Rugby In Rio Helps Young Brazilians Play Their Way Out Of Poverty

The spires of Oxford may seem an unlikely birthplace for an initiative helping young people in the favelas of Rio.
Raised in Ealing, west London, half-British, half-Brazilian Robert Malengreau has taken the inspiration from his own transformative journey to change lives for the poorest youths in Rio, whose experiences had remained front of mind after his earlier visits to the Brazilian city.
“Getting into Oxford was unattainable on a personal level,” says Robert.
“I had early learning difficulties and felt going to Oxford was out of my reach. When I actually got into Oxford, I based my Masters thesis on the role of public policy on socio-economic and state inclusion in Rio’s favelas.
“I thought about how to leverage the Oxbridge brand to bring attention to a community that is isolated and so we launched UmRio in 2013.”

With the support of Laureus, UmRio helps young people overcome violence, discrimination and disadvantage

Robert played rugby from the age of six for London Welsh and then Wasps, two of the biggest clubs in England, before representing Oxford.
He had the support of the University Ruby Club and planned to use rugby as a way of engaging young people and helping them develop life skills that could move them away from a life of poverty or crime in the Morro do Castro favela on the outskirts of Rio. 
In 2019, over 10 million young Brazilians between the ages of 15 and 29 were neither studying nor working, while only 18% of black Brazilian youth were enrolled in or have completed university.
Robert explained: “We started with two hours of rugby a week and before the Covid lockdowns we were up to 60 hours a week, but the project has always combined sport and other interventions to address the multi-faceted challenges that children here face.
“I am passionate about poverty reduction and our launch coincided with significant state interventions in favelas. We are the only social project working there and we try and address youth challenges through four pillars, namely rugby, education, employment and healthcare.
“Engagement in the drugs trade, for instance, is driven by financial struggles, a lack of a sense of belonging, alienation from education and unemployment as well as a desire to support one’s family.
“We seek to respond to all these factors in a safe and enabling environment for young people in the area.”

Before Covid-19 restrictions, UmRio was delivering over 60 hours of rugby each week

At the rugby sessions, some players are barefoot, wearing a mix of shirts on patchy pitches without posts and with open sewers nearby.
There is always the risk of shooting between members of drug gangs or the police, with youngsters taught how to take cover under a concrete wall behind the goalposts.
At least 1000 young people have now benefited from UmRio initiatives, despite the challenges caused by lockdowns, with nearly 80% of beneficiaries under the World Bank extreme poverty line.
Robert credits the support from Laureus over the past two years as a reason why the project has continued to thrive.
He added: “The pandemic exposed additional layers of inequality in the favelas and our partnership with Laureus has been phenomenal and a cornerstone to help us share learnings with other organisations and adapt.”
Those changing circumstances were highlighted by the need for remote sessions and the realisation that so many young people had limited access to the internet and technology.
Robert explained: “We discovered that digital exclusion exacerbated existing inequalities with 20% of our beneficiaries without access to internet and 60% only having shared mobile phone access, which makes things difficult.
“In our last assessment, we found that 23% of our participants entered extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, domestic violence increased and we have experienced increased levels of teenage pregnancy. 
“To address digital exclusion, with the support of Laureus, we delivered internet to 152 people, many of whom have never had it in their houses before. We have also been loaning tablets to students for better quality communications.
“That meant that we have been able to offer 23 hours of remote programmes per week, which gave participants a sense of routine, which we have discovered is an issue, especially around mental health.
“The connections that Laureus have been able to offer include two shared learning platforms: a Brazil-focused shared learning platform and an International Education-focused shared learning platform. Both were equally important in helping us share and learn about trends and responses to the pandemic. 
“We were also part of a small taskforce of organisations to develop the Laureus Partner Recovery Guidance for Brazilian Organizations. These initiatives have also been particularly helpful to understand and identify trends that work or don’t work.”

At least 1000 young people have now benefitted from UmRio initiatives

Rugby is a fast-growing sport in Brazil, with interest in all forms of the game is on the rise. Women’s rugby is increasingly popular, and according to Nielsen data more than 80 per cent of people in Brazil agree that the standard of women’s rugby is increasing every year, and that it is a good sport for young girls to take up. The Rugby World Cup 2019 was watched in great numbers in Brazil, with many fans following the tournament for the first time. With the numbers of people playing and watching rugby experiencing sharp rises in Brazil, the game has an exciting future in the country.

In 2019, the Webb Ellis Cup visited Brazil for the first time as part of the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour and interacted with different rugby social programmes in Rio and Sao Paulo. The values of rugby (integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect) are well-matched with the values of social projects aiming to teach life lessons in underprivileged communities.

Former All-Blacks rugby captain and Laureus Academy Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick, has seen at first-hand the challenges young people face in the favelas and praised the work that UmRio undertakes.
He said: “I’m so pleased to see how much rugby is growing as a sport around the world and how much of a difference it is making to the lives of young people in emerging nations such as Brazil.
“I visited Brazil when the Laureus World Sports Awards were staged in Rio in 2013 and saw for myself the challenges young people face, particularly in the favelas where poverty, drugs and a lack of education are rife.

“I’m so impressed by the fantastic work that UmRio is doing to inspire more youngsters to take up rugby and overcome the problems that Covid-19 has caused to their daily lives. “Providing internet and access to healthcare, education and sport has given hope and opportunity to so many youths in Rio and Laureus is proud to support the great work UmRio does.”

Former All-Blacks rugby captain and Laureus Academy Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick visits Laureus supported Luta Pela Paz in Rio in 2013

UmRio helps the community beyond education as well. Local dentists and doctors volunteer for clinics, and counsellors are available for those struggling with mental health issues.
Challenges remain and Robert is proud of UmRio’s achievements. 
He reflected: “While it has been a tough year, we have been able to dynamically address inequalities in digital access and income, which has resulted in increased demand for our remote programmes.
“Our capacity to respond effectively to fast changing circumstances, at a time when people were entering extreme poverty, falling behind at school, going hungry and ultimately unable to support themselves is something that I am incredibly proud of.”
Matheus Oliveira comes from extreme poverty in one of Rio’s favelas.
Living in a single parent household, his mother was unable to access public benefits in a community rife with drug gangs and a huge lack of opportunities for young people.
Before joining the project, Matheus was a high school drop-out but soon enrolled in a high school degree course for adults.
Within a year, he had taught himself English to a high level through his love of music and it also allowed him to refine his skills as a rugby player though discussions with project volunteers visiting from the UK or Australia. 
“I didn't have expectations for life," said Matheus. “I didn’t think I had any confidence but it's confidence that was born in me.”
Matheus has been accepted to the Language Arts program at the prestigious Federal Fluminense University, where he will study English and Portuguese Language.
Since 2018 Matheus has helped spread his love of English to other children and young people in Morro do Castro by serving as a teaching assistant. 
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, he has taken on even more of a leadership role, running two remote English classes and always coming up with ways to enhance online engagement.

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