Travis Ning the Executive Director of Starfish One by One invited me to attend a monthly meeting held at their office early one Sunday morning. These meetings offer teenage (and occasionally a bit older) participants a chance to share experiences and how they are doing in the intense and expansive program. The fifteen young women attending this morning have been recipients of Starfish’s scholarships since 2008. They were selected due to their inability to continue in secondary school. Now, almost through high school, they have a cherished history of exerting positive peer pressure on each other. They certainly need this kind of solid support system because they are often the most educated people in their families and, when they graduate, they will have more schooling than most females in their pueblos.
Sadly, completing high school is the exception in Guatemala. And, most indigenous girls do not go further than 7th grade. Mr. Ning says, “By the time girls are 12 their schooling is considered a “double burden”— they can clean houses, cook and watch the younger children. And, so, their further schooling deprives the family of an additional helper or income generator and besides that, sending a girl on to high school is a luxury that few can afford.” ($250 of the $1,000/per student cost of the Starfish One by One program goes toward covering direct school costs – books, fees, transportation and, when necessary, uniforms.)
Starfish One by One’s program directors and mentors tackle the four primary obstacles to girls’ education in Guatemala:
Poverty (endemic in the Highlands and especially among indigenous people)
Structural problems – such as distant and/or mediocre schools.
Family issues – at the least the parent’s lack of education and sometimes alcoholism and abuse
Social constraints – conditions that tend to disfavor Mayans and females.
The program offsets these negative impacts through:
Scholarships that lift the quotidian burdens of higher education and, to a lesser degree, help to mitigate the negative structural effects. Four parent meetings a year encourage them to be aware of their daughter’s current status and to celebrate and support her progress.
Regular weekly meetings/mentoring sessions are intended to bolster self esteem and to build confidence in the face of unfavorable norms.
Besides these gentle, strategic interventions, Starfish One by One seeks “spaces of collaboration” and additional ways to create conditions for academic success. For example, they may present Save the Children’s financial planning training (that includes starting a bank account in grade school) or use Wing’s reproductive education module or abstract from an environmental group’s program promoting stewardship. These are additional “gifts” that the program provides on the way to empowering the girls.
“In the beginning, many of the girls wanted to be doctors or lawyers. So we bring different kinds of professionals to talk about their work. There was one doctor, who was very honest. He said that studying medicine was the hardest thing he had ever done; that he wanted to quit many times. After that, only a few raised their hands when we asked who wants to be a doctor,” recalled Mr. Ning.
“We are doing one thing – girl’s empowerment and given our model, we cannot expand beyond 300. We want to do a lot for a few instead of doing a little for a lot. ‘The Girl Effect’ is the best way to tackle the otherwise daunting list of problems in Guatemala like malnutrition, environmental degradation, or economic exclusion” Mr. Ning concluded.