Promoting Gender Equality at a Young Age
Mayra also became famous for organizing a number of non-violent protests along with hundreds of children from the slum areas of Rio, which prompted the Brazilian government to do something about the situation.
What is so amazing about this young girl is that even at a very young age, Mayra has been significant in inciting change in Brazil, primarily due to her persistent attitude in ensuring the safety of her fellow Brazilian youth from the violence that daily envelops the favelas. Even though she came from the slums and had a very difficult life, this did not stop her from desiring a better future and acting on her dreams and goals.
Mayra actively promotes gender equality and education for girls, mostly due to having witnessed how terrible the girls in Brazil had it. Young girls were deprived of the right to be educated, resulting in them growing up without the proper knowledge of life and becoming pregnant in their youth. She stated:
“Many people say that girls don’t need to study because we will end up in the kitchen anyway. I totally disagree. We have to be pioneers again in women emancipation, something that should have been completed a long time ago. And it demands studying, demands knowledge, demands knowing who we are and where we stand in the society.”
Quotes on the Importance of Education
Being one of the fortunate women who had a good education, Mayra constantly pushes for every girl to have access to education, as she has learned that it is through education that one gains confidence and the knowledge to live life properly. In her speech during the International Children’s Peace Prize, Mayra stated:
“The education should have an important role to put an end to discrimination. Education should make people think so that they can expand their views. Boys and girls are different. Each one has their particularities, but these differences should not make one better than the other. It’s good when people are different because this way more people can contribute with different opinions to build a better society. Everybody is important in society, from children to old people. And if you don’t give equal attention to girls and boys when they are children, they will grow up carrying inequality inside of them like the inequality you see in business, still less women at the top, families in which the women still work less than the men to take care of the children and so on.”
Early Biography: Growing Up in a Chaotic Neighborhood
Mayra Avellar Neves was born in the early 1990s in one of the most violent favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the favela where Mayra grew up in, violent confrontations between drug cartels and the police were very common, and a lot of people died every day in these battles.
There were also civil wars between the drug cartels themselves; the people who lived in the favela were always dealing with either of the drug cartels, getting them into trouble with the police all the time. What made matters worse was that some of the corrupt policemen were protecting the cartels, which made it very difficult for the police to hunt down the leaders.
In interviews made with her, Mayra often remembers her childhood in the slums, where she had to hide under the bed in her room often due to the fights that erupted in her neighbourhood every day.
The walls of their house were filled with a lot of holes due to the stray gunshots, which prompted Mayra to cover her ears whenever a fight started so she could at the very least minimize the loud sound of gunshots in the air. People were afraid of going out their houses for fear of getting shot. In an interview made with her many years later, Mayra related:
“There are numerous shootings in our district. It is often impossible to go out into the street because it's too dangerous. Last year, the school in my slum, Vila Cruceiro, was closed for seven months because of the drugs war. The police have been fighting the drugs mafia for years. They erect barricades which makes it impossible for teachers from outside the district to come to work.”
Aside from the very intense and chaotic environment that Mayra had to live with every day, she also had to deal with another reality—poverty.
Born Poor but Bright
She was born in a poor family, and had to spend every day looking for ways to survive. Living in the slums was a daily struggle, as Mayra and her family had to contend with the issue of lack and security; discrimination between the rich and the poor people was very prevalent in the place where she lived, and those who were poor did not have access to many of the basic facilities that every family should have.
People like Mayra were also denied their basic human rights, which caused a lot of people in that area to resent the government and resort to drug dealing.
It was a struggle. Life was very hard, but one thing that made Mayra different from most of the people that lived in the slums was the attitude that she developed growing up. Mayra was very fortunate to have parents who, in many ways, taught her compassion and showed her love and care in spite of the difficult situation around them.
Mayra’s parents taught her to never hate the people around her; instead, they instilled in the young Mayra love for her fellow Brazilians and disdain for poverty and violence. This developed a desire for Mayra to do something.
One of the things that made a major impact in Mayra as she was growing up was the lack of education for the slum areas of Rio de Janeiro and the sexual discrimination (in other words, gender inequality) between men and women.
While there were boys from the slums who gained access to a school so they could study, almost all girls were not afforded that chance, with families who preferred to send their boys to school instead of the girls in the family. This resulted in a lot of teenage pregnancies in the area, which only aggravated the already poor situation in the slum areas of the city.
In a speech she made, Mayra related the problems that her fellow girls had to face in Brazil:
“The girls have got difficulties to study because of the idea that girls got to do all the domestic work and the boys must have no participation in this. Therefore, the girls have to look after the brothers or sisters and take care of the house while their parents work. There is also a large amount of teenagers who get pregnant and then they need to care for their child and their brothers and sisters. They are totally excluded from the society. After having the baby, they can’t go back to the school because now they have a family to look out for.”
Helping Children Escape and Leading Protests
Lucky enough to have gone to a decent school in the Tarmac (a term used to refer to a place outside the favelas) late in her childhood, Mayra became more decided to fight for the right to education of her fellow Brazilian girls. Even at a young age, she already exhibited some leadership qualities when she would help other children escape from the crossfire whenever a fight would erupt.
She also began small protests in her neighbourhood that centered on giving the young girls a chance to have good education. Nanko Van Buuren, a human rights activist and the director of the Ibiss foundation, said of Mayra:
“Even though Mayra lived in a slum district, she attended a fairly decent school on the Tarmac, as we call the area outside the favelas. This is why she clearly saw the differences and refused to accept that people outside the slum have more rights than those in it. This is why she started at a very young age to demand equal rights for all children, both outside and inside the favelas.”
When Mayra was eleven years old, violence in her favela was at its peak. In fact, the civil wars between the drug cartels and the police became so extreme that the government had to cut off the neighbourhood from the outside world, making it virtually inaccessible to medical and teaching staff. This left the schools and clinics closed, and people started to loot everywhere.
Living in this kind of environment for the next four years developed an intense desire in Mayra to change her situation. When she was fifteen years old, she organized a protest against the police and mobilised hundreds of children and youths to take to the streets to join the street protest. Mayra encouraged her fellow youths to stand up for their rights, in spite of the great risks of doing so.
She demanded that the police stop patrolling the streets during school hours to avoid any violent confrontations that could harm the students that are at school. Amazingly, the police listened to Mayra’s plea and agreed to cease their patrols during school hours; this resulted in many children being able to go back to school again.
Winning the International Children’s Peace Prize
In 2008, Mayra was nominated by Nanko Van Buuren for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Nanko, who was fighting for the residents and the street children of Brazil himself, was inspired by Mayra so much so that he started working with her to help promote the welfare of the poor in society, especially the young girls who needed education. After a series of judging, Mayra won the International Children’s Peace Prize, which was awarded to her by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner himself.
After winning the ICPP, Mayra was invited to meet with the Brazilian educational affairs minister and the governor of Rio de Janeiro to talk about the future of education in the country as well as to promote the importance of giving equal education to every child. The meeting was successful, and soon afterwards, the Brazilian government announced that they would make every effort in improving the educational system not only in Rio, but also in the entire country.
The following year, in 2009, Mayra had a chance of meeting with famous United States Senator Hillary Clinton, whom she shared her dream of giving every girl a chance of having a good education with. Senator Clinton was very impressed with Mayra’s determination that at such age she was already fighting for the rights of her fellow youth girls.
Currently, Mayra has joined a theatrical group in Rio that aims to instill self-confidence in the children, using role play as a means of conveying the message of hope and teaching them the opportunities that are available to them.
Mayra’s parents have expressed their desire to move out of the favela so she could have a better life, but Mayra herself does not want to leave; in an interview made with her while she was at the university for her entrance exam, Mayra stated how constantly witnessing the hardships that the poor people in the community have to go through every day inspires and empowers her to become a role model for the children, doing what she can to make whatever change she could in the lives of her fellow countrymen.
Mayra is described by many as someone “who is always in front, and ensures that parades are held. She represents what the Children's Peace Prize stands for.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Children as the Peacemakers Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 2008: Won the International Children’s Peace Prize