“As a girl, all I knew was housekeeping. I was the only girl at home and I had to wash all my brothers’ clothes. In school, I wasn’t allowed to participate in all the activities because I was a girl,” explains Belkis, a 39-year-old mother in Corbano Sur, Dominican Republic.
Belkis shared her story during a parents’ meeting held as part of the Girls’ Education and Empowerment Regional Program, an initiative co-created by The Resource Foundation (TRF) and Johnson & Johnson in 2016. Her story is not unlike those of many other women across Latin America. The choice to go to school, to start a family, to work – these were not decisions Belkis made for herself, but rather the products of generations of customs, traditions, and circumstances surrounding the roles and rights of women and girls.
While significant strides have been made in Latin America, the challenges that Belkis faced as a girl and adolescent persist. Forced marriage, early pregnancy, and violence are only a handful of the barriers that disadvantaged girls may face in pursuit of education and the chance at a more hopeful and healthy future. Lack of information and a taboo attitude towards sexual and reproductive health and rights further contribute to high pregnancy and school drop-out rates among teenage girls. Combined, Latin America and the Caribbean have the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the world. In the region, 18 percent of births occur among adolescent mothers, and even more girls become sexually active from a young age. Equally concerning, in Latin America, only 28 percent of young people from poor families complete secondary education, compared to 80 percent among the richest families.
Cultural norms also lead girls to drop out of school to meet short-term obligations like caring for younger siblings and supporting parents’ informal work, particularly in communities whose cultural traditions prioritize boys’ schooling and girls’ role in the home. Without providing girls access to the academic and personal growth that come with an education, the cycle continues.
Recognizing the importance of education in opening the door to more future opportunities, TRF and Johnson & Johnson, in collaboration with five nonprofit organizations across five countries in Latin America, designed and launched the Girls’ Education and Empowerment Regional Program. The initiative embraces collaboration and inclusion to engage different groups of community members, each of which are on the front lines of shaping the opportunities that girls should have access to throughout their lifetime. Teachers, parents, and male and female students take part in activities focused on health, gender equity, violence prevention, and the importance of education.
By involving local government, health, and education officials, the project works across sector lines to foster an environment where girls are empowered from every angle to make decisions about their health, their futures, and their self-worth. These layers of support help to strengthen families, caregivers, and communities as a whole, increasing the chance that the effects of the program last well beyond the life of the project.
Belkis recognizes that her 12-year-old daughter, Fabia, has a bright future ahead of her. “This project has helped me to understand that my daughter has the same rights as her brothers…I am raising her differently than my mother raised me. Fabia already recognizes that she can do things that I wasn’t allowed to do… I am sure that things will be different than they were for me at her age. This new outlook on life will generate positive changes for her in the future.”
March 8 marks International Women’s Day. In collaboration with partners, Johnson & Johnson is sharing the stories of women on the front lines of care, and the ways in which inspiring women are improving health for themselves, their families and their communities. Share your story during the Storytelling Hour on March 7 at 11am EST, by following #WomenInspire on Twitter.
Cover photo: Fabia Contreras, Age 12, Corbano Sur Community and Program Beneficiary
Credit for all images: The Resource Foundation
Marcela Lopez-Macedonio is President & CEO of The Resource Foundation (TRF), a leading nonprofit organization founded in 1987 that facilitates philanthropy to the Americas and the Caribbean. Over the past 16 years, Marcela has expanded TRF’s growth through partnership-building and collaboration with multi-sector stakeholders, including multi-national donors and over 370 local organizations, to tackle some of the region’s most pressing challenges.