One blistering Guatemalan afternoon in February, 86-year-old Candelaria gathered with three generations of women in her family to watch her great-granddaughters, Rosalina and Elvira, receive bicycles.
The indigenous women, their skin wizened from decades of cocoa farming, were dressed in colorful huipils, a traditional square-cut blouse made with an embroidered design — a nod to their ancient-Mayan heritage, shared by 40 percent of the population.
These simple hot-pink bicycles, unremarkable for many American teenagers, transform the girls’ three-mile walks to school, through unpaved stretches of bumpy terrain, into short rides — and will hopefully break the cycle of poverty in their family.
“I’ve only ever seen men ride bicycles,” Candelaria said, fondling her great-granddaughters’ helmets and laughing like a schoolgirl. “Girls riding them — and to schools? Never!”
Indeed, it’s only recently that girls in Chisec, a disenfranchised municipality in the north, have attended school regularly. Facing severe poverty, indigenous families like Candelaria’s often raise girls to farm and grow cocoa on nearby fields.
Last February, SchoolCycle (my initiative with the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign) distributed hundreds of bicycles to indigenous schoolgirls like Rosalina and Elvira. Around the world, prohibitively long distances to school keep many young girls at home. While a bicycle is no silver bullet to end endemic poverty, it’s a tangible piece of a complex puzzle that gives girls autonomy and more ownership of their futures.
By age 15, six out of ten indigenous girls are out of school. By age 18, almost 40 percent of Mayan girls are married — nearly twice the percentage of nonindigenous girls. While Guatemala’s population is one of the youngest and fastest-growing in Latin America, it’s also the least educated: only 39 percent of indigenous women are literate, compared to 77 percent of nonindigenous women. In isolated indigenous regions, one can go miles without seeing a school or hospital, especially one with speakers in their local language.
“Long walks everywhere in this country is just one reminder that you don’t have a place in society,” says 24-year-old Elvira Cuc Choc, a mentor with a group called Abriendo Oportunidades (“Opening Opportunities”). Funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the energetic group of young indigenous women mentor girls ages eight to eighteen. Since launching in 2004, they’ve reached thousands of girls, providing reproductive-health education and free tutoring.
“This bike means that not only can we go places, but we can get there ourselves,” Cuc Choc says while showing her mentees how to ride. “Girls will be more motivated to go and stay in school because they know they’re more in control of their destinies.”
But if Donald Trump has his way, groups like Abriendo Oportunidades may have to significantly reduce their activities. And programs like SchoolCycle, which UNFPA also administers in Malawi — one of the poorest countries in the world — will likely be the first to shutter.
In April, the State Department informed the Senate that the Trump administration would cut all U.S. funding to UNFPA, which received about $69 million from the U.S. last year. This decision follows his reinstatement of the so-called Mexico City Policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” which prohibits federal appropriations for organizations that provide information about abortion or abortion services.
Trump’s administration subsequently moved to defund UNFPA by claiming the UN organization provided abortion services in China — a claim the UNFPA vehemently denies. Now programs which have little to do with abortion access, like maternal-health and counseling services in Jordan’s Syrian refugee camps and in Iraq, are imperiled.
United Nations Foundation president and CEO Kathy Calvin called the action to “cut vital U.S. support to UNFPA unacceptable and in stark contrast to American values.”
In Guatemala, Abriendo Oportunidades is struggling to figure out how a decision made in Washington’s male-dominated corridors could prevent them from helping disenfranchised girls stay in school.
“When we heard the news, we didn’t immediately understand what was happening. We still don’t,” says Cuc Choc. “Will we have to stop our program? We teach girls to stay in school, we teach them about their bodies, their menstrual cycles … how can this be bad?”
For girls like 12-year-old Evelyn, who received a bike, finishing secondary school and going to university seemed like a pipe dream before meeting their Abriendo Oportunidades mentors. “You don’t think you can go to school because you don’t see any girls going to schools,” says Evelyn, who dreams of being a teacher. “But we see these girls and we realize we can be them, too.”
Because Evelyn has no brothers, her father, an evangelical pastor in the community, is often asked by others — if not reprimanded — about why he’s not making Evelyn and her younger sister work. After all, instead of studying, they could be fetching water from the closest source, three miles away.
“Changing the mind-set here is hard, especially when everyone is poor and trying to get by,” he says. “But if Evelyn can get a scholarship and go to university, she will improve all our lives. That’s how I try to convince other fathers. They’re slowly beginning to believe me.”
Evelyn stares at the ground as her father talks. At first she seems shy, though her father explains her silence: if she speaks, everyone will see her newly toothless smile. Dental care is practically nonexistent for the indigenous community, and even youth are frequently forced to have their cavity-filled permanent teeth removed.
When asked about her new bicycle at her school, Evelyn finally lifts her eyes from the dirt floor and smiles. “Now when people in the village see my bike, they’ll know that girls can go places, too,” she says, looking at her father proudly. “Maybe I can even teach them all one day.”