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Overcoming barriers in Central America

 IPS 14 March 2019

Amarilis Chilel, 15, left her hometown of Ixchiguán in northwest Guatemala to work as a domestic in the capital: a common story among rural girls and women in Central America. "I went to school up to fourth grade," she told IPS. (1048 Words) - By Danilo Valladares


IPS_Overcoming barriers in Central America

Guatemalan women learn hairdressing skills at a training school. Photo: Danilo Valladares/IPS

The teenager, who belongs to the Mam community, one of the main Mayan native groups in Guatemala, says her father tried without success to convince her to stay in school.

But since she began working eight months ago, she sends him the equivalent of 43 dollars, exactly half of her monthly wage, to help support her three younger sisters.

Chilel still dreams of becoming a schoolteacher. "Next year I'll go back to school," she says while getting ready to clean the house and make lunch for the family she works for.

Like her, thousands of Central American women face innumerable economic and social barriers to education and training, which severely limit their job opportunities.

This year, the theme of International Women's Day, celebrated Mar. 8, is "Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women", considered essential to breaking down the discrimination faced by so many women around the world.

In Guatemala, for example, "At age seven, only 54 percent of Mayan girls are in school, compared with 71 percent of Mayan boys and 75 percent of Ladina (persons of mixed race ancestry) girls," says a 2007 study by the U.S.-based Population Council, a non-governmental organisation that advocates reproductive rights.

"Girls in Central America tend to drop out of school mainly because they have to work, or because their parents have to work and they have to take care of their younger siblings and the housework," Laura Verdugo, at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) office in Guatemala, told IPS.

Paradoxically, "Girls and women in the region have a high level of academic performance. So when they do make it to secondary school, they are more likely to finish their studies than boys," she added.

In the case of Guatemala, Verdugo said an essential measure was the government's announcement that public school was effectively free of cost as of 2009. Although the right to free education is enshrined in the constitution, until that year schools required payment for services, which limited access for children from poor families.

In Guatemala, more than half the population of 14 million lives in poverty and 17 percent in extreme poverty, according to United Nations figures. And while official statistics put the proportion of indigenous people at 40 percent of the population, native organisations say the proportion is more than 60 percent.

In 2000, eight out of 10 indigenous Guatemalans were poor, compared to four out of 10 for the rest of the population -- numbers that have seen little change since 2006, according to a government report presented in late 2010.

The challenge is to improve the quality of education, and make the system more flexible in terms of schedules, attendance and the school calendar, Verdugo said.

The setbacks and challenges for achieving equality in education are also seen in the rest of Central America. "My parents were really poor, and they couldn't afford to send me to school. That's why I only went up to third grade," 62-year-old Yolanda Urroz from Nicaragua told IPS.

But today, Nicaraguan girls have more opportunities in education, "although there is still discrimination, and a lot of machismo," she said.

Urroz, a mother of four, was just a girl when she began to work as a street vendor in a city market in the northwestern Nicaraguan province of Chinandega, to help support her family.

Four years ago she emigrated to the Guatemalan capital with her four children in search of opportunities, and now works behind the counter in a bakery. "If I would have studied, ooooooh," she says, implying that she would have been much better off.

But studies are no guarantee for a good job. Cristina Martínez, a 53-year-old Guatemalan business administrator, told IPS about the age discrimination she suffers.

"In one company they told me that because of my age, they would do me the 'favour' of paying me 1,800 quetzals (225 dollars) a month -- for a senior-level position. You can just imagine that someone with experience can't accept that salary for that level of responsibility," she complained.

Martínez said that a man "wouldn't be mistreated for his age, like we are." She added that women have greater difficulties studying and advancing in their careers "because we also have to take care of the home and the children."

In this region, even though women outnumber men at some levels of education, they are still more likely to work in the informal sector, in precarious jobs, and they still earn less than men, experts point out.

The situation in Honduras is a case in point. The director of the government's National Women's Institute, María Antonieta Botto, explained that in her country, "the rate of girls between the ages of five and 18 who attend an educational institution is 60.7 percent, compared to 57.6 percent for boys.

"Nevertheless, women earn 66 percent of what men earn, for the same work," she said, explaining that Honduras has launched a Gender Equality and Equity Plan to turn this situation around.

Alejandro Benítez, the director of the training school for the Local Economic Development Agencies (LEDAs) and Services Centres for Women Entrepreneurship (CSEM), has no doubt that training is the key to achieving gender equality.

"Economic empowerment for women" depends on training, he said, adding that they "are generally excluded from such programmes."

The school, based in El Salvador and sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), is training some 2,000 women from that country, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in entrepreneurial and business skills, and helps them get access to credit.

"Women must be empowered, because they invest in the health and education of their children, in home improvements, and in their companies, which means the impact in terms of the quality of life for their families is greater," he said.

Originally published by Inter Press Service. ©

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