Student at La Puerta Abierta. Photo by Mady Park.
Orange County School of the Arts

Evolving opportunities for girls pursuing education in Guatemala

Of the averaged 65 percent of children enrolled in secondary schooling in Guatemala, as low as 59.2 percent complete 9th grade, and of that group, only 18.3 percent enroll in higher education, according to the Global Education Fund. In addition, of the 2 million children not enrolled in school, the majority are indigenous girls occupying rural regions of the country. Over 50 percent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, and less than 30 percent of girls belonging to indigenous communities are enrolled in secondary school.

In rural communities, children’s roles increasingly involve providing income for the family rather than pursuing an education. Half of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line, partially rooting the issue in perpetual poverty. Furthermore, for girls, it is not unusual to leave school early in preparation for marriage. According to UNICEF, as of 2016, 30 percent of Guatemala’s female married population is under the age of 18. Although the government recently increased the legal age to marry for girls from 14 to 18, pervasive expectations for women to stay confined to the domestic sphere often overpower girls’ interests in schooling and continued education.

Quality of education is an issue as well. About nine out of 10 schools in rural Guatemala lack textbooks. This shortage of resources and educational material often results in students facing a decision between continuing to study at a poorly-equipped facility or seeking work to earn money for the family.

Underfunding by the Guatemalan government is another contributor to the state of education in the country. About 18.5 percent of government spending is allotted to education. This meager investment isn’t enough to reverse the entrenched standards of education or address the lack of resources and well-trained educators that lend to the discouragement of the youth from pursuing an education.

In assessing the flaws in the education system, the legacies of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war certainly cannot be discounted. Reverberations of brutality and displacement still rattle through Guatemalan society, especially indigenous communities, where many are still struggling to regain economic stability following the ravages of war. Many communities’ sense of stability remains ruptured from the traumas that resulted in over 200,000 dead and thousands more dislocated from their homes; the Mayan population in particular has been left to grapple with the fragments of their cultural identity strewn across the Western and Central Highlands.

All of these factors lend to high drop out and illiteracy rates throughout Guatemala. Some groups maintain more agency than others. As a result of prevailing patriarchal notions of domesticity and maternal duty, girls belonging to indigenous communities are the most disadvantaged population in pursuit of an education in Guatemala. On average, indigenous women are exposed to only 1.8 years of education.

It is a far easier task to identify the various factors that funnel into the grander issue than it is to begin comprehensively taking action to improve the Guatemalan education system. How can widespread distribution of educational materials and resources be achieved without increased federal funding? How can teachers increasingly begin to seek employment in rural communities rather than more urbanized centers when they can expect insufficiently equipped facilities and lower pay? How can societal expectations limiting girls’ potential begin to be consciously dismantled?

At La Puerta Abierta, the concept of allowing children to self-actualize their potential to sustain their investment in school is cemented as the cornerstone of the school’s philosophy. Beginning as a humble library in Santiago Atitlan, La Puerta Abierta has evolved into a primary school serving preschool to 4th grade students. The school aims to “empower children to use creativity, critical thinking and literacy to become innovative problem solvers,” and to instill in their students that they have the capacity to pursue their ambitions through the implementation of out-of-the-box methods.

This encouragement is especially vital for young girls, who often grow up immersed in an environment that constrains girls to roles as mothers and keepers of the home, rather than exposing them to a full array of options and career paths.

Although I had only a couple of days with the students at La Puerta Abierta, the profound application of the school’s initiative was tangible in the atmosphere on campus. During a variety of action and art-infused activities, all of the teachers were receptive to their students, approaching them with a genuine kindness and respect. In response, the students were driven, intrigued, and attentive. They were engaged during instruction, even after candy-induced jitters. They marveled at the nearby Lake Atitlan during our nature walk, and asked to stay longer. Groups of girls stayed inside the classroom during recess to practice addition and subtraction.

Through my time working with the first grade and second grade students, I was able to teach alongside Isabelle Chiviliv, the first grade teacher and English instructor at the school. She participated in a short interview with me, and we discussed the factors influencing the disproportionate challenges faced by girls surrounding education, and how this is changing.

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?

First, I was studying in my school, but after my graduation I started to work at La Puerta Abierta, teaching new ideas for children, and teachers, too, because at La Puerta Abierta we are working with teachers and students and trying to change the system in Guatemala about education.

To you, what are the most valuable characteristics to have present in a classroom?

A lot of things; we are trying to make connections to help students, through art or the games they are learning. They are playing games, but they are learning, and the teachers are always thinking about games and teaching games.

How long have you been teaching at La Puerta Abierta?

This is my first year.

What distinguishes La Puerta Abierta from other schools in the region?

I think that when I am trying to learn new ideas I can come to La Puerta Abierta because we are trying to change the system in Guatemala, where the teachers stay in the classroom teaching, teaching, and teaching while the children are sitting in a chair at a desk. We are trying to change that system, so that children can touch things, can see, can do an investigation and connect themselves with the things they are learning.

What is your personal experience with education?

My experience as a student was really good, I think, because I was starting with awesome people who are helping me now and were helping me when I was a little student. That was very good for me, because I don’t remember something really bad with friends or with teachers… I had a good experience.

What is the expectation for girls in Guatemala in terms of education?

I’m thinking about girls all the time because the future is not really good for the girls…. It’s really difficult. The girls don’t get to have a lot of experiences in their lives because the future is challenging for them. They can’t study because they are girls and they will be married, they have to be in the house… But my idea for them is that they can do a lot of things in the country and they can connect themselves with their mind and live the dreams that they have, and they can. I’m working with girls because they have to believe in themselves; they can do a lot of things and change a lot of ideas. The future is really difficult, and we have to change that, to have a good life.

What ideas do you have to help girls who are facing the kinds of difficulties surrounding education?

Working with them to have an early education; sometimes we need to have an early education to have an open mind when we are growing. I think we have to help them to have the experience about their dreams because if we are stopping them, they will need to do other things.

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