By Annie Vanderboom
Guatemala's history and current social, political, and economic circumstances pose a number of challenges that make life particularly hard, especially for women and girls. Addressing these difficulties requires a multi-pronged approach; SERniña contributes with a curriculum designed to meet Guatemala's unique obstacles by recognizing what makes the country so special and building on its strengths.
A History of Conflict
After the conquest, Guatemala became the capital of Spain's Central American settlement, and its people were at the epicenter of colonization. Ethnicity, religion, gender roles, ancient livelihoods and lifestyles – every aspect of society was upturned and dragged into a constant process of conflict, resistance and negotiation that continues today.
In the 20th century, Guatemala dealt with a new type of challenge: a 36-year long civil war, now referred to as the internal armed conflict, that began in 1960. Indigenous Maya groups were targeted by the military, and more than 200,000 people were killed or "disappeared" by the Guatemalan government, with another 1.5 million driven from their homes. In 1999, the UN recognized the violence as genocide. 
Women and girls were particularly affected. The military used rape as a systemic weapon, and over the course of the conflict, more than 100,000 girls and women were the victims of various government forces. 
Data on Guatemala is rare and often dated, but a few facts make the challenges clear:
- UN Women reports that in 2013, 748 women lost their lives to violence, a 10% increase compared to 2012. On average, that's 2 deaths per day; violent deaths in men — even if they are 10 times higher — had a noticeable decrease in the same period. 
- 98% of murders of women (femicide) go unpunished. 
- Guatemala ranks 127th out of the 189 countries world-wide in gender equality; in Latin America, only Honduras is more unequal. 
- Guatemala's Human Rights Office reports that sexual abuse is rampant and 89% of cases are perpetrated by family members, a contributing factor to the rise in teen pregnancies. 
The social effects, social and psychological trauma inflicted by war take generations to heal, and the emotional trauma can have inter-generational effects. Psychologist coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala, Mayra Rodas, says, “Women are treated as objects, which can be taken. To be a woman here is like being garbage. This is what our patients tell us.” She identifies fear as a debilitating psychological consequence of sexual violence. 
A Brave New Generation
Often, they draw strength and inspiration from the very characteristics for which their families were targeted in the past: their rural upbringings, their Mayan heritage, and their roles as powerful, forward-thinking youth. SERniño Program facilitator Marcelo describes some of the traditions that provide the foundation for his life and work:
"As a Maya Kaqchikel youth from a conscientious, loving, harmonious, and sociable family, I feel proud of my country; I'm also proud of the community where I grew up and spent my childhood. I'm originally from and still live in Tecpan, Guatemala, and I'm especially proud of the flora and fauna that is still preserved in Tecpan's forests.
I really appreciate my country's Maya cultures, our hardworking people in the agricultural fields, the woman weavers, artisans, and diverse languages.
As a family, we celebrate the festival dates of the year, most of all the festival for the patrón saint of the town on the fourth of October. People visit from far-away communities and buy typical candy, food, and clothes and play games at the fair.
The first and second of November is when we visit our departed loved ones. Every family makes lunch in the cemetery to remember their loved ones who've passed. We harvest corn to make different types of traditional food."
Girls' program coordinator and facilitator Ale Celeste gives a powerful explanation of how the turmoil of the past guides her work today:
I celebrate Guatemala's diversity in all its forms; I rejoice in the water and the wind that fill us with home; I celebrate the smiles of little girls and the strength of my sisters."
- Progressive reproductive health education in a conservative culture. SERniña's comprehensive, high-quality reproductive, puberty and sexual health education has a sex-positive, body-connection emphasis. We not only teach the biological realities, but work hard to break down the culture of shame and taboo surrounding female bodies generally and menstruation specifically. We not only want girls to be healthy and to delay pregnancy, we want them to be comfortable and confident with their own bodies and their own self-care and to develop assertive communication skills and bodily-autonomy.
- Teaching why education matters. SERniña facilitators constantly reinforce the importance of education. The program explicitly teaches that education is the most reliable factor that allows people to create their own paths in life. This message is driven home in every aspect of the curriculum.
- Meeting locally identified needs. We're always working toward collaborating more with schools and families. When we do, we ask schools to identify their particular needs, and offer specialized services in response. As each local program grows, SERniña's Living Curriculum ensures that we address new needs and challenges as arise.
These core values and dynamic strategies allow SERniña to grow and change with the girls it serves, responding nimbly to Guatemala's unique and evolving challenges and providing a specialized, strategic service like no other organization in the field.
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2. de Pablo, Ofelia; Zurita, Javier; and Tremlett, Giles. Guatemalan war rape survivors: 'We have no voice.' The Guardian. 28 July 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/28/guatemalan-women-mass-rape-give-evidence
3. UN Women: Americas and the Caribbean. Guatemala. http://lac.unwomen.org/en/donde-estamos/guatemala
4. United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Reports. Table 5: Gender Inequality Index. http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/GII
5. Bevan, Anna-Claire. Guatemala has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, and it’s getting worse. The Tico Times. June 16, 2014. http://ticotimes.net/2014/06/16/guatemala-has-the-highest-teenage-pregnancy-rate-in-latin-america-and-its-getting-worse
6. Doctors Without Borders. Guatemala: Treating sexual violence, breaking the cycle of fear. July 20, 2009. https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/news/guatemala-treating-sexual-violence-breaking-cycle-fear