Protecting the Rights, Unleashing the Potential of Indigenous Girls in Rural Guatemala

Protecting the Rights, Unleashing the Potential of Indigenous Girls in Rural Guatemala
Abriendo Oportunidades offers safe spaces, mentoring, educational opportunities and solidarity for adolescent Mayan girls. It also introduces new possibilities into their lives. Photo © Mark Tuschman
  • 14 May 2013


Nearly 40 per cent of Guatemala's 14 million people belong to one of more than 20 indigenous Mayan groups. A disproportionate number live in poor and isolated rural areas with limited access to basic services such as water, sanitation, education and health.

Opportunities for the young people from these areas are limited. But adolescent girls, in particular, find their future paths are often constrained by discrimination and the traditional practice of child marriage .

CHITIXL, Guatemala --- "In my village girls do not have access to information nor education," said Sonia Delfina Cho Tún from the Chitixl community in the lush northern highlands of the country. "There isn´t a local high school. We only get to study to sixth grade. Mostly girls marry at age 15, not knowing what their future holds for them and their children.

"Parents force them because they say that when they reach age 20 and are single, they can no longer find a husband and are left to grow old alone.

Safe spaces for learning and growing

Getting results

Team leaders report:

  • Higher self-esteem
  • Desire to pursue higher education
  • Plans to delay marriage and childbearing
  • Parents also report changed expectations for their daughters

But Sonia became involved with Abriendo Oportunidades, a programme that provides safe spaces, mentoring, educational opportunities and solidarity for adolescent girls. It makes a big difference in her underserved community.

Sonia describes it this way: "There aren´t many services in my community, everything looks sad and the roads are unpaved. The nearest town is three hours away.

"Women knit huipiles [decorative traditional blouses]. Men work as laborers on and return home every month. There aren´t any jobs available, there aren´t businesses or companies. "

Through her work leading groups of local girls, she found herself forging a different path. She earned a scholarship, continued her studies, and began working as an intern at the Office for the Defense of Indigenous Women in Alta Verapaz district, where she learned about the basic human rights that so few of her friends were able to exercise.

"Indigenous women do not know their rights, and throughout their lives they suffer violence from men and their families," Sonia said. "When I returned home, I knew a lot about women´s rights, something I did not know anything about before. My mother was very happy for me, for the change in my life, in my family and in the lives of other girls."

Built on a model of mentoring and community engagement

With support from Abriendo Oportunidades, Sonia was trained to start a girls-only club where she could mentor others in the community, and talk to younger girls about self-esteem, values, leadership, and health. The girls' clubs give girls a chance for learning, recreation and social interaction, while encouraging them to consider alternatives to tradition of early marriage and childbearing.

The pilot for Abriendo Opportunidades was first implemented in 2004 with a $100,000 startup grant from UNFPA and is now run by the Population Council, with support from many other organizations. Although girls are at the very heart of the programme, its success also relies on the collaboration with parents, teachers and community leaders (gatekeepers). In the early stages of a community project, a social mapping exercise employing GPS technology engages these adults in clarifying the local dynamics and power structures. Later, a variation on this exercise may be used for 'safety mapping' - a way to identify places where women feel at risk of violence, and to devise strategies to make them safer.

Age-appropriate learning

In the clubs, girls are divided into age cohorts (8-12 and 13-18) and participate in a programme of activities geared to their life stage. Younger girls may learn about self-esteem, reproductive health, communication and community participation; older girls discuss sexuality, HIV prevention, and family planning. Age-appropriate lessons also deal with financial literacy, sexual relationships and life skills. Girl leaders also receive a small stipend and are encouraged to learn how to manage money and prepare for productive livelihoods.

The leaders are also trained in gender-based violence and some work as interns with service providers addressing the issue. And when Sonia talks to survivors of violence, she has strategies to help: "To help these women, I provide them information I have learned from institutions that support women, like the Office for the Defense of Indigenous Women, the Courts and other institutions, share what I know, and accompany them to denounce the violence they suffer." The girls' clubs are also connected to the Guatemalan Indigenous Girls Resource and Empowerment Network.

The programme also reaches out to indigenous boys to cultivate more gender-equitable, supportive male attitudes and behavior towards women and girls. In collaboration with Peace Corps Guatemala, boy leaders were selected in five pilot communities to create boys-only clubs that meet once a week following a curriculum guide adapted to discuss how gender inequalities affectthe whole community. Boys and girls clubs meet on different spaces, coming together at times for recreation and handicrafts.

Getting results

Since it began in 2004, Abriendo Oportunidades has reached more than 3,500 indigenous girls from seven Mayan ethnic groups and has engaged more than 40 rural communities in six geographic regions of the country. According to an evaluation conducted by the Population Council in 2010, the programme is building girls' protective 'assets' (such as self-esteem, communication skills, literacy). It also encourages girls to stay in school (72 per cent of Abriendo girl leaders were in school at close of 2009-10 cycle), to consider higher education (52 per cent of Abriendo leaders want to complete university and 32 per cent want to complete vocational training), and to delay marriage (97 per cent of leaders remained unmarried during the program cycle) and childbearing (94 per cent of leaders wish to delay childbearing until after age 20).

Over 80 per cent of Abriendo girls interviewed scored an average of 7.7 on an 8-item scale to quantify their sense of self-efficacy, indicating that post-program rural, indigenous girls may well possess the self-confidence necessary to adhere to their plans. These are exactly the kinds of "local changes" that contribute to breaking patterns of inter-generational poverty and fostering the achievement of national development objectives, according to the evaluation.

Such outcomes also bring about positive social change in the household and community (increased female autonomy reflected in parental permission for girls to attend Abriendo events, increased freedom to meet with friends, and girls' reported improved status in the home and participation in school and community activities).

New possibilities ripple across communities and generations

Sonia, for example, has become a role model for other girls in her village: "In my community, I am the only woman who has graduated from high school," she says. I am the only woman who speaks Spanish fluently. Young girls in the community admire me for this. It is a great difference, a wonderful change in my life," she says.

When parents and community leaders see girls and young women take on new roles and get a sense of their capacity and potential, their perceptions about them and their opportunities start to change. The girls and young women become more appreciated and valued by their families, according to the 2010 evaluation, which also showed a rise in parental expectations that their daughters would remain in school.

Sonia remains a model for encouraging young girls to dream, and giving them avenues to fulfill those dreams. "My dream is to be able to marry after I am 25 years old, and to have a better job," she said. "For now, I am helping my younger siblings, not only financially, but helping them with their homework when they do not know or understand how to do something.

"I want to continue studying at the University, and support women in my community. A long time ago, I was afraid to work, but now I want to help women who suffer violence, accompany them and support young girls to stay in school."

Guatemala is one of four priority countries where UNFPA plans to invest heavily in the next few years to create opportunities for adolescent girls and provide alternatives to child marriage.

Project Description (extracted from 2010 Evaluation)

The Abriendo Oportunidades programme, which now reaches some 4,000 girls in 45 Mayan communities of Guatemala, is designed to harness the power and potential of rural indigenous girls and young women. At its core, the programme is constructed on the evidence that strategic investments in the poorest girls from the poorest communities are not only goods in themselves, but they directly support the achievement of local and national development goals, including the MDGs. The program focuses on building the social, health and economic assets and capabilities of rural indigenous girls, one of Guatemala's most vulnerable and underserved sub-populations, as a core strategy for poverty alleviation and long-term social development. The approach is unique through its targeted and evidence-based design. It is girl-centered (designed with and for girls, departing from their perceived problems and solutions) and participatory.

At present, Abriendo Oportunidades is largely run by young female graduates of the programme. It uses a cascading leadership approach, wherein young females often harvested from within the program, are trained and supported to become leaders and guide the girls' clubs at the community level. The richness of the program lies in addressing the complex and inter-related transitions that occur during adolescence across all domains of girls' lives, including education, family life, and sexuality. The program strives not only to improve the conditions and opportunities for Guatemala's poorest sub-group, it works to positively change the social environment around girls, thereby attacking the underlying structural problems of gender inequality and inter-generational poverty.


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