Against All Odds: An Education Fairy Tale from Guatemala

In June 2011 this article was shortlisted as a finalist for the Blog4Girls competition held by Plan UK and was one of two eventual runners up.

Her bosom swells with the type of pride that is rare to see in anyone. Heartfelt and genuine, it is completely disarming and induces uncontrollable ‘sonrisas’ (smiles) in everyone in the room. Anastasia, a 37 year old indigenous woman originally from a small rural community in Guatemala is showing us a photograph of her children and husband. He is five years her junior and they married for love when she was 24. All their kids are still in school and she will ensure it stays that way, especially for her girls. Anastasia is the only one of her whole family and five siblings to ever finish secondary school, let alone go on to university. She is currently top of her class and will graduate next year to become a social worker. She now speaks five languages: three local indigenous dialects, Spanish and a little bit of English. Whilst finishing her studies, she is working two days a week at Pencils of Promise, an NGO working towards providing Schools4All.

Anastasia has beaten all the odds.

Like her Russian princess namesake, however, her ending remains purely the stuff of fairy tales that many young indigenous girls from rural Guatemala can only dream of. Take little Consuela* for instance. Barriers to her education are many and statistically her future prospects are confined to remaining  uneducated and in poverty. In a 2008 UNICEF study, the main cited reasons for absent girls in Guatemala’s schools were general poverty, cultural view of girls as inferior and embarrassment of being unable to communicate in Spanish, being teased for wearing traditional dress and often being the oldest in class through starting school late and repeating grades.

But I am not one to dwell on the negatives. It is important to celebrate ways in which young girls like Consuela can, against all odds, grow into women like Anastasia by smashing all barriers to education. After all, meeting the first six Millennium Development Goals depends on educating our girls. Whilst the economic opportunity cost of not educating young women at secondary school level is estimated to almost equal the entire OECD aid budget of over US$100billion.

So what are the solutions? The most proven results come from improving the quality of education and ensuring wider community engagement in a bottom up approach of true participation fostering real commitment to education. This is what Plan International is involved in on the ground in Guatemala. Their projects focus on the most vulnerable children and by definition large proportion of these are girls. Parent food security programmes to release girls from domestic chores and improve family nutrition get girls into school. At school, Plan tries to create a learning environment that educates students on their rights and socialises them to becomes true citizens by having class elections that mirror the national government structures. It makes learning fun and empowers girls and boys to take control of their lives by learning about their rights and different issues in society. “The girls have been amazing at working in leadership, much more than the boys!” Maria Jose Dufourq of Plan Guatemala told me when we discussed a student radio broadcast programme in one of their villages. Because of the proven results “we are more focused on gender now through our Because I am a Girl Campaign” by the Plan UK team.

To help ensure girls stay in school the NGO provides early learning centres to make the learning transition easier into primary schools; works with the government to push for bilingual and more culturally inclusive education; and provide secondary school and university level scholarships to help girls reach their full potential and blossom into empowered young women like Anastasia.

It is because Anastasia is a girl that her journey to success was not an easy one. Her tearful recount to me is an emotional story of poverty and cultural entrapment encompassing all the barriers that little Consuela now faces. All this was overcome through sheer determination, drastic measures of running away from home and a chain of chance events connecting Anastasia to international development organisations and people able and willing to help. She is inspirational, embodies female empowerment and is a powerful demonstration of the positive effect educating girls has on the quality of life of their families and wider society. And because I am also a girl, I want to do my bit by spreading the word.

What do you think about the role of girls’ education in developing countries? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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* Consuela is not her real name, although she is a real Guatemalan girl from a rural indigenous community


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