Starting today, every handbag ($50+) you purchase on Catrinka.com will come with a personal gift, made by the teen girls in the Catrinka Girls Project in Guatemala. We have been working toward this goal for a year now, and are so excited to finally share with you a handmade, tangible reminder of - and from - the girls you help to empower themselves every time you buy a Catrinka bag.
The Catrinka Girls Project
With every Catrinka bag sold, a share of the proceeds go to teen girls in Guatemala who are part of the Catrinka Girls Project. We have spent the last year developing the Catrinka Girls Project together with Abriendo Oportunidades (‘opening opportunities’ in Spanish, or ‘AO’). AO was created in 2006 by the Population Council, an international NGO - under the guidance of Marta Julia Ruiz, a renowned Guatemalan indigenous doctor - to harness the power and potential of rural indigenous girls and adolescents aged 8 to 19 by building their personal, social, health and economic assets and capabilities to keep girls in school and delay the age of marriage and pregnancy.
In Guatemala, just 40% of girls aged 16-18 are enrolled in school, and 12% of girls aged 13-18 are mothers. The numbers are even worse for Guatemala’s substantial indigenous population, where only one in two girls aged 13-15 are in school. AO is focused on changing those statistics and the lives they represent by creating opportunities for rural, indigenous Mayan girls who are at the most risk to access education and life skills mentoring from older girls in their communities, and to develop social networks among themselves with regular meetings in safe places. Our adviser Judith Bruce, a pioneering leader in girls education at the Population Council for more than 30 years, always reminds us that more than anything else, every girl needs 5 friends and a safe place to meet them.
AO is currently reaching 6,000 girls in 150 communities in 6 different linguistic areas, reporting dramatic impacts in girls' school attendance (up) and childbearing (down). They are changing communities too: compared to a baseline of just 18% of parents supporting education for their daughters, in AO communities surveyed in 2011 that number is now 71%.
AO girls meeting to learn about the Catrinka Girls Project
Girls typically join the AO program between the ages of 8 and 17 (with the target being 8-12, to provide them opportunities during the huge transitions that occur around puberty), when many have already left any formal education, due to the difficulty in accessing secondary school as well as the pressures of poverty and other expectations that lead girls to early marriage and childbirth or to full-time productive activities to make money for their families. By age 15, many of the girls have to leave the mentorship program in order to make money in agriculture or making trinkets for the tourist trade or local markets. The powerful social networks are no longer readily accessible; the mentoring ceases; and the girls’ work in productive activities outside of the program means that there is no way to reliably assess the program’s success in training the girls in financial literacy.
The AO team has long been looking for a way to strengthen and support the girls’ economic empowerment while keeping them in the program past age 15, and offering a way to evaluate and refine their financial literacy training. The goal is to increase the girls’ control over their choices, decisions, life plans and bodies. This is where Catrinka comes in.
Catrinka Girls Project girls making Catrinka bracelets
Catrinka has been working with Redmi, an NGO formed by 4 graduates of the AO program, on the development of a production co-op for older AO girls (aged 15-19). The coop is entirely created and funded by Catrinka to build on, deepen and enhance the AO program. Redmi started with 10 girls in Totonicapán and have enlisted an additional 37 girls there and in Alta Verapaz, both in the Mayan Highlands. The communities were selected on the basis of 1) need (assessed by communities' exclusion from NGOs, secondary school or other public programs); b) accessibility to Redmi; and c) handicraft capabilities.
The goals of the Catrinka Girls Project are to allow girls to:
1) Earn money while staying in the program (instead of dropping out to make money in agriculture or the tourist trade);
2) Practice and deepend their financial literacy skills;
3) Gain experience starting and participating in a small business;
4) Save money for formal education or vocational training.
Catrinka designed simple friendship bracelets using a technique familiar to the girls in the program, and hired a production consultant to work with the Redmi mentors to understand basic concepts of a business like materials selection, sampling, issuing invoices, training and quality control. Redmi started working with the initial 10 girls in the program to produce the bracelets, and while they work, they chat – fostering their social networks, learning about reproductive health and financial literacy, and implementing the AO curriculum.
Catrinka buys the finished bracelets directly from the girls who make them, and for many girls this is the first formal income they have received. The girls are implementing their savings plans, all of which entail putting money towards educational and training goals. AO is providing support in establishing a baseline for the girls’ financial literacy before and after the program, to evaluate whether it has contributed meaningfully to the girls’ ability to understand and make responsible decisions about their financial resources.
To date, the Redmi team has organized the coop and recruited the first 37 girls to participate; consulted regularly with the production consultant and implemented improvements; sourced materials for 4 sets of samples; and produced, managed quality control for, delivered and invoiced two orders of Catrinka bracelets. These bracelets are now in Brooklyn waiting to go out to all of you with every order you place on our website. You can also buy a bracelet separately, with 100% of proceeds going back to the Catrinka Girls Project.
Building a Woman-Owned Business
The other part of this program that we really love is that we are empowering and supporting the 4 young women of Redmi to use the skills and knowledge they obtained through the AO program to fulfill their dreams of expanding opportunities for rural indigenous girls just like them across the Mayan Highlands. Before we met them, Redmi was struggling to find a purpose and resources as an NGO and the girls in it were getting by making money with unrelated work. They are thrilled to have this opportunity to solidify their NGO and create a sustainable business that has a real, positive impact on the lives of girls like them.
"More than anything it is important for women to be capable of managing their resources independently of men." - Hermelinda Pacheco (above right, working with her Redmi colleague Maria)
We asked Hermelinda Pacheco, a Redmi production mentor, why she started Redmi and launched the Catrinka Girls Project, and she said simply that “forced, unpaid work and early marriage” of girls like her is simply “not normal”. She is committed "to make a change in the lives of girls through development of workshops, giving the girls information and training.”
After producing their first order of bracelets, Redmi recruited another 37 AO girls to produce the second order, and started identifying additional participants.
To date, the program has reached 3 communities and 80+ girls of ages 15-19 in the Momostenango region. The Redmi leaders are determined to scale their operation and continue to learn how to make salable product while solidifying the skills acquired through AO. In the expansion process, Redmi will work to identify additional AO girls based on two criteria: those that would benefit most from such a program and also those who could be resources and mentors to others. With each successive order of Catrinka bracelets, Redmi and the Catrinka Girl Project hopes to recruit more girls to participate in the co-op while also cultivating a business that produces product our customer loves.
NB: Catrinka thanks the incomparable Rita Vinnik for her invaluable help with this post!