Genna Weiss's Blog

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: How Starfish One by One is Empowering Young Guatemalan Girls Through Education

Married as young as 12. A mother to seven children on average. Functionally illiterate and deeply impoverished. These are some of the common hardships that young indigenous girls in Guatemala face living in a country that ranks as one of the 10 poorest in Latin America. Leading the charge to make a difference in the lives of these young girls is Starfish One by One, a nonprofit based in Evergreen, Colorado.

In 2010, Starfish and Givology formed a partnership in which Starfish has received funding for both students and projects via Givology’s communities. Starfish was also one of the 10 programs featured in Givology’s recent $10K for 10 Schools auction. In this interview with Givology, Travis Ning, executive director for Starfish One by One, discusses how his organization’s unique educational program is bringing hope to one of the most marginalized populations in all of Guatemala.



(Travis Ning with young students from the Starfish One by One program)

Interview by Genna Weiss

Please tell us the history of Starfish One by One. How did the founders come together to establish the organization?

The concept of empowering and educating adolescent girls was born from the founders’ previous work with women’s microcredit. The founders, Ted and Connie Ning, started a program called Friendship Bridge in 1989 that still serves thousands of women in Guatemala today. Microcredit demonstrates the amazing dedication and creativity that women exhibit when given the opportunity to make their family’s lives better. Yet many of the female borrowers are facing extremely daunting circumstances: illiteracy, numerous children, and deep familial poverty.

Starfish was founded in 2007 and aims to answer the question that the microcredit experience provoked: What would these women be capable of if they had been empowered and educated before they went down the road of early marriage/child births, no education, and exclusion?

Why focus on girls’ education?

The indigenous female voice has literally never been heard in Guatemala, yet they make up almost 25 percent of Guatemala’s population. Only 5 percent of indigenous girls even finish primary school, and 70 percent of Mayan women are illiterate. The critical moment is when an indigenous girl turns age 12. This frequently coincides with puberty and the jump to middle school, and is the moment when the paths of girls and boys tend to diverge in Guatemala. Parents often view boys as a “safe investment” because they have traditionally had better access to future employment and will not be married off.

For the 12 year-old Mayan girl, too often parents relent to the “double burden” that her education represents: increased school fees and her lost labor time. A 12 year old girl in Guatemala is expected to be able to manage most of the household tasks (e.g., childcare, cooking, laundry, etc). Additionally, in conservative Mayan communities, puberty makes parents reluctant to send her off to school due to their fears of her interacting with boys. So at age 12 she literally disappears from the social sphere and often devotes herself exclusively to domestic life. Her unique talents and skills remain undeveloped and are lost. She reemerges a few years later, often in an arranged marriage and still a teenager. Frequent pregnancies follow (Guatemala has one of the highest fertility rates in Latin America) and she finds herself exactly where her mother was a few years ago: entrapped by the cycle of poverty and exclusion.

But what if she took a different path at age 12? What if she kept going with her schooling AND received the critical information (i.e., reproductive education, financial literacy, critical thinking, etc.) that would make her an empowered decision-maker as an adult? It’s a path that has rarely been blazed by indigenous women in Guatemala, but one that has the potential to transform entire families and communities.

Starfish’s own experience corroborates the global data surrounding the “Girl Effect” (the powerful benefits of educating girls). Many in the program are already by far the most educated women in their communities, and the ripple-effect is amazing. Seemingly “spontaneous” initiatives are springing up everywhere: some have launched a female literacy campaign in their community, another has become the first woman on the community councils, and still others now conduct a Saturday school for at-risk kindergarten and first-graders.

Starfish concentrates its highly personalized program on a select group of young women, and they will shatter the glass ceiling for many. The first graduates of the program finish high school this year and are all on track for the university. They will assert their leadership, skills and knowledge for the betterment of their families, community and country.

What services are provided to the young girls?

Starfish targets girls that would otherwise be unable to go past the sixth grade and provides them with a highly personalized program. It works: over 95 percent of the girls stay in school and in the program on an annual basis. Starfish maintains a three-fold intervention:

1) Partial academic scholarships: These cover approximately 75 percent of the school-related costs and overcome the more immediate economic impediments to school access.
2) Personalized, long-term mentorship: Girls in the program are matched with a Starfish mentor who is responsible for helping her overcome the other daunting obstacles stemming from the familial, social and structural pressures that are seemingly around every corner. Girls also join a 15-member peer group of other Starfish scholars, and the mentor facilitates weekly sessions with this group. Groups are trained in family planning, environmental stewardship, financial literacy, critical thinking/leadership, and social responsibility.
3) A bridge to the future: upper-high school aged girls are challenged to hone their professional plans and skills to ensure that each effectively applies her education and empowerment in her community after she graduates. As the highest educated girls in their communities, these girls often lack professional resources and role models. A Starfish guide helps illuminate the options that each girl has so that she can choose a path that tailors to her unique skills and talents.

Can you tell us about one of the girls whose life has been impacted by the program’s services?

(Maria’s name has been changed to protect her confidentiality.)

When Maria was in third grade she knew she wanted to do something really different with her life but she hadn’t been born into a family that promoted “out of the box” thinking—rather the opposite. Her father denigrated girls, called her and her sisters worthless. Only sons were of value and deserving of an education beyond sixth grade. Moreover he was a known womanizer. Naturally her parents fought relentlessly. Maria is a determined, spirited girl. Nonetheless, five years ago, crushed by her father and weary of the fighting, she drank rat poison to end her unhappiness. Her strong vomit reflex saved her life.

Then her strength, almost extinguished, came through for her. She worked hard during the week and put herself through junior high on the weekends. Grades were not great. She carried a big chip on her shoulder, had few friends, but at least she was moving forward. She finished and hit a wall. High school costs $400 per year—way beyond what a poor girl could earn. By now Maria was at the age most girls marry. Remembering her third grade dream, she didn’t [go down this path].

When Starfish found her, it was on a routine house visit to a different Starfish student. Maria had heard of Starfish, found her way there, and was sitting inconspicuously in the corner. Towards the end of the visit she stood up and gave an impassioned, impressive and heart wrenching speech. She wanted to go on. We enrolled her the next day, one day before high school applications closed.

At first she didn’t get along with the other girls in her mentorship group. They were friendly and welcoming. She was unresponsive. After the meetings she stuck around, spoke with her mentor and cried buckets. Having a mentor in your life can be an enormous force for healing. Today Maria is well on her way to a fantastic future. Her leadership abilities are obvious as she leads discussions, participates, and always has something important and relevant to contribute. Grades are stellar. She is good friends with the other girls. A few hours a week she works in the Starfish office. In her words: “In the past I didn’t realize I needed to be responsible. I didn’t know I had anything to offer. I’ve changed a lot.”

Beneath her pretty smile with perfect teeth, there’s still that third grade girl. Again in her words: “And one day I’m going to be the first woman mayor of my community. I’m going to make it better for the other women here. It’s my dream. I know I can do it.”



(Image of Maria)

When these young women graduate from the program, they will step out into a world of extreme poverty. How does Starfish One by One prepare these young women to navigate adult life once they’ve left the safe confines of the program?

That is exactly where we are dedicating the majority of our organizational brain power at this time. Fortunately, our Guatemala team consists of indigenous women who are among the scarce few who somehow managed to overcome all the obstacles to become college-educated women who are making an enormous difference. These are excellent resources for the girls, who frequently come from illiterate families and would otherwise have literally no one to talk to about options beyond high school.

Starfish is aware of the significance of this challenge. Most of these girls come from rural communities where formal employment does not exist and entrepreneurship means owning a small store selling coke and potato chips. The last thing we want to do is provoke a brain drain in which the best and brightest young women feel compelled to leave the community to find suitable opportunities.

In 2012, we are piloting our BRIDGE program for upper high school girls. To put it crudely, this is designed to be career guidance counseling on steroids. Ten years ago, a high school diploma would make finding a job quite simple in Guatemala, but this context has since changed and the opportunities are rather limited. The focus of the BRIDGE is to help each girl evaluate the following options:

• University
• Formal employment
• Entrepreneurship

This is done via a more hands-on approach though group and individual activities. Starfish will have four graduates in the fall of 2011. All four are currently slated for part-time university (through scholarships provided by a different NGO), and we are now focusing on helping each with job placement.

Are you optimistic that the program will have a transformative effect on Guatemalan society?

Very! We are already seeing it, and we are only just about to graduate the first girls from the program and high school. While there is no data specific to the “Girl Effect” in Guatemala (something Starfish plans on addressing soon), the global data pertaining to the profound benefits of educating girls makes you scratch your head when you realize that only $.02 of every development dollar targets girls’ education. Here are some highlights of what happens when a girl is educated:

• A girl in the developing world with seven or more years of education marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
• Each year of secondary school boosts her future wages by 15-25 percent.
• She invests 90 percent of her earnings back into her family (versus only 30-40 percent for a man).
• Recent studies are also showing that girls’ education is the most cost-effective form of reducing global carbon emissions.

Currently, Guatemala’s indigenous population presents depressing data that is on par with some of the most marginalized population in the world. In rural Guatemala, where most Mayans live, child malnutrition levels reach 80 percent. Guatemala ranked second to the bottom in a World Bank study regarding equality of opportunity in Latin America. Indigenous girls are at the very bottom of Guatemala’s socio-economic sphere and always have been.

Who is best suited to determine how to tackle these problems? The global data and Starfish’s own experience demonstrates that these girls are the ones with the creative answers. It’s a no-brainer. When these girls break through the thick glass ceiling of exclusion and isolation, they will bring talents and solutions that Guatemala has never before seen. It will be transformative.

For more information about this organization: Starfish One by One

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