Lifting Up Women in the City of God

Fabiana and Sandra live in the shantytown (favela) of Cidade de Deus, the infamous “City of God” housing project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Gangs, drugs and gun violence are rife here, and the police have little or no effective control over the area. In an environment of such chaos and uncertainty, women are especially vulnerable. Many suffer from debilitating stress and anxiety, which impacts both their self-perception and their relationships with others.

Fabiana, a 29-year-old single woman, felt trapped by her problems and without a way to “get perspective” on her situation. Sandra is a 60-year-old married mother of three grown sons whose marriage was on the verge of collapse. Both women were facing bleak outlooks. Thankfully, they found help and empowerment through the psychosocial care program in Cidade de Deus, which is run by the Diocese of Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with Episcopal Relief & Development. The Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, of which the Diocese of Rio de Janeiro is a part, has been committed to making a difference in the lives of Cidade de Deus’ 37,000 inhabitants since 1991.

Part of a holistic community health initiative, the psychosocial care program offers psychotherapy in individual or group settings. Most of the 90 clients are women facing post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety disorders and other stress-related illnesses. The program is carried out in cooperation with local health clinics, where the need for assistance far exceeds what they are able to offer. The clinic also incorporates health promotion and disease prevention into the services provided.

Local program leaders report that the psychotherapy clinic activities are making a substantial difference in their community, helping people to gain a stronger sense of identity and find a sense of purpose and direction in life. While the focus of the initiative is to promote health and well-being, the activities are also helping to form a stronger sense of community within the neighborhood. These efforts encourage people to take leadership roles in solving problems and caring for those around them.

Community response to the program has been enthusiastic. Information about the clinic’s services spreads by word of mouth, generating huge interest in the program and the way it is developing. As the program grows, the people participating are also growing – growing in self-awareness and confidence, and in their desire to help others raise themselves out of depression and anxiety. While talking about how her life had been improved by the services she received, Fabiana said, “I began to accept myself and overcome my own difficulties.”

A community engagement component was added at the end of 2009, through which veterans of the program receive training in how to reach out to those who need help. Participants in this advanced training learn how to facilitate the same kind of group therapy that helped them to improve their own lives. As facilitators and community leaders, these individuals can help their community to shape a better future, one person and one family at a time. When asked what she learned through her training, Sandra said, “The group taught me that we have an incredible capacity to help each other.”

Through counseling and community outreach training, Episcopal Relief & Development and the Diocese of Rio de Janeiro are making a difference in Cidade de Deus.

“I have seen the changes in the women participating in this program firsthand; it is bringing them hope, joy and confidence,” said Karla Avila, the International Program Officer who oversees Episcopal Relief & Development activities in Brazil.

By building on this hope and supporting a community that is learning to heal itself, the Church in Brazil is truly helping people transform their lives for the better. We pray for the continued success of this vital ministry.