“Will you take me with you?” As Karen Castillo prepared to leave Playito Cerro Alto, a secluded village along Guatemala’s Rio Chixoy, she heard this familiar request from a girl. Castillo, a Lutheran pastor, knew the situation: if the girl stayed, she’d soon marry and get pregnant, which would stunt her educational opportunities. Castillo also knew the girl couldn’t accompany her to Guatemala City. She felt torn.
This girl’s situation is common among the indigenous, rural communities served by the Augustinian Lutheran Church of Guatemala (ILAG in Spanish). Families tend to be large, and due to poverty, culture and other factors, fathers marry off their daughters early. At 12 to 14 years old, girls are matched with husbands at least twice their age, sometimes older.
But things are changing, said Castillo, who grew up in the ILAG. Elected as its president five years ago, she is the first woman to serve in the role. Under her leadership, women in indigenous communities are starting to demand a different life for their daughters and granddaughters.
“When [I was elected], our women started to feel more at ease and began to express their needs,” Castillo said. “They said that they didn’t want their daughters to go through the same experiences they had to go through or to have a life like theirs.”
Education and empowerment
Lack of educational opportunities is a frequent concern Castillo hears from Guatemalan women. Schools are often far from home, and even when education is accessible, boys take precedence over girls.
When Manuela (last names of villagers withheld) was growing up, she wanted to attend school, but there were no opportunities for education. Like many of her peers, she married young and gave birth to her first child at 15. Now a mother of eight, she wants more for her girls.
“I don’t want [my children] to get married so early in life or to leave school,” she said. “I want them to move forward. I don’t want them to be like me.”
Manuela’s dream of her children, especially her daughters, continuing their education is becoming a reality. With support from community leaders and ELCA World Hunger, ILAG is helping a new generation of women through its MILAGRO (miracle) Women’s Education Center at the Augustinian Lutheran Center in Guatemala City. Opened in 2018, the facility equips girls from rural communities with education and training so they might become financially independent in the future.
“Here with us, they begin to hear a different message. We tell them they have intelligence; they are worthy, valuable, capable; they have gifts that they can discover along with the other young ladies; they can also discover their abilities.”
“Some people were anxious about removing [the girls] from their context,” Castillo said. “We weren’t as anxious because the girls live within a context where they’re always told that [a better future is] not possible. They’re always given a role in the kitchen, as caregivers of their siblings, tending to their fathers, having a husband.
“Here with us, they begin to hear a different message. We tell them they have intelligence; they are worthy, valuable, capable; they have gifts that they can discover along with the other young ladies; they can also discover their abilities. … We think this is going to cause a positive impact on their lives and the community.”
Through the curriculum, girls learn their rights as Guatemalan women. Johana, a 15-year-old, said she feels inspired by all that she’s learning. “My future will be better because I’ve learned about equal rights,” Johana said. “In my mom’s case, she was very young when she got together with my dad. Since she didn’t go to school, she didn’t know about her rights. I think it’s going to be different for me.”
Johana hopes to pass on what she’s learned to other girls in her church and community.
Changing long-standing traditions and norms will take time, but the MILAGRO center is already having an impact, not only on the young women but also on their families and communities. “The moms are happy that their girls are here,” Castillo said. “This happiness is transported to many areas of [their lives].”
Mothers are trying new things at home, she added, including seeking alternative sources of income. And young women at the center feel bolstered by the church’s steady support.
“We expect that the community—first the whole community of faith and then the extended community from the several villages—will be able to see this change in the long run,” Castillo said.
There is another big change since the program was established—Castillo can now answer “yes” to girls longing to further their education.
ELCA World Hunger sends funds to the MILAGRO center in Guatemala City, which is run by the Augustinian Lutheran Church of Guatemala. Learn more or donate at elca.org/hunger.