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5 minutes with Sarah de Carvalho, CEO of Happy Child International Foundation

27 Jan 2017 12:13 | Deleted user

We were honored to have an interview with Sarah de Carvalho, the founder and Chief Executive of UK-based charity Happy Child International. Sarah began her career in television production and film promotion in London before moving to the slums of Rio de Janeiro to work with street children.
In 1993 Sarah founded the charity Happy Child International which in nearly 20 years has rescued over 9,000 street children in the cities of Belo Horizonte and Recife in Brazil. Beginning with a 24 hour shelter in Belo Horizonte, the charity has expanded by opening 11 centres with 70 staff able to receive 150 children at any one time.
Sarah has since returned to the UK where she lives with her husband and children and is a leading campaigner for street children. She was awarded an MBE for her services to Happy Child in 2012 and is the author of two books, The Street Children of Brazil and Solomon’s Song.

In 1991, you were a successful TV producer Sky TV, yet you decided to give up your career in film promotion and TV production to to work and live in a shanty town in Rio de Janeiro and dedicated yourself to rescue street children in Rio de Janeiro. What led you to make this radical shift in your life/career?

In my 20’s I worked as a film publicist, then I went to work for TV production for BBC and Sky. To give you some background, when I worked for Sky we were producing a magazine chat show in the west end of London, and when I left the theatre at night, I started to notice young people living on the street on my way to catch the underground home and it broke my heart. So, I decided to volunteer once a week at a night shelter, after my day job, for homeless people in London. And when I later heard that there were children living on the streets in Brazil, where many at the time were murdered, I knew I had to do something about it. So, between TV contracts, I went out to Brazil. At the time, I thought I’d stay only few months, but when I saw the reality of what those children suffer, I knew I had to stay and dedicate my life changing theirs, and I set up Happy Child International 

Can you explain to us what is Happy Child International (founded in 1993) , how does it work? Can you describe your current role as CEO of Happy Child Foundation (founded in 2015l)?

There are two organisations: one is Happy Child International, which I set up 23 years ago in Brazil, and which has its focus on work on the ground, meaning the rehabilitation and the reintegration of street children and children at risk, to reintegrate them back into education and into society.   The other organisation is Happy Child Foundation which I set up in 2015, to specifically focus on preventative work. We believe that prevention is better than cure.

The work on the ground began by opening a Day Care Centre in the basement of a church. In the 90's , they were lots of street children, and back then between 40 to 50 children were coming into the centre during the day. But it was really hard to see them leaving the centre and sleeping on the streets again at night, so we found a beautiful farm just downside the city center. During 20 years, hundreds of children were rescued and lived on that farm. Today, many of these children have now a family of their own, because Happy Child has helped them to get an education and encouraged them to go to the University and to pursue a career. For 23 years, Happy Child has rescued more than 11,000 children and ran 15 projects on the ground, mainly in Brazil and Angola. However, most of these projects are now self-sustainable, which means they are locally run and locally funded.

Today, I am Honorary President for this work on the ground, because my focus is now on the Preventative work for the Foundation which runs the global It’s a Penalty campaign.  The It’s a Penalty Campaign harnesses the power of sport to prevent children from being exploited online and offline. I became aware that vulnerable children were at risk of exploitation, especially around major international events. It all started when I met a young street girl called Rose, in 2012, before the World Cup in Brazil. When I first met her, it was late at night and she was standing outside a motel with a group of very young girls.   She told me that when she was 11 years old, her mother sent her out to the streets to beg for money, because they were no food at home. Soon she had got caught up with a pimp.  She told me that her clients came from Europe, America, Africa, as well as from Brazil. By the age of 16, she'd given birth to two babies. I remember to this day when she looked at me and said: “Please, do something to help us!”, Rose represents hundreds and thousands of children who are in the same predicament all over the world. When I came back to the UK, I called a friend of mine, a reporter from the BBC, and asked if he could do a report for BBC World. We were soon contacted by the Metropolitan police, who told us about Extraterritorial legislation, which are provisions in law that allow countries to prosecute their citizens for the abuse of children even if it takes place abroad. Currently, this legislation exists in only 43 countries worldwide; in the European Union, all member states have some form of extraterritorial legislation which would protect children from exploitation at the hands of their citizens, except from Croatia, Malta, Estonia and Slovakia.

One of the consequences of 500,000 sporting fans and tourists travelling to one country for a short period of time, is that vulnerable children are exploited, because there are groups of unscrupulous people who want to make money from them, and they dress them up to look older than they are. The Metropolitan police encouraged us to launch a campaign to educate about the issue of child exploitation, inform people about the legislation, and promote   mechanisms to report a crime.


Can you give us more details about “It’s a Penalty Campaign”?

It's a Penalty is a global movement to end child exploitation, bringing together the biggest names in sport, governing sporting bodies, international airlines, hotels, governments, law enforcement agencies, major corporations, international NGOs and the general public. We educate people about the global issue of child sexual exploitation, both online and offline, and the penalties for offenders, and encourage sportings fans, tourists and local residents to report a crime, “If you see something, say something." For the 2014 World Cup, we partnered with the Brazilian government to open a hotline to report child abuses, and we had 11,252 calls reporting child exploitation. It’s a lot, but we know that every call is a child rescued and protected. Therefore,

we relaunched the campaign in 2016 for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio. We were the first organization to be allowed inside the Olympic Park. We made a new film with famous names, shared inflight on 9 international airlines, including British Airways and American Airlines, and showed on the giant screens inside the Olympic park. We also launched a massive campaign on social media. In total, we reached 212 million people with this campaign. We made an impact, because no incidents where reported on the ground, on the venue, regarding crimes against children. What we are trying to do is to change behaviors and change attitudes.

Our next global campaign will be l for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in South Korea, and the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. Following these, we will relaunch ahead of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Japan.

Have you kept contact with the children you rescued? Do you know if they have become successful in their lives?

I had a reunion on the Happy Child farm a few years ago, with several of the original children who came to the farm 15 years earlier. Most of the boys are in their 30’s now, and have families of their own.  In particular, I remember Anderson, nicknamed Derson, who used to live on the streets and even slept on the branches of a tree in the city to get away from danger before coming to live on the farm. At the reunion, he spent the whole day in tears. He said that coming back to the farm reminded him how this beautiful place had turned his life around. He is now a supervisor at his job, leads worship in his church, is living in Belo Horizonte with his wife, and has a daughter. Another boy, Fernando, is working for the local government, and another boy is now lawyer. Our success rate for reintegration was about 70 to 80%, with these children who being successfully reintegrated back into their families and into the society. A lot of encouraging stories, which is good because it is a tough work.

How do you see yourself in 10 years? Would you pursue your work for child protection?

I would really like to see child protection on the top of the agenda of governments and sporting governing bodies like the IOC and FIFA, and I think we are on the way for this to happen. Furthermore, I would like to see the global enactment and implementation of extraterritorial legislation to protect children from exploitation no matter where they live. The It’s a Penalty Campaign will have a truly global impact – although we started in South America, our reach has extended to children across the world. . I believe It’s a Penalty is a global movement.We have a 3-5 year strategy in which we plan to run campaigns around PyeongChang 2018, Gold Coast 2018, Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, Durban 2022 and Qatar 2022. We aim to help end child   exploitation by the year 2030, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals Target 16.2.

I am now done with the questions. Is there something you wish to add?

Indeed, I’d like to add that we are looking for partners to help us achieve our 3-5 year strategy plan, and organizations to collaborate with. If any of WIL members wish to come on board, whether it is for advocacy, whether is to partner with us for the next It’s a Penalty Campaign, feel free to contact me!

  sarah.decarvalho@happychild.org  website: www.itsapenalty.org 

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