When was the last time you asked for permission?

By Catherine Rolfe
June 28, 2019

These are some of the girls who told us about education and expectations for women in Guatemala, and explained how you’re changing their lives through Plan. 

There was one sentence I heard a lot more than I expected on my recent trip to Guatemala: me da permiso.

It means “he gives me permission” or “she gives me permission,” depending on the context. The first time I heard the phrase on the trip was in a room of young women talking about school — or, more specifically, about the chance to go to school. Less than 40% of Guatemalan students attend school beyond sixth grade. Girls in rural, indigenous areas — faced with the limitations of traditional gender roles and unaffordable fees for uniforms and transportation — are even less likely to continue their educations.

To counter these obstacles, Plan International offers scholarships to at-risk girls. But money seemed like only half the battle. When I asked how girls talked to their parents about going to school, hand after hand launched into the air. Some of the stories ended in tears. One girl remembered her father’s justification for keeping her at home, saying that women belong in the house.

But most of the stories were less black and white. The parents they described were not cruel or sexist; they were desperate, barely getting by. Someone needed to make the food or take care of the younger children. And so, the daughters didn’t get permiso to go to school; they stayed home.

I heard a similar story when I talked to a young woman named Angélica. She was in her early 20s and had dropped out after primary school. As the oldest daughter in her family, she felt a responsibility to help her mother with the household chores.

“I saw my mom at home alone, and I thought it would be better not to continue my studies,” she told me, with a sideways look at her mother next to her.

So, that was her life for the next eight or nine years: washing clothes, preparing food and mopping the floor. Until she decided to try at something new: entrepreneurship.

Today, Angelica is working with a group of other young women to open a small convenience store in their community. They formed the idea as part of Connection to Success, a Plan training program for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“We see how, in my village, it’s difficult to go into town to buy your things,” she explained. “It would be better, we thought, to sell them right there in our village.”

Through the Plan program, Angélica’s business won seed capital to get the project off the ground. Now, they’re getting ready to start stocking the shelves with things like flour, beans and corn.

I asked Angélica what her boyfriend thinks of the business.

“Well, he is happy, and gives me permission to go,” she said.

Again, me da permiso. I wondered if her meaning was getting lost in translation.

“Do you have to ask for permission?” I asked her.

“Yes, I have to ask,” she answered, without hesitating. “Because if I don’t, he’ll get a little angry with me. So, it’s better to ask for permission.”

Did she really mean permission, in the way a child needs to ask their legal guardian for permission to attend a field trip? Or did she merely mean that it’s good to talk over big decisions with your partner, to get their opinion and gain their support?

I don’t know. From what I know about (and saw in) Guatemala, gender roles are pretty traditionally defined, especially in communities like Angélica’s. So that’s probably what’s expected of young women like her.

It would feel good to pretend this is just a Guatemala problem. That here in the United States, in my own culture, in my own life, we’ve got equality figured out.

But then, I think about my friend whose boyfriend wouldn’t let her cut her hair. I think about how it’s still normal for a man to ask a woman’s father for her hand in marriage. I think about how, with almost every man I’ve dated, I’ve felt like I had to explain why I want to split the dinner bill.

It’s not enough to just tell women to stop asking for permission — this behavior didn’t develop in a vacuum. Who taught us that we had to ask for permission, and why?

Answering that question truthfully might feel uncomfortable. But without honest reflection, we will never be able to truly snuff out sexism and gender inequality.


For more about this trip to Guatemala, and Plan’s programs there, check out this blog from Plan International USA President & CEO Dr. Tessie San Martin.