We went to Guatemala at the end of March to meet 12 women and girls from the Catrinka Girls Project - six women from Redmi, the NGO that runs the project - four girls from the project, and two of the teen mentors, one who led the littler girls and another who led the adolescents. It was a privilege and an inspiration to spend time with them, to learn more about their stories, and to hear how the Catrinka Girls Project has impacted their lives.
"Your faith in us gave us the motivation to continue," said Hermelinda, a Redmi leader. "Sometimes it is very hard, you are not getting compensated for your work, and you wonder why you are continuing on. But we know there are so many girls who need the program."
Catrinka and the Catrinka Girls Project meet! From left to right: Iris (16), Zoraida (16), Benita (15), Mayra (16), Hermelinda, Maria (21), Sylvia (17), Caterina (7), Jessica (15), Vero, Rosa (28), Eli, Angelica (24)
Redmi leader Eli Vasquez said the fact that they all traveled more than 5 hours each way to meet us near Lake Atitlan was evidence itself of the project's success. "It means that they and their families value this work enough to make this possible, that they were given permission to leave their communities and come here." Another impact is that the girls all spoke up to tell us about their experiences and their plans. "When they start the program they are timid and nervous and don't dare to speak in public, and now they are doing that. We see in that the change the program brings and the girls' interest in continuing it. We teach them how important it is to have a life plan, and a plan to save the income they get from being part of this project and to invest it in education so they can earn more in the future."
Each of the girls told us about her plans to finish 9th grade, and after that to continue studying or to work. Mayra and Zoraida (both 16), who plan to work, say they need to to support their families, though both wish they could continue studying. Zoraida, who is a leader of the younger girls (ages 8-12) in the Project, worked over the holidays for 3 months, from 5 am to 8 pm seven days a week, cooking for 25 people. She said her employer was mean and treated people badly, but she had to endure "because earning money is necessary." She made 900 quetzales ($116) per month. She saved half of it and spent the other half on her school fees.
Benita (15) and her sister want to stay a part of the Catrinka Girls Project and make bracelets for us and look for other clients to pay for their studies. Benita wants to have a career as a bilingual secretary, meaning she needs to learn English in addition to Spanish and her native Quiche. Iris (16), who is a leader of the adolescent girls in the Project, just finished secondary school and to celebrate bought herself the skirt she is wearing, which she had been saving for for three years. She says the project has brought her everything she needs, the ability to keep learning together with the community of girls and at the same time to make extra income making bracelets for Catrinka, which with the help of her parents pays for her school fees. She wants to go to school to become a stylist:
"What we are looking for is to be able to make our own decisions", says Angelica, a Redmi leader. We are always depending on our parents. One challenge that creates is that we don't have resources to support ourselves, but another is that we have to live in our parents' house, and that is where we have to endure violence and discrimination. Through our learning with the Catrinka Girls Project, our learning about our rights and our possibilities, we can say 'I am a woman but I have value, I am important, I can do whatever my brother can do and if he has an education I can have one too'." She says that when they travel to Guatemala's capital they feel discriminated against for being indigenous Mayans, and again for being women, making the work they do to empower other younger girls like them all the more important. "We are women, we have to fight, we have to be powerful."
As a gift, Angelica presented us with the corte (wrap skirt) typical of Totonicapan, where the project is based:
Because of the support of Catrinka's customers, the Project has expanded the communities it is able to serve, bringing the curriculum to girls like Mayra and Benita, and offering a stipend to leaders like Zoraida and Iris, making it possible for all of them to stay together and make choices about their future. "If they weren't with us they might be married or with kids", says Eli.
I will repeat to all of our Catrinka supporters what they said to me: "From the bottom of our hearts we thank you for having a good heart and believing in us."
P.S. Every product you buy supports the Catrinka Girls Project, with totes like the Lalita providing 1+ day of education each and 100% of proceeds from the Friendship Bracelets made by the girls going back to them.