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GUATEMALA: “We Want Girls to Be Visible”

Danilo Valladares

ANTIGUA, Guatemala, Nov 4 2011 (IPS) - “I learned to not be afraid, and to love myself. Before, I never wanted to talk to people because I felt like they looked down on me and that I was no good,” says 12-year-old Hilda Tura, one of the participants in a programme fostering leadership among indigenous girls in Guatemala.

Girls participating in Creating Opportunities activities in Antigua.  Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Girls participating in Creating Opportunities activities in Antigua. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

“Sometimes my classmates make fun of us because we’re girls. They tell us we can’t do anything. But in the programme I learned that women can do anything we decide to do,” Tura, a member of the Cakchiquel Maya indigenous community from the central province of Chimaltenango, told IPS.

Her new attitude is one reflection of the changes brought about by Creating Opportunities, a programme run by the Population Council, a U.S.-based international public health NGO, in the provinces of Alta Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Sololá, Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango and Chiquimula.

The programme targets girls between the ages of eight and 18, with the aim of empowering rural communities and creating “safe spaces” where they can gather and develop self-esteem, life and leadership skills, and hopes and plans for the future.

“We want to make girls visible, so they can increasingly occupy public spaces, and so that those who make the decisions can no longer ignore them,” the director of the Population Council in Guatemala, Alejandra Colom, told IPS.

“The idea is for them to have more friends and mentors, to have goals – and to achieve their goals, to improve their self-esteem, and, if they want to delay marriage and have smaller families, to know how to do that,” she added.

The aim of the programme, launched in 2004, is to “break the poverty cycle and enable Guatemalan girls to reach their full potential,” the Population Council web site says.

In this Central American country of 14 million people, where half of the population lives in poverty, indigenous women are the poorest of the poor, experiencing marginalisation and discrimination.

Indigenous women account for seven of every 10 maternal deaths in the country, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in rural areas in Latin America, with 114 mothers under the age of 20 per 1,000 births, according to the 2008-2009 national maternal-infant health survey.

According to official statistics, 40 percent of the Guatemalan population is indigenous. However, native groups and international NGOs put the proportion above 60 percent.

Only 26 percent of indigenous girls who speak native languages complete primary school, compared to 45 percent of indigenous boys and 62 percent of Spanish-speaking girls, says “Girls’ Education in the 21st Century: Gender Equality, Empowerment, and Economic Growth”, a World Bank studied published in 2009.

As the Population Council web site says: “Mayan girls are the country’s most disadvantaged group, leading lives characterised by early marriage, limited schooling, frequent childbearing, social isolation, and chronic poverty.”

The Guatemalan population is growing at a dizzying rate, which fosters poverty.

The State of the World Population 2011 report released Oct. 26 by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says Guatemala has the highest fertility rate in Latin America.

Guatemalan women between the ages of 15 and 49 have an average of 3.8 children, compared to a Latin American average of 2.2.

In response to this situation, Creating Opportunities teaches girls about sexual and reproductive health. “We talk to them about what it means to have a child before the age of 20, about family planning, and about questions like ‘knowing my body’, because many girls know nothing about their bodies or about how they develop,” one of the mentors, Patricia Alva, told IPS.

The programme visits communities where women have few opportunities and issues a call for candidates who can be mentors.

The selected women then do a one-year internship in a local institution related to the issues that they will discuss with the girls, such as human rights, health and education, once they are mentors.

Before they start working with the girls, the mentors meet with the parents to decide on the “safe space” where the participants will meet for a two-hour session once a week.

But the work is not easy. “It’s hard to get the parents to give permission for their daughters to participate; we have to explain really well what it’s all about,” Hermelinda Teleguario, one of the group’s leaders, told IPS.

About 50 percent of the participants end up dropping out, mainly for economic reasons, according to the mentors.

“When they reach the age of 14 or 15, they have to start earning money, because some of the parents tell their daughters that it is no longer their responsibility to buy the girls clothes. So they start to work as domestics, in the market, or in other jobs,” Teleguario said, adding that “then the pregnancies start.”

Around 4,000 girls have participated in Creating Opportunities since 2004.

There have been several studies on the programme’s benefits.

The president’s secretariat of planning and programmes found that “97 percent of the girls taking part in Creating Opportunities did not have children during the programme, compared to an average of 78.2 percent of teenage girls of that age (15 to 19) at the national level.”

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