When 19-year-old Paloma Cristina Terra’s boyfriend, Felipe, left her, she was terrified. Five months pregnant at the time, she had no idea how she’d support herself. Like many young women from Rio de Janeiro’s poorest slums, she’d dropped out of school in sixth grade and never held a job.
Milena Vicente Silva de Santa Rita, 25, found herself in a similar predicament. A single mother of two from Nova Iguacu, a poverty stricken city just outside Rio, she hadn’t held a steady job in five months. Occasionally, she’d find temporary work cleaning, earning the equivalent of about $53 a month, but that was hardly enough to support a family of three.
Both could have done what many poor women in Brazil do and take up full-time jobs as maids. But a typical maid’s salary – equal to $265 a month – wouldn’t have provided a real escape from poverty. So they decided to try something different.
In February, Terra and Silva de Santa Rita joined 58 other participants in Projeto Mao na Massa, or The Hands On Project, which trains and certifies women in construction jobs. Now in its fifth year, the program offers free training in masonry, carpentry, plumbing, painting and electrical work, as well as basic language and math skills.
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When the women graduate, they typically earn more than three times what maids make.
With Brazil’s economy booming and demand for new housing on the rise, there’s no shortage of jobs in construction. The country also is hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, which adds to the investments in infrastructure.
For Terra, the prospects of a career in construction are promising.
“The Mao na Massa Project provides women with a unique opportunity to become independent, and I really want to achieve that,” she said.
Silva de Santa Rita has been fascinated with construction since she was a girl, and long dreamed of becoming an architect.
“This is a dream I’ve nurtured since I was a child,” she said.
The project targets those on the bottom rung of Brazilian society: battered women, school dropouts, single mothers in their teens and residents of Rio’s poorest slums, or “favelas,” shantytowns that often lack proper electricity and running water and are known to be centers of drug trafficking.
Some of the program’s participants spend up to three hours a day commuting to and from their classes, which are in a small three-story stucco building along the train tracks in Rio’s Rocha neighborhood.
On a typical morning, Terra feeds and dresses her 6-month-old daughter, Maria Victoria, before dropping her off at a neighbor’s home at around 7 a.m. She then walks several blocks through the Jacare slum to catch the bus to Rocha. Silva de Santa Rita wakes up at 4:40 a.m. so that she has time to drop off her two children with relatives before catching an extremely overcrowded train for a 40-minute ride to the project.
Many of the students at Projeto Mao na Massa say their main motivation in signing up is to obtain the skills that will enable them to refurbish their own dilapidated homes, often built out of discarded wood and other debris. The project’s administrators also are seeking out women who are interested in working in the construction industry.
“We want people who are not only willing to build their own houses but are also willing to work for companies,” said Norma Sa, the project’s coordinator.
It hasn’t been an easy road for some graduates who enter the male-dominated field in a country where gender stereotypes are deeply rooted.
Flavia Paula dos Santos, a 2008 graduate of the program, works for COFIX, a large construction company based in Rio. She’s helping to build a new high-rise in Barra da Tijuca, an upper-income suburb near the beach that has breathtaking views of the downtown skyline and Brazil’s distinctive mountain ranges.
“At first, men would frown at me,” she said, raising her voice against the loud stutter of jackhammers and other machinery in the background. “They would say, ‘Oh, you can’t even handle a hammer.’ ”
But Francisco Guimaraes de Oliveira, a co-worker, said he and men like him were slowly starting to accept the presence of women at construction sites.
“Before they were here, we used to think that this was no place for women, but that has completely changed because we saw them working, and we saw they are as skilled as we are,” he said.
In many ways, he added, women have had a positive influence on conditions at the site: They bring their own brand of humor, and they force the men to control their foul language.
“The guys who were cursing a lot have been cursing less out of respect for their presence,” he said.
Paula dos Santos said her family had a harder time coming to terms with her choice of profession than her co-workers did. Her father, who died in January, “never accepted the fact that I work in civil construction,” she said.
Sa said: “Not all companies are willing to hire women. We are trying to break this resistance over time.”
VIDEO: THE HANDS ON PROJECT
(Video by Jill Knight, Penn State University)