Girls’ and women’s voices help shape the UNESCO Malala Centers in Guatemala

The first phase of the new project in Guatemala, under the UNESCO Malala Fund for Girls’ Right to Education, brought together indigenous girls, adolescents and women from the community in participatory workshops in Santa Maria Chiquimula and San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán, in April 2018. These workshops were conducted to enable the participating girls and women to voice their interests and needs, as well as the obstacles and challenges they continually face to access education.

In Santa Maria Chiquimula, almost half of the women who attended the workshops could not read or write, and instead used their fingerprint to register their participation. This is an occurrence all too common in the area, as Totonicapán is one of the Guatemalan regions with the lowest percentage of literate women, with 62.5% as of 2014. The average years of schooling for women in this region is 4.1, a number reflective of the fact that most women are not able to finish primary school.

Girls’ and women’s voices at the forefront

Putting girls’ and women’s voices forward and providing a space for them to share, reflect on and validate their collective experiences is significant in supporting their individual empowerment. The indigenous girls and women present at the participatory workshops listed many reasons for school dropout, ranging from a lack of economic resources and the remoteness of schools.

Some also spoke about the widespread belief that girls and women do not need education, starting at home. A young woman stated, “my father wanted me to learn to cook for when I got married, rather than waste my time with education” while another repeated her parents’ view that “a woman´s job in the house doesn’t require a diploma, while a man´s job in town might”. Many girls and women had not even questioned why they had to leave school. In most cases, when resources were limited, their brothers would be given the opportunity to attend while they stayed behind.

Despite these challenges, women saw education as a practical tool that could facilitate their daily lives and help them reach their aspirations. To face the limited job market, a woman shared “I want to learn practical skills that can help me generate my own income”.

Shaping the UNESCO Malala Centers

Listening to girls’ and women’s voices in this initial process is key to ensure the relevance and pertinence of project interventions. As women expressed their voices during the workshops, they also had the opportunity to share their wishes, needs as well as the daily challenges they face.

For one of the women, learning to read means not getting lost in the streets. For a young girl, finishing school means her dreams of becoming a teacher may come true. And for another, completing her education gives her the means to help her children with their homework. These perspectives will be included in the development and design of the UNESCO Malala Centers. Girls’ and women’s reasons, needs and interests are rooted in their own context and their life stories, and can only be understood by taking the time to listen.

The participatory workshops confirmed the importance of bringing forward and integrating the voices of girls and women in each phase of the project. Doing so not only enables the non-formal education programmes carried out in the UNESCO Malala Centers to adequately respond to women’s real obstacles and needs, but also gives them ownership of the project through their individual stories and voices.

The project in Guatemala aims to establish a local educational model – the UNESCO Malala Centers – in rural areas that will be sustainable and replicable, and build on indigenous girls’ needs, availability and interests. The educational programmes offered by the Centers will be implemented in indigenous languages, draw on indigenous culture, and build skills for personal and socioeconomic development. To carry the project, UNESCO is working with the National Literacy Committee (CONALFA), the Ministry of Education and organizations such as the National Institute for Radiophonic Education (IGER) and Fe y Alegria, in alliance with the municipalities of intervention.