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Creating a Safe Space for Young Mayan Girls

Women Deliver 50 Winner Abriendo Oportunidades Helps Empower Young Mayan Girls

 Claudia*, a Mayan girl visiting from her village home in El Cerro Grande, arrived at a Guatemala City hospital with severe abdominal pains. After a brief medical exam she was released by the doctor, who found nothing wrong with her.

Claudia belongs to Guatemala’s most disadvantaged group: indigenous young females. Girls like her typically live in isolated rural communities with limited access to basic services like water, sanitation, passable roads, schooling, and health care. Their lives are marked by early marriage, frequent childbearing, social isolation, violence, and chronic poverty. Often they are disregarded by more affluent Guatemalans, like the doctor who examined her.

Given her background, Claudia might have accepted the doctor’s dismissal of her symptoms. She might have left the hospital in pain and suffered with the infection later diagnosed as appendicitis. But Claudia is no ordinary girl. She is an Abriendo Oportunidades (“Opening Opportunities”) girl.

To help Claudia and girls like her reach their full potential, the Population Council works with the public sector, local government, and nongovernmental organizations to administer and evaluate Abriendo Oportunidades, a program that provides safe spaces where girls can develop friendships, play sports, interact with older female mentors who serve as role models, and learn practical skills like managing their health and their finances. The girls also receive paid internships that provide income and experience. These opportunities change the way girls think about themselves and their abilities—and, as they take on new roles in the community, they help to change the way their families and communities think about the value of girls.

With the self-confidence and help of friendships nurtured at Abriendo, Claudia recognized the doctor’s biased attitudes. She sought the care she knew and believed she deserved. At a second hospital she was correctly diagnosed and treated, and today she is healthy as a result of her own actions.

Abriendo is part of a sisterhood of programs for adolescent girls created by the Population Council to empower the poorest girls in the poorest communities. Two similar Council programs, Ishraq (“Sunrise”) for out-of-school girls in conservative rural Upper Egypt and Biruh Tesfa (“Bright Future”) for domestic servants in the urban capital of Ethiopia, were also recognized by Women Deliver’s expert panel. By administering and evaluating these programs, the Council provides evidence that shows developing countries the value of investing in girls’ lives.

Now that we’ve demonstrated the power of Abriendo, the Council’s goal is to support the continued expansion of the program into a national network of regularly evaluated girls clubs. Most Abriendo girls remain connected to each other and the program through a rural girls’ network, contributing to the program’s sustainability and growth. “Graduates” are hired for supervisory positions to expand the effort. Many have continued their education and found jobs. Further, most stay in their communities, where they become leaders, advocates, and examples of and catalysts for social change. Eventually, the program will be fully self-supported and girl-powered, fueled by the resources and energy channeled back into the clubs by each successive group of newly empowered graduates.

*Names have been changed for privacy 

Abriendo Oportunidades is a winner of the Women Deliver 50. This was originally published on Women Deliver’s website. 

Jennifer Catino and Alejandra Colom work with the Population Council and Abriendo Oportunidades