It's another day marked by gunfire in the Morro da Providencia "favela", one of the most dangerous slums in this Brazilian city, and the only area where people can move around in relative safety is in the lower part of the neighbourhood, towards the foot of the hill.
Alessandra da Cunha is one of the 11,000 women "peace workers" recruited by the Ministry of Justice's National Public Security and Citizenship Programme (PRONASCI) to try to create a peaceful haven in the favelas, as the shantytowns on the outskirts of Brazil's cities are known.
The programme - involving 3.35 billion dollars in spending through 2012 - was launched by the leftist government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in August 2007 with the aim of integrating law enforcement, public safety and social policies to reduce crime and violence by addressing their socio-cultural causes, in a partnership between the federal, state and municipal governments. It initially covers the 11 cities with the highest crime rates in the country.
Most importantly, the programme involves the people directly affected by violence, working with civil society organisations, groups and individuals. With its women peace workers initiative it seeks to "build a culture of peace through values fostered by female community leaders, towards solving the problems of the community without resorting to violence," said Sergio Andrea, social assistance executive secretary with the Rio de Janeiro government.
Like the other peace workers, da Cunha - a single mom raising her son with no help from the father, who left before the child was born - is no university expert on violence. But as a resident of one of Brazil's favelas, she is all too familiar with violence.
Of the six million people who live in Rio de Janeiro proper – Greater Rio is home to 11 million - around 1.5 million inhabit the densely populated shantytowns sprawled across the hills or ‘morros' ringing the city.
The most visible form of violence in the favelas is drug-related: heavy crossfire between rival drug gangs, police raids, and the abuses committed by both sides.
"There are shootouts at all hours: during the school day, or when you're heading out for work," da Cunha, a radio dispatcher at a taxi cooperative, told IPS.
"Sadly in this war between drug dealers and the police, it's always the people who pay the consequences, and that's reflected in our lives," she said.
Such consequences are evident in her six-year-old boy, who starts "shaking all over" every time a firefight breaks out. But much more subtle are the effects on children's development, manifested in the form of aggression that shapes a culture of violence.
"The surrounding violence is reflected in their aggression. Our minds are programmed to receive contents that influence our lives, and as our kids get older, they grow up with violence in their heads," da Cunha said.
The project began in high-crime areas of Rio de Janeiro, and women were chosen because "they play an increasingly important and central role in the lives of these communities," Andrea said.
Women, who are often the chief breadwinners in their homes, are the caretakers of the children and the elderly, and are frequently involved in efforts to improve their communities.
Their function in this project is to identify teenagers and young adults who are at risk and refer them to government-run vocational training programmes.
To prepare for the task, the women attend courses on human rights, intermediation techniques, and basic legal education. In exchange for their work they receive around 80 dollars a month for an eight-hour week.
But their mission is far more ambitious than that, Rita Lima, who is in charge of vocational training, told IPS. The ultimate goal is to create "a culture of peace" to bring down crime rates through civic action instead of police repression.
"Achieving peace in a violent place is only possible if it's done through a process built by the people who live there," she said.
What sets this project apart is the women who carry it out, because these "women know everybody in the community; they work with teenagers whose diapers they once changed, they're there for the neighbours who come knocking on their door with a problem," da Cunha said.
Daniela Rocha also knows these young people well.
Rocha works in the construction industry and in her free time she plays football, which is popular among both boys and girls in the favelas. She knows these youths from the neighbourhood matches where she plays as passionately as any boy, carelessly throwing herself in the mud to save a ball if necessary.
"My dream is to never have to see any of them getting high or mugging people on the street," she told IPS, still flushed and out of breath after a match.
Other forms of violence
As "peace ambassadors," the women also provide counselling for other women who are victims of "machista" violence.
"They tell us that their husband beat them and we tell them there's a law that protects them from domestic violence," peace worker María da Souza, a retired grandmother, told IPS.
Domestic, sexual and verbal abuse, da Cunha says, are all common forms of violence suffered by many women around the world. Da Cunha herself was mistreated by an ex-boyfriend.
"But we suffer additional discrimination because we come from a favela, we're ‘faveladas'," she underlined.
Tatiana Moura, a Portuguese researcher with the Gender and Armed Violence Observatory at the University of Coimbra's Centre for Social Studies, does not see domestic violence as "a decisive element" that pushes people into the world of drug dealing.
"It's the different forms of violence - economic, gender-related, or social - piled up one on top of the other that can drive women, and men, to engage in armed violence," Moura told IPS from Coimbra.
Moura spent a year and a half in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro doing field research for her book "Rostos invisíveis da violência armada" (The Invisible Faces of Armed Violence), in which she analyses the issue of armed violence through case studies of women who are victims and also participants of such violence.
"Armed violence arose as a form of reaction against the accumulation of other kinds of violence," such as physical and psychological abuse, and against "structural and cultural" violence, she noted.
Gender and drug dealing
Many studies address the problem of young people involved in drug dealing, like those targeted by the peace women project. But few deal in depth with women's participation in such activities.
Moura stressed, in particular, that in Brazil the study of urban violence is typically "separated" from the study of "gender violence."
"Feminist studies tend to deal with violence against women, specifically domestic violence, and pay little attention to other dynamics that affect public safety," she said.
At the same time, researchers and activists working with safety and crime issues "have neglected gender matters," she added.
"They approach violence as a dual phenomenon, as if it were divided into two unrelated spheres: the public sphere, reserved for men - who are, of course, statistically more likely to be involved in firearm deaths, both as victims and perpetrators - and the domestic sphere, which is considered the area where females become victims," the expert said.
In her study, Moura went one step further, identifying, for example, the motivations that lead women and girls to participate in drug dealing.
They participate as "girlfriends of drug dealers" and in other "low-ranking" roles such as weapon and drug couriers, but also in higher-ranking roles that involve the use of firearms.
Through her research she found that the underlying motivations for participating in "minor" drug dealing activities are similar for men and women: lack of opportunities, social exclusion, and "the prospect of armed violence as a means for obtaining consumer goods."
But when women assume "major" roles in drug rings, they also have other reasons for doing so.
"Many are mothers, often widowed, and they turn to drug dealing as a source of livelihood," she said. However, "motherhood may sometimes also lead them to decide to abandon criminal activities altogether," she noted.
Cisleia Bento Rosa, another of the women peace workers, turned to drug dealing in order to raise her four children.
Now, as a youth counsellor working in her community, Rosa shares her experience with young people.
"I tell them what I went through and how that's no way to live," she said as she displayed a scar from the past: a bullet wound that pierced her neck and went out through her shoulder blade, leaving her with a speech disability that forces her to use a special device.
Rosa is particularly sensitive to cases of women who are assaulted or humiliated by policemen who illegally raid their homes in search of drugs or suspects.
"I tell them how to react when a policeman sticks his foot in their door," she said, describing the legal counselling she offers.
According to Andrea, the project's success stems from the direct involvement of women in their communities.
"It's different from other projects because it works from the inside out, in the sense that it's conducted by people from the community," she said.
Silvia Ramos, head of the university Centre for Studies on Public Safety and Citizenship, valued the fact that this is a large-scale project, implemented in a number of cities.
But she questioned the compensation paid to young people, which, at around 50 dollars a month, she said is too low. According to her, this allowance is not an incentive for young people who, separated from drug dealing, are left "without a trade, out of school, and completely unprepared for the labour market."