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Females who live in the central region of Guatemala don’t dress in any type of traditional attire, such as the colorful Mayan corte (skirt) that women wear in other parts of the country. But women in the La Soledad community, where 19-year-old Marleny lives, do typically wear aprons. And those who don’t, says Javier Cárcamo, a CI team member in Guatemala, are perceived as lazy; people assume the lack of an apron means the women don’t perform house chores — and, thus, do nothing at all.
Thankfully, youth like Marleny are challenging and changing this perception. With the assistance of Children International’s Into Employment program, Marleny is proving what female productivity really looks like — apron or not — by opening her own business: a clothing store.
“I was born and grew up in a neighborhood whose name tells you everything ... ‘La Soledad’ [loneliness],” says Marleny. She explains that the name fits her community, which is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, because it becomes so desolate during the day when the men go to work in the fields, women are tending the homes and children are in school. The streets are so empty, she says, that you can even hear the bees buzzing.
Activity does pick up during certain periods. “The noisy hours are at half-morning, when ladies go to the market, and at noon, when they go to school to pick up their children,” Marleny adds. But, otherwise, the streets are as quiet as the women’s limited lives. “It seems, for a woman,” Marleny says, “there is nothing else to do.”
Guatemala is an agrarian Eden, producing coffee, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Most men work in the fields where these crops are grown and harvested. And although the earth may be generous in its abundance of rewarding hard work, the workers themselves don’t typically earn more than subsistent wages. The third of five children, Marleny recalls the difficulty her father had providing for his family on his day laborer’s salary. Even the simplest items were out of reach. For example, at school, whenever teachers announced a field trip or extracurricular activity, which required extra fees, Marleny would try — and fail — to stifle her tears of disappointment.
But even school itself would have been out of reach were it not for the support of Children International. “Fortunately, and thanks to the support of the program,” Marleny explains, “I could attend school and study. And I was the top student some years.”
Marleny’s diligent studying and buoyant spirit were the perfect match for the opportunities she found as a teen through CI’s youth programs. When she began to get involved in the activities, Marleny truly began to blossom. “In Children International, I found all I was looking for,” she says.
A wry smile crosses her face as she remembers her father’s reaction when she initially told him she wanted to participate in the activities at the community center. He kindly told Marleny he couldn’t pay for her to go there. But upon learning that these opportunities were available through the program, free of charge, he became supportive.
“He told me that I could go,” Marleny recalls fondly, “and that I had to take advantage of everything and learn as much as I can.”
Of all the opportunities and experiences she had as an active member of our youth programs, Marleny tells us Into Employment was the capstone.
A volunteer mom from Marleny’s neighborhood was the first to alert the young woman to the program, which provides job-skills training, paving the way to employability. She applied immediately and was accepted into coursework that included hands-on training in sales and customer service, creating a business plan and basic accounting.
Today, with a very small capital investment provided by CI, Marleny is successfully running a clothing store in her neighborhood. Instead of feeling trapped in a land of loneliness, she says she feels like she brings happiness to her friends and neighbors by selling affordable clothes.
“I like my job,” says Marleny. “I am very happy, because this business lets me have the satisfaction to handle my own money and to help my family.”
Programs like Into Employment offer youth a way out of poverty by providing career opportunities and developing life and vocational skills.