The same day Malala Yousafzai was shot and nearly killed in Pakistan, Marcela stepped on the set of Huffington Post Live.
“It was so sad and I realized at that moment that I was also at risk when speaking the truth about girls and young women,” she said. “But I felt inspired by Malala, so I finished the interview and just continued my activism in New York and also in my country.”
At the time, Marcela was a Plan International Because I am a Girl ambassador. She was stepping in for a Pakistani ambassador who declined the interview due to safety concerns.
Her conversation on Huffington Post Live centered on realities girls face in her country. In El Salvador and globally, domestic violence is an accepted practice for many. Girls are oppressed, and empowerment is hard to come by.
Although there is an uphill climb for girls, Marcela found a pathway forward, finding that – as a young person – she could successfully transition into adulthood, able to see a life beyond poverty, gender inequality, and domestic violence.
Her greatest tools in her journey would be her voice and her education.
“I learned that knowledge is power, and we can create change through this,” she said.
Marcela now works for Plan International in El Salvador helping to coordinate the USAID Bridges to Employment project, aimed at creating opportunities for young people who want to work but – because of their background – are having a difficult time finding employment.
She has been a part of the Plan community since she was 11 years old.
“I started participating in a Plan project called ‘Cultura de Paz’ (Peace Culture),” she said. “Through this project I participated in many workshops where I learned about my rights as a child and as a girl. When the workshops finished, all the teens that were part of the project created a community organization aimed at raising awareness about social issues and challenges among our community’s youth. This community organization is still active but with new young people.”
Although she was young, Marcela learned that her voice mattered, regardless of her age, gender, or where she was from. She set out to use her voice to stand up for girls’ rights. At 14, she got involved with VOCES, a project aiming to share information on the rights of children and young women through radio and video, and at age 17, she became involved with Plan International’s global initiative for girls’ rights, Because I am a Girl.
As an ambassador, she participated in celebrations related to the first International Day of the Girl in New York City. She also attended the Commission on the Status of Women No. 57 at the United Nations.
Most importantly for her, she gave a voice to girls in her country facing domestic violence. Although a part of her life growing up, “Cultura de Paz” taught her that violence wasn’t acceptable.
It became her mission to teach the same lessons to others.
“My life story of domestic violence had been always a secret until I felt able to break the ice and tell the world what happened to me,” she said. “I was able to do it as an ambassador for Because I am a Girl because it’s a campaign so sensitive and close to girls’ reality around the world. We feel inspired, and we just want justice. I’ve learned as an ambassador that it’s okay to advocate for other girls who could be living in a similar, or even a worse, situation. I’ve learned as an ambassador that it is okay to fight for a better world and for a better future.
Telling my story has also helped me to cure this emotional injury.
“Now I don’t cry anymore when I tell it,” she added. “Before, it was so hard for me to speak about it.”
Marcela quickly learned that she wasn’t alone. There were many girls living a similar reality, and she could learn from them just as much as they could learn from her. Together, they were breaking free and taking a stand for their rights and against domestic violence.
“I met many other girls from other countries, all of them with very touching stories, and because of them I got enough courage to tell the world that I also lived in violence,” she said. “All our stories were very different, but we all had just one thing in common: our rights had been violated.”
“We felt inspired by each other. I could feel their energy each time I was in an interview or on a panel. When I got back to my country I started to do workshops with other girls and young women. Many times there was a girl who looked for me after the workshop to tell me that she was living or had lived in a similar situation, but that she felt inspired by me to change it or to look for help.”
Marcela’s life has been a powerful journey. From a domestic violence survivor, to an ambassador for girls’ rights, she is now back where she started – in El Salvador, working with Plan. She sees Plan beyond an employer; as a family, a school, and a home.
“Plan has helped me to live a life free of violence, taught me to advocate for my rights, and to understand that education is the only key to success,” she said.
Her mission is far from over, and her new work is helping to forge a path for youth and girls just like her through employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, and development of critical life skills. Marcela knows firsthand that young people can change the world, regardless of their gender.
“I am very excited because I know that in places like these, which are the most violent in the country, there are also many young people with dreams and goals, just waiting for an opportunity like the one I had,” she said.