Postcards from Guatemala: Girls’ journey to self-reliance

June 12, 2019

Baja Verapaz is one of Guatemala’s 22 departments. About 300,000 inhabitants, 60% of whom are from indigenous communities, live in this area. Sixty-six percent of them live in dire poverty.

Guatemala is a lower middle-income country with the largest economy in Central America. It is, according to the World Bank, the strongest economic performer in the region, with gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates of 3-4% between 2012 and today. There are signs of economic prosperity throughout its capital, Guatemala City: gleaming malls, high-end neighborhoods and modern office buildings.

But the benefits of this growth have not been widely shared.

Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and poverty hits indigenous people the hardest. Official figures indicate that 52% of the people living in poverty in the country are indigenous. Guatemalans are also quite young, with about 50% of the population under the age of 19 (58% are under 24 in Baja Verapaz). Despite this tremendous source of vitality and energy for the country and its economy, this “youth bulge” will not be productive unless the young people have the skills needed to succeed in a modern economy.

Right now, the unemployment rate for young people under 24 is five times higher than for those 25 and older. Access and attendance to post primary school is a major challenge. While Guatemala has a relatively high primary school attendance (at 85%, though that has been declining from a high of 94% in 2010), it also has the worst middle and high school attendance rate in Central America. Dropout rates are particularly bad for girls.

One of the most successful of Plan’s interventions focuses on increasing the rate of children, especially girls, who stay in school past primary grades. Plan offers scholarships, which are essentially conditional cash transfers to families, targeting girls who have completed primary school. The program recognizes that poverty (and the inability to pay for basics like books) is a major obstacle to children continuing in school.

Poverty is not the only impediment. Families often do not see much value in educating girls. Plan, its local partners and volunteers set up counseling sessions for parents to highlight the importance of girls continuing their educations. We leverage our existing relationships with families through our child sponsorship program to more easily counsel and monitor. Currently, more than 3,600 Guatemalan adolescents, two-thirds girls, benefit from these scholarships. These efforts have seen great success. Plan reports that 97 to 98% of the children receiving scholarships successfully complete their school year. With the families and girls so invested, we are also seeing them and their families more likely to continue on to and complete secondary school.

Plan has a variety of other programming that complements this effort, enhancing the likelihood that this initial investment in schooling then leads to successful transitions to high school and employment. One such complementary program is the Plan Leadership and Empowerment Academy. This program targets girls in the middle school and high school age range. The academy teaches girls about their rights and coaches them on how to take care of themselves. But it mostly, according to the girls themselves, gives them self-confidence in their abilities and increases their self-esteem — important elements in a male-dominated culture in which women are generally not valued the same as men.

Another complementary program takes place in Centros Tecnológico or Technology Centers, targeting 16- to 24-year-olds. In addition to teaching youth basic IT skills (computer basics, hardware repair and graphic design), the program also teaches important soft skills needed to successfully find employment and excel in the workplace (basic job interviewing skills, for example). Importantly, the centers also focus on entrepreneurship training, helping new businesses get established, including getting their formal licenses. Graduates of the entrepreneurship program receive not just a certificate of completion, but also the registration for their business and seed capital in the form of grants.

The centers have been particularly successful in using the micro-franchising model. Micro-franchising gives the new entrepreneur a built-in support structure, and the new entrepreneurs manage products and services that have track records of success. The relative lack of employment opportunities in very marginalized areas like Baja Verapaz makes entrepreneurship training and incubation essential.

While more research is needed to understand how these programs affect a family’s (and even a community’s) longer-term propensity to invest in girls, leading to improved prospects for economic growth in the region, existing data and personal testimonies strongly suggest the programs do have important primary and secondary effects.

A group of young women who participated in the scholarship program shared inspiring stories on how their experience has made them more effective advocates for themselves and others, helping to open the way to more opportunities. The initial scholarship opportunity, coupled with participation in the Academy, and for some the Centro Tecnológico, motivated the girls and their parents to continue on with schooling beyond middle school. The women who graduated from these programs are now occupying positions of responsibility in local businesses and cooperatives (as managers and accountants) or the municipality (in tax collection). Their life prospects have truly been transformed, and they now serve as role models for other girls who come behind them.

Guatemalans themselves are increasingly contributing and funding the scholarships. In fact, Plan Guatemala is now mobilizing almost $500,000 a year from private and public sources in the country to support the programs. What is most encouraging is that the San Geronimo municipality, where the flagship Centro Tecnológico center is located, is so happy with the success of these centers that it is now taking on full funding.

There are no silver bullets to reduce the poverty and violence that creates pressures on migration or magic formulas that reduce dependence on outside assistance in countries like Guatemala. You chip at the problems through a variety of programs and tools. U.S. government foreign assistance emphasizes the importance of building a country’s self-reliance, so that aid is no longer needed to finance these initiatives. The fact that Plan initiatives are now increasingly financed by both overseas and local donations should make U.S. government and private overseas donors feel good about investing in Guatemala. Self-reliance is being built at the grassroots level.