Lua Nova: Rehabilitating Addicts and Empowering Women as Contractors

Lua Nova: Rehabilitating Addicts and Empowering Women as Contractors

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Abandoned by her mother at the age of ten, Sandra’s aunts forced her and her two brothers to beg on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil.  When Sandra gave birth to her first child at the age of 20, her aunts would beat her because they had to spend the begging money on the baby. Nine months later, Sandra gave birth to a second child, and starting smoking marijuana to escape the problems at home. 

When Sandra learned about Lua Nova, a center for rehabilitating young, low-income, chemically-dependent mothers, her life began to take a different path.  “Lua Nova looked like a paradise for me when I arrived,” said Sandra.   “Here, I have everything.  I stopped smoking marijuana, and my children became the reason for my life. Lua Nova taught me the bricklaying trade, and I am so proud of that.  I like what I do, and now I have a home, and my children will never live the life I lived.”

Ashoka Fellow, Raquel Barros, the founder of Lua Nova, or “New Moon,” is changing the model of drug rehabilitation in Brazil, by preparing young mothers, who often are homeless, or the victims of sexual abuse, to become responsible parents. Lua Nova helps them to find employment, and involves community members to help facilitate the women’s reentry into society. 

With a background in psychology, Barros worked as a teacher in a slum on the outskirts of São Paulo.   For seven years in Venice, Italy, she managed a community where women were able to remain with their children during drug treatment.  

Barros returned to São Paulo in 2000 and founded Lua Nova as a center that hosts, treats, educates, and professionally trains marginalized adolescent mothers, without taking their children from them.  Here, Barros designed a therapeutic method that works for chemically dependent mothers and integrated that methodology into a community-based approach for promoting social reintegration based on the needs of the local community.

“Many institutions knew me and sent girls with their children to stay in Lua Nova,” said Barros. “Initially, I just wanted to take care of the girls and babies, but after a year, I understood that their lives couldn’t really change without the ability to earn an income. 

“I started the first project, a bakery, with the idea that low-income women have to know that they have talent and potential,” said Barros. “Most people don’t want to look for these women’s potential because they see poor women as invisible. Income generating projects make the talent that these women have much more visible.”

In 2006, when Barros became aware that former Lua Nova residents were living in high-rent homes and apartments that were in horrible, squalid conditions, the idea for second income-generating project, a contractor school, was born.  

Many of the women had low reading and writing abilities, so incorporating literacy training into the process was crucial.  In partnership with a local university that helped with the technical classes, Lua Nova initially supported 12 women to complete contractor training over a two year period, including learning about building codes, electricity, plumping, security, wall construction, and brick-making. To date, 60 women have completed the training, and now work in civil construction, teach other women contractor skills, or manage their own construction businesses. 

Twenty of those women have built their own homes in which they now live. They also have helped to build the homes for many other neighbors, or other women in their community.

“It is so important that these women realize that they can do the same thing as men,” said Barros. “At first, they just needed a house to live in to give them a dignified life. But this project empowers the women to believe in themselves and their skills as contractors.” 

Ana Lucia dropped out of school after completing elementary-level classes, had two children, and, before coming to Lua Nova, would spend her days smoking marijuana on São Paulo beaches. “Today I have my house, and I learned to take care of my children. I am a bricklayer, and my life has stabilized. I have an income, I am happy, and I owe it all to Lua Nova.”

Barros claims that in the beginning it was difficult to convince partners that women had the potential to build their own houses. Now, she believes that not only are women are more patient and pay greater attention to details in home construction, but also knows that that women are less likely to waste materials. In this respect, Barros believes that women can be even better contractors than men.

“I can talk to people for hours to explain the potential that low-income women have, but it is not very effective,” said Barros. “It is not the same as when I take people to see the houses that these women have built -- then people understand that the women have talent. Right now, we’re building only a few houses but we are changing lots of minds.”

Lua Nova's project, Building Your Life Technology, was a winner in the Women | Tools | Technology competition


By Changemakers contributing writer Carol Erickson