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Changing the Lives of Indigenous Girls in Nicaragua

Brisa is challenging gender stereotypes in Nicaragua.

At 16, Brisa has already made up her mind about her future.

“I want to change my community,” she said. “I want to change the lives of indigenous girls.”

An indigenous Miskito, Brisa is all too familiar with the extreme challenges girls face in the Miskito communities dotted all along the Atlantic coast in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region.

Marked by acute poverty and low levels of development, the region is home to the indigenous Miskito people and Afro-descendent groups grappling with economic and social marginalization.

Abject poverty and generational exclusion have combined in the region as indigenous communities find themselves beset with challenges ranging from disaffected youth and the narco-trade, to violence, drug addiction, human trafficking, and widespread sexual violence.

In almost every situation, girls are bearing the brunt of a lethal combination of social and economic issues, and experiencing some of the most extreme violations of their rights on a daily basis – mostly without any recourse. Support is hard to access for the majority of the population and for girls it is even scarcer.

They, and their plight, remain invisible.

“A number of Miskito girls of my age are already teenage mothers or pregnant,” said Brisa. “In the majority of cases it is not by choice.”

Nicaragua has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean. Brisa’s region tops the rate within the country, with one in every three teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 already a mother or pregnant with their first child.

There is no data on girls who become child mothers under the age of 15.

A new Plan International report, “Counting the Invisible,” highlights that governments will not end the abuse and inequality facing millions of girls, such as those in Brisa’s Miskito community, without better statistics on the realities of their lives.

The report includes research that sheds light on sexual abuse and other forms of violence that girls in Nicaragua routinely suffer in their surrounding environments. Of the 119 girls interviewed across the country, most reported feeling unsafe in their homes, in their relationships, and on the streets.

While girls mostly reported that they have the opportunity to finish secondary school, almost a quarter said they had to stop their education due to pregnancy or sexual harassment. The girls who are poor or from rural areas face the additional risk of being abused by their teachers.

Even in relationships, girls reported little control over their choices. While the majority said they can ask their partner or boyfriend to use a contraceptive, only 22 percent said the response would be positive – increasing their risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Brisa, however, is determined the status quo can’t continue. Supported by Plan, she is championing girls’ rights in Miskito communities and challenging gender stereotypes.

“I go door to door in my community and speak to teenage girls and boys about sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies, and many other issues,” she said. “We have now formed a small youth group and hold regular informal discussions with young men on how to treat girls with respect and how to act responsibly.”

Brisa knows this effort alone is not enough. Encouraged by the response and the impact she has had in her community, she has now hit the radio waves.

She now presents a dedicated program targeting youth on a local radio station hugely popular among local indigenous communities. “From teen pregnancy to domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual and reproductive health – the show tackles a range of social issues affecting my people and community,” she said.

“We strongly feel that youth advocates like Brisa can reach and inspire other young people beyond their community,” said Pilar Mueller, Plan’s program unit manager in Brisa’s region.. “Brisa can inspire a disaffected generation, and radio was the best way to overcome the distance barrier and reach out to Miskito youth across the region.”

The impact is all evident. Brisa’s program is listened to by thousands of young people.

Plan is working in 27 communities in Brisa’s region and reaching thousands of girls and boys through its programs.

For a Miskito girl, Brisa’s success is nothing short of a miracle. From a shy introverted girl growing up among nine siblings in a hostile community, Brisa has transformed into a forceful champion of girls’ rights.

Brisa knows she has set a monumental goal for herself, but she is confident she will achieve it.

"I want a change in the lives of indigenous girls,” she said. “I want them to have the power to say no and to decide for themselves.”

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