied Economic Research, the average household income per capita is R $ 508.90 for the black population compared to R $ 1,097.00 for the white population. Furthermore, womens’ income is 28% lower than that of men, despite having the same level of education.
My friend’s response also reminded me of the experiences that I witnessed first hand that highlighted economic inequality. For over a year, I volunteered as a mathematics tutor for a community in my city, Manaus, Brazil when I was in high school. Most of the people in the community were members of the tribe Saterê Mawé Waikiru. The kids attended public school and the parents worked with crafts and raised chicken. There were two main schools that the children attended: one where they went by bus and the other one where it was faster if they went by boat.
As soon as I started tutoring, something shocked me: the level the kids were at regarding their education in comparison to the level they should be. There were sixth graders who were still learning simple multiplication, something that I learned in second grade at my private school. Some of the kids got confused when subtracting numbers bigger than ten and division was a skill too advanced for most.
It wasn’t the kids’ fault. Caio, whose name I have changed to protect his identity, was extremely smart. He wasn’t learning much at school but after a few sessions of tutoring, he already mastered the whole multiplication table, much faster than all the other kids his age. One of the girls, Laura, whose name I also changed to protect her identity, also had poor education provided to her and she had trouble with simple subtraction. Unlike Caio, Laura needed more time to comprehend the math concepts. She needed more attention when it came to school. However, with the tutoring sessions you could see her progress and how much she learned. Both kids, with the right education provided to them, were capable of achieving academic excellence.
Another point was the lack of infrastructure. Classes would be canceled because of the rain since the buses could not arrive. If the electricity went down, the kids were let out early because there was no generator. For a while, they were without a Portuguese teacher since the last one quit because she wasn’t being paid on time and the administration didn’t care to look for another one immediately.
How is it fair that I, who went to private school all my life and I am now attending college in the United States, should compete with them for a job? We clearly didn’t have the same opportunities in life to succeed. The expectations for these kids was just to graduate high school and then work in their community. They know that it’s almost impossible for them to get into a public university, whose admissions are competitive. They know how hard it is for them to compete with people that had a private high school education.
At least these kids had parents who cared about them having an education, even though it was not even close to a high-quality one. But what about the kids who don’t have parents to push them to do their best? What about the ones who live in the middle of organized crime? To them, meddling in crime is a safer and more stable option. They know that from joining gangs and such they will at least get what is necessary for them to survive. It’s all they know. How can someone, who believes that the only way of surviving is through gangs, compete with someone like me, whose parents have helped me every step of the way?
The situation gets even worse when it comes to girls. Not only they face all the challenges mentioned above but they have to deal with violence against women as well as teenage pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, for every thousand girls aged 15 to 19, Brazil has 68.4 babies born to teenage mothers, which is above the world average of 46 for every thousand girls. Many of these girls come from low socio-economic backgrounds – most teenage mothers have only a few years of schooling and live in the least economically developed regions of the country. The lack of information when it comes to sexual health and teen pregnancy, especially in the disadvantaged areas, contribute to those statistics. The situation becomes worse when we learn that after pregnancy, most of these girls will not continue school. They will most likely end up underemployed, stuck in this cycle of poverty. Brazil is the eighth largest economy in the world, but there are still over 1.5 million girls not attending school.
As proud as I am of my country, this is still a reality that needs to change. We cannot turn a blind eye to the blatant economic differences happening right under our noses, like when we see homeless people under our bridges and kids asking for money at traffic lights. I know that I will try to make my part by voting for candidates that I believe will take these matters into consideration. I will also take the opportunity that I had with my education and be the change. I hope to work directly to help to reduce inequality and provide these kids the education they deserve. I study for them, so the future children can break this vicious cycle.
If you want to help, you should consider donating to Malala Fund, which works with keeping girls in school all across Brazil; UNICEF, that focuses on kids victims of violence and grants them access to quality education; and Ayrton Senna Institute, a Brazilian institute that trains educators and proposes public policies focused on comprehensive education for everyone.
Renata is from Amazonas, Brazil, and studies international politics and journalism at Penn State. Her hobbies include reading and writing, editing pictures, and dancing for fun. She likes to learn new languages. Currently speaks four, and is trying to learn a fifth. Fun fact: she wrote a book!
You can follow Renata on Instagram here.