Guatemala is celebrating Children’s Day Oct. 1. Sending out best wishes to the beautiful children and their loving families in ChildFund programs and across the country.
As U.S. children head back to school this week, Rosa Figueroa on our ChildFund Guatemala staff shared this story. It caused me to reflect on just how important education is to children in ChildFund’s programs.
Miguelito, who lives in the Quiché indigenous area of Guatemala, is 9 years old. He lives with his parents María, 26, and Francisco, 27, who earn their living by weaving traditional clothes and selling them at markets. Miguelito has three sisters Jessica, 4, Leslie, 3, and Sucely, 2. They share a small adobe house, and, like everyone else in their small community, they subsist on greens, beans and rice.
The community has a small health center and one school.
Now in his third year of primary school, Miguelito’s grades are great. He likes language class best, but writing and drawing are close seconds. His love for learning began with his participation in ChildFund Guatemala’s ECD project, Play With Me. Now that he’s school age, he shines in the Let Me Tell You program, where children improve their self-expression and confidence through games, theater and other activities.
“I like to paint, write and to participate in different activities. One of my dreams is to study really hard to become a doctor to help people in my community and to support my family,” says Miguelito. “When I finish my homework from school I help my father carry wood from the field to our house; we use it to cook. Sometimes I play soccer, I love to do this!”
María, Miguelito’s mother, is pleased with her son’s progress and spirit. “My child was very shy years ago, but now he likes to talk with other people. At school he is doing well, he likes to participate more. I can see that there is a change, the self-esteem activities have helped him.”
As we celebrate International Youth Day, I want to introduce you to Benjamín, who has become a true leader for his community in Guatemala where ChildFund provides services.
Benjamín is 18 years old and is a volunteer fireman in his tiny rural town in Guatemala.
For several years Benjamín has been involved in the Active Youth program supported by ChildFund Guatemala, where girls and boys learn to develop leadership, self-confidence and other life skills. This brings them closer to achieving their dreams.
“One of the things that I enjoy the most is helping people in my way — that’s why I decided to become a volunteer fireman,” Benjamín explains. “I feel very satisfied, because being a fireman is not easy and there are many risks. But that doesn’t matter when I know that I’m going to help and save others.”
For Benjamín, leadership is an important part of his life because of what he has learned in the Active Youth project and in his job as fireman.
“Leadership means dedication, time, love, strength, charisma and service. I am a good example for my community because now I can teach others how to make a difference and share with them the sense of responsibility,” Benjamín says.
As I wrap up my trip to Guatemala, I wanted to tell you about yet another remarkable young woman I met this week who is benefitting from ChildFund programs.
María, 19, is one of 80 girls currently participating in the Strong Families program, a new initiative ChildFund Guatemala is leading with the financial support of UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization.
This program engages teens and builds their awareness of how key decisions impact their lives. The goal is to strengthen relationships among children, youth and their parents and open up honest dialogue around tough topics such as parents’ use of harsh discipline at home, teen pregnancy and early marriage, which is still negatively impacting young girls in Guatemala’s rural indigenous communities. With education and more conversations among peers and families, we’re gradually seeing positive changes for children and youth.
These cultural shifts are being achieved by involving mothers, young girls and community leaders in four municipalities in the Guatemalan provinces of Huehuetenango and Totonicapán.
As María, the oldest of eight siblings, explains: “When I first started participating in this program, I did not have the confidence to talk to my parents about my dreams or what I wanted to do in my life. My father didn’t want me to attend because he said that I was coming only to find a husband. Now they understand that I’m not interested in marrying very young; I have dreams for my life, I want to keep studying, go to university and become an anthropologist.”
Having the support of community leaders like Pedro is critical to the program’s success. “I’m proud and thankful that these dialogues among young girls and their parents are happening, that they all know more now about their rights. This is a positive change,” he says.
“We have learned to motivate our children and recognize their achievements at school and at home,” says Rosa, one of the mothers. “When children receive motivation they open up and share, and we can understand each other better,” she adds.
The Strong Families initiative is already having a positive impact on many young girls. Voices that were not being heard now have a say in decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
Earlier this week, Marcela, 17, who lives in a small village five hours from Guatemala City, opened the door of her home to us. She had a special story to share, as she comes from a community where girls used to marry as young as age 14. Many times the marriages were arranged by parents, or the girls were seeking to escape negligence, poverty or violence at home. Some were pregnant.
Marcela’s path has been different. She started participating in ChildFund programs at the age of 13. “Now, I can say that ChildFund changed my life in many ways,” she says. “I learned about my rights, responsibilities and obligations. I know that both men and women have the same rights and none is better than the other. Also, now I know about my rights as a girl and about my value as a woman that is worth so much and is so special that not even a millionaire would be able to pay for it,” she asserts.
It’s that confidence that gave her the courage to avoid early marriage. “My parents wanted me to get married when I was 14. The family of a neighboring boy came to ask for me, but I didn’t want to [marry] and didn’t know what to do,” she says.
“Look at me,” she exclaims. “I’m very young and skinny, and I started thinking in one year from now I will have children, and I’m not ready. I knew my rights and that no one would be able to force me, and I didn’t accept because I wanted a different future for me and my family. I talked to my parents and told them that I was not prepared, and I really wanted to continue studying and later get married.
“It was not easy,” says Marcela, with tears in her eyes, “but I thank my parents, because at the end, they were able to listen and understood my decision.”
The eldest of four siblings, Marcela is in her third year of secondary school. She says one of her goals is to continue studying and go to college, something that is not very common for girls her age in Guatemala’s rural, indigenous communities.
Marcela´s mother, María, tells us that the ChildFund-supported youth projects in her community have been good for her daughter. “Before, Marcela was a shy girl and she did not like to talk to people. Now, I am also participating as a guide mother, teaching other mothers about how to better raise their children, early stimulation for the little ones, how to play with them and to have a better communication with the elder ones,” says María.
María says she did not know anything about children’s rights when she got married at age 14. At that time she didn’t have another option, as women in her community were not even able to talk in public. Seeing Marcela develop confidence and complete her education is a great source of happiness for María. Marcela is even teaching her mother how to write and read.
“I am proud of myself,” Marcela says, “and I can see how things are changing.” In fact, Marcela has become a role model for other girls in her community. She advocates for girls to continue with their education and delay marriage until they are ready.
Marcela is a good indicator of how aspects of the Guatemalan culture are changing for the better. It’s fantastic to see entire communities break from patterns and traditions that are harmful to children, such as early or forced marriage.
“ChildFund projects for youth and adolescents are making a big difference and promoting social change in our communities,” says Mario Lima, ChildFund’s national director in Guatemala. The programs focus on youth empowerment and children’s rights.
Marcela is actively participating in the Youth Speakers in Action project, which equips adolescents and youth to become leaders in their communities.
Marcela tells me that she wants to continue studying to become a medical doctor. She knows that it is an expensive and a tough career. Yet, I’m confident that Marcela’s dream will become true.
I just met two great children, Gabriela and Gerson, 10 and 8, respectively. These two stood up in front of about 100 people and presented on ChildFund Guatemala’s “I Learn” project, during a special event held in the city of Quetzaltenango.
The “I Learn” project helps children succeed in school by focusing on “improving critical thinking and logic, math and communications skills through reading and writing” explains Julio Tuy, ChildFund manager of the K’iché area, one of the most impoverished areas of Guatemala.
School dropout is a big challenge in this country with great economic disparity. Children sometimes fall behind in learning because they face financial and logistical challenges that keep them from school. Many struggle to work and attend school at the same time. Children in rural areas typically travel long distances to school, and their families simply don’t have the financial resources to support them.
“Children who have fallen behind decide to drop out of school because they feel ashamed of being in a class with younger children who are learning faster,” adds Tuy. Through the “I Learn” project, ChildFund is helping ensure that children master critical basics and stay on track for their grade levels. This initiative is currently reaching more than 8,600 children around the country in 57 schools.
ChildFund has been able to expand the program across Guatemala, working through Ministry of Education alliances to incorporate the methodology into the curriculum. It’s a remarkable achievement. Even more impressive is seeing the skills that these interactive projects are developing in children, and how we are incorporating local cultural elements and materials into the learning process.
Gabriela and Gerson have clearly gained strong communication skills, as they spent a lot of time asking me questions and sharing their achievements and dreams. Both children proudly showed me medals they had won in mathematics and spelling contests in their province.
“When I grow up, I want to continue studying and be a president like you,” says Gabriela. (No, I didn’t prompt her!) Gerson wants to join the army to “help people, and be able to save them from thieves and bandits.”
Great children! I’m looking forward to meeting more as my Guatemalan journey continues this week.