“Equality is still utopic in most cases for young Mayan women. This is clear in the Guatemalan society where prejudices and stereotypes surround any woman walking down the streets in her traditional indigenous dress. Especially in the most important neighborhoods, in the most important Guatemalan cities.”
This was noted by Abigail Quic, a young female SERES leader. She tells me about one young female leader she spoke to recently, whose biggest challenge faced at work was machismo among her own colleagues. “For her, it leads to a double responsibility in her duties”, Abigail says, “making her feel like she has to reach up to a great quality in everything she does, to prove that a woman can take care of the duties assigned to her. That puts extra pressure on her (just because she is a woman), taking away the passion she used to feel for her work.”
Guatemala, clearly marked by gender inequality
Guatemala is still clearly marked by the Civil War that ended in 1996. The society has deeply rooted patriarchal structures, and the culture is traditionally ruled by machismo. Women in general have fewer opportunities for learning, child marriages are common, and teen pregnancy rates are high. Rates of violence are also very high—Guatemala has the third highest rate in the world when it comes to femicide (the killing of women simply because of their gender). (Source: mujerguatemala.org).
Guatemala, as well as other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, show an upward trend when it comes to HDI rank and its three basic dimensions: life expectancy, access to schooling, and standard of living. Still, Guatemala shows clear signs of being a highly unequal country, clearly reflected by huge differences in income and education. Only 13.3 % of parliamentary seats in Guatemala are held by women, and female participation in the labor market is 49% (compared to 88.3 % for men). (Source: UNDP, Human Development Report 2013)
In SERES an alternative future is possible
Regardless of the negative numbers and figures, over 50 % of attendees in SERES’ youth congresses in both urban and rural areas are female, and over 55 % identify as indigenous. They complete the congresses, having found their voices in a public space with both boys and girls present, and they organize community action plans, such as reforestation and clean-up.
To understand how this is possible I asked Abigal Quic to tell me about her own experience as a young female Mayan SERES leader. She grew up in a rural area and has been in contact with many young women from the same background who want to become leaders in their communities.
Gender equality depends on who you are and where you live
When I ask Abigail how she looks at equality in Guatemala today she tells me that it depends on the context of the women: if they live in an urban or rural area, if they are indigenous, if they are married, what educational level they have, etc.
“In SERES we work with indigenous communities and young women. Only one of several of our programs takes place in the participants’ own communities. The rest of the programs are at least five-day camps. It is not unusual that we hear stories in the communities like: ‘I would like to be there (joining an educational camp), but my father doesn’t let me participate since I have duties at home that don’t allow me being away from home for several days in a row.’ In this case equality definitely doesn’t exist yet and we keep on fighting to reach it,” Abigail concludes.
The importance for women of finding self-esteem
The truth for many Guatemalan girls and women, especially in the rural areas, is that both cultural values and practical obligations are tying them up to a life at home. This was the truth for Abigail too, but she decided to become a leader anyway. She found inspiration in her father’s books that allowed her to dream and create her own stories and hopes.
She says something happened when she was 17 years old: “Someone believed in me and in my capacity as a leader. It made me think about the lake, this beautiful piece of heaven on Earth, and that I had to do something if I didn’t want to lose it. So I joined a group of tourist guides where I could manage the community’s environmental education campaign. This was my opportunity to exercise leadership and it enabled me to create my own self-esteem and discover that my ideas are valuable and that they can become reality. Above all I discovered how to confront the machismo we meet in the Guatemalan society with a firm voice.”
Abigail also emphasizes the importance of the mentors she had around her, who believed in her potential and helped bring out the best in her. Having the support of mentors and her own family guided her and made her feel less lonely in her own leadership process.
What it means to be a female sustainability leader
Abigail did find her self-esteem and managed to build it up through the support of both mentors and her own family. She says that people have given her a lot of respect and that she now provides her voice to all indigenous Guatemalan women. “I realize it is a great responsibility but I give 100%, and I believe that people always show their approval and acceptance towards what I try to tell them.”
She continues to meet resistance as a leader in her everyday life, however, and she says her friends identify her as the one who will always question their unsustainable way of life. “I’m their sustainability conscience and even if their reactions are always defensive, I get my victories when I see small changes that they make in their lifestyle.”
“To me being a sustainability leader means freedom and doing what I really want to do” she says. “My leadership has meant personal development for me, including in a critical way towards my own ideas. It has opened doors where I can keep on developing my own ideas and, above all, get to know a lot of people that I now have the opportunity to listen to and learn from.”
Abigail’s message to other young women who would like to overcome the inequality in the society and become young leaders
“Inequality exists when we as women don’t do anything to change it. It takes actions to create change and your voice is a great tool to use to transform your own reality. All women have this voice, it’s within every woman and we can start with taking time to listen to ourselves. When this is done, look for a person who could be your mentor, helping you on your way to believing in yourself. Start to exercise your leadership among people close to you. Engage in a network or group where you can start initiating your own action on a theme you care a lot about. Then keep on exercising this civic muscle and you will find yourself making changes around you.”
And a few last tips from Abigail:
- “Discover your own power: The power you have because you are who you are, because of your history, because of your family legacy, because of your gender, because of your education and experience.”
- “Find a circle of friends and mentors who can help you find self-confidence and a strong self-love. This can be very hard when the opportunities of self-discovery are limited due to the woman’s preoccupation with ensuring the survival of her family and herself.”
- “Exercise your leadership with authenticity and integrity, and lead by example. It can be hard to find this balance since it requires courage and persistence. You will get a lot of noes that makes you despair and think that you are all alone. Once you have one single victory you will start your way towards the execution of your leadership.”
SERES is an organization enabling youth to step into the role of change makers and community leaders. It is a network of young leaders crossing traditional boundaries of race, class, gender, culture and religion to create a more peaceful and sustainable future. The organization has already trained over 2,500 young leaders in the ages of 15 to 30 in over 465 communities in Guatemala and El Salvador.
By Jonna Lindberg