Magazine article International Educator

Women in Latin America Opportunity through Education

Magazine article International Educator

Women in Latin America Opportunity through Education

Article excerpt

Latin America is a varied tapestry of cultures and customs, but a consistent theme in many countries is a growing awareness that women can, and should, have the same educational opportunities as men.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third article in an occasional series on improving education for girls in and women in developing regions. The first was "Women's Work," which focused on the Middle East and published in the September/ October 2009 issue, the second was "An Unprivileged Child," which focused on Africa and published in the January/ February 2010 issue.

WHEN Jodi Finkel, associate professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, heard a report on National Public Radio (NPR) about a 41 -year-old prostitute in Guatemala who dreamed of learning to read, she was immediately moved to help.

Her first thought was to board a plane to Guatemala City, track the woman down, and offer to teach her to read.

Her second thought was to connect with student Ana Moraga, a Guatemala native who immigrated to the United States at age 12 and was very active in the school's Center for Service and Action, which encourages students to get involved in community service projects.

Moraga and her roommate Tania Torres were about to graduate and, within months, the two young women were heading from the classrooms of Los Angeles to the red light district of Guatemala City to try to help the prostitute, named Susi, and others like her, realize her dream.

But things didn't go quite as planned. It turned out. Susi was distrustful of the young women, and refused their offer to help. Not about to give up, Moraga and Torres set about winning over the women in the red light district, assisting them with things crucial to their daily lives, like arranging doctors' visits for the women and their children, and providing them with access to their cell phones.

"We realized we needed to get to know them, instead of imposing on , them what we want," Moraga recalls.

Eventually one woman said she wanted to read, and MuJER (short for Mujeres por la Iusticia, Educación y el Reconocimiento, or Women for Justice, Education and Awareness) got off the ground. Even Susi, the original inspiration for the project, joined in.

A Fresh Start

Many of the women had been trafficked from other Latin American countries or sold into prostitution by the families. "We had to convince them they do deserve better," Finkel says.

Now, five years later, more than 200 women have taken classes at MufER, learning to read and write, or honing their skills through computer, hair styling, or jewelry-making courses.

Some have even left the red light district to make a life for themselves using their new skills, and two have taken the university entrance exams. "Our idea is not to necessarily take women out of the sex trade, but to give the women tools so they can make good decisions for themselves," Moraga says.

A key tool for women in the red light district of Guatemala, along with many other places in the region, is the ability to read and write.

While basic literacy has soared in much of Latin America in recent decades, thanks to concerted efforts by national governments, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, pockets of illiteracy remain.

"Latin America is not a homogenous group of countries," says Chingboon Lee, Latin American sector manager for education with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. While some countries' female literacy rates rival those of the United States or Europe, others lag dramatically. It's a particular problem for those from lower income groups and indigenous populations, where "girls are underrepresented compared to boys," Lee says.

It's also an issue in places where "boys are still viewed as more important as an economic force in society," says David Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts U. …

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