PANAJACHEL, GUATEMALA — For most, sex education brings back memories of stuffy classrooms, sweaty palms, and barely-muffled giggles at anatomical buzzwords. But for the female mentors of Abriendo Oportunidades (AO), a non-governmental organization in rural Guatemala, sex-ed isn’t a lesson in embarrassing demonstrations or awkwardly drawn diagrams — it’s a lesson in human rights.
“I am going to read out your six sexual rights in my indigenous language,” says Rosa Guit on a rainy afternoon in March. She and 10 other women have traveled 10 hours by car to Panajachel, a lake town in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala to show a group of journalists a typical lesson they give to the girls in their areas.
“One: The right to decide the form of protection you use,” Guit reads from a white poster board outlined in yellow construction paper propped up next to her. “Two: The right to exercise sexuality without suffering force or violence.” Guit goes on to list the four other sexual rights before her: The right to consent to sex; the right to legal aid; the right to a sexual education; and the right to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. These, she explains, while seemingly innate to us, are privileges most Guatemalan girls don’t know they have.
The NGO, which launched in 2004, helps adolescent girls improve their self-confidence by fostering dialogue when it comes to gender relationships and violence in their communities. The curriculum goes far beyond biology, helping girls think critically about gender analysis, personal and cultural identity, and sexual and reproductive health.
“What we want is for them to continue studying and for them to know what their rights are,” Elva Tzoc, another one of the mentors, tells me. “And for them to have a plan on what to do with their lives,” she adds.
Since the program was founded 12 years ago, AO’s female mentors have reached close to 14,000 adolescent girls in 150 communities all over Guatemala.
While they are serious about the job at hand, the lessons themselves certainly allow for some silliness. Halfway through the presentation, Tzoc, makes us choose a partner and circle up in the middle of the room. She tells us to repeat after her.
“This is my house,” she chants gesturing to her body. “This is my neighbor’s house.” Tzoc gestures to her partner’s body.
“This is my door,” she says placing one hand on her mouth. “This is my neighbor’s door.” She places a hand on her partner’s.
The frumpy journalists and aid workers in the room were undeniably transported to the discomfort of their school days, and the awkwardness was not alleviated as Tzoc moved from door, to window (eyeball), pillow (breast), kitchen (belly), ventilator (behind), and faucet (crotch).
By the end, everyone was laughing, and a lot closer with one another.
Tzoc explained they used this exercise to emphasize that it’s OK to feel discomfort when being touched by a stranger, and help girls learn their own physical boundaries. This general lack of awareness goes beyond physicality. “Girls don’t know what their rights are,” she tells me. “So people say that girls don’t have the right to study, just boys. And people say that women’s rights are at a lower level than men’s rights.”
For AO, keeping girls in school is essential to fostering sexual safety and wanted pregnancies. Every day, six girls under the age of 14 become mothers in Guatemala, and 90 percent of the girls who get pregnant drop out of school. In addition, 70 percent of girls in Guatemala finish primary school, a lower rate than Latin America’s overall 90 percent. And, while maternal mortality rates have decreased somewhat in the country, the trend has not extended to girls 15-19 years of age. With the United States’ recent decision to defund the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) — which funds the majority of AO — these statistics are only expected to get worse.
“I’m really convinced of the impact this program can have in the life of girls in a country where girls are not worth much,” said Aída Verónica Simán, the Guatemala representative for UNFPA. “But this defunding of UNFPA is something that will affect this and other programs that we conduct because we will have less resources to do it.”
Therefore it’s clear why aid organizations see the child pregnancy problem as directly linked to the lack of education girls receive.
But talking about sexual reproductive health in an extremely Christian country has not been easy for the AO mentors, some of whom know people who have experienced sexual violence, or have experienced it themselves.
Cecilia Toc told me it was difficult to go to rural communities and teach women about sex and contraception because parents would assume their daughters would start having sex once they learned what it was. “Parents,” she said, “for them it’s taboo to talk about that subject. Because they think that [their daughters are] going to start practicing genital sex.”
Matilde Choc, who works with Toc, nodded her head in agreement and expressed frustration with the patriarchal nature of these small communities in general. “Very often the leaders won’t give us a safe space for our meetings so we just organize the meetings under a tree,” she said.
With their students, the girls approach three relationship dynamics: a girl and her boyfriend; a girl and her father; and a girl and her mother. Boyfriends, Guit says, will force their girlfriends to have sex as “proof of love.” It is also common for fathers in these rural communities to abuse their daughters while their wives are at the market. But above all, the mentors are concerned with the mother-daughter relationship, because they see it as a potential pathway to education.
“I think mother to daughter, the lack of information — access to information — that’s very common,” Tzoc said. “[Girls] don’t have any information about changes in their bodies or about their rights. And the mothers always ask us to continue to support the girls as well so that they don’t suffer the problems that they suffered.”
The mentors and their subjects are concerned with their future, while an existence of one for their program remains grim.
Tzoc fiddles with her blue traditional Mayan blouse and speaks to her companions in her indigenous tongue. Then she turns to me.
“Alone, we can’t do this.”
Ruby Mellen is a reporter for Foreign Policy. Follow her on Twitter here. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a fellowship with the United Nations Foundation.