The announcement that Brazilian prostitutes in the city of Belo Horizonte are signing up for free English classes in advance of the 2014 World Cup prompted many a crass remark in the comments section of online publications. Cida Vieira, President of the Minas Gerais State Association of Prostitution, argued that providing English language classes for prostitutes was “important for the dignity of the work. The women need to be able to negotiate a fair price and defend themselves.” Though the World Cup in 2014 represents a unique opportunity for Brazil to maximize the economic, social, and cultural benefits of hosting a mega-event, the legalized industry of prostitution will be subject to the same pitfalls as other sectors that experience the sudden injection of spending into an economy.
Benefits of hosting the World Cup include global media attention, billions of investment dollars in enhanced infrastructure, transportation, an enormous boom in tourism, job creation, and the inclusion of thousands of volunteers from different countries and impoverished communities who will be trained, educated and hopefully provided a transferable skill set. Unfortunately, what is uncertain is how Brazil will ensure that this confluence of commercial, socio-cultural, and political interests can measurably leave a lasting impact. What is even more uncertain is if prostitutes will be afforded similar professional growth opportunities once the World Cup ships out.
In the summer of 2011, I rode in a taxi to visit a health initiative in the Rocinha community of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On the drive back into town, the taxi driver asked my Brazilian colleague why there was an English-speaker in the car. She explained I was looking at what types of social development were happening in preparation for the World Cup. The driver laughed and said that if I came back in 2014 we could have a good chat because the government had claimed it would require all taxi drivers to speak English during the World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. It was unclear who was going to finance this opportunity, and to what extent the project would be executed. More significantly, there was no mention as to whether such opportunities for language learning were available after 2016.
To date, at least 20 of the four thousand members of the Belo Horizonte Association of Prostitutes have registered for the free English courses, which will be taught by advocacy group volunteers and run between six and eight months. Said Vieira in an interview with CNN, “Across Brazil, lots of businesses in the private sector are getting prepared and making their workers more qualified for the Cup. Well, this is a profession, too.”
Yes, it is, but the fact remains that while the World Cup and Olympic games do accelerate certain types of development opportunities, especially when it comes to the creation of stadiums or overhauling airports and other infrastructure — the same is not true for prostitution. Success with revamped transportation systems in the name of the World Cup is often associated with words like “legacy” or “iconic”; the same has not yet been said about equipping Brazilian prostitutes with a job-specific English vocabulary. Is it a good thing for Brazilian women to have free access to professional language learning? Yes. Is it a shame that the access is likely only provided in the context of private enterprise at the expense and exploitation of a developing economy? Yes. As is, the World Cup provides great opportunities to change things quickly. What would be better is if those developments were sustained in the absence of a mega-event.