One Woman Opens Doors for Generation of Girls

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Odunola Ojewumi is the Marie Claire and United Nations Population Fund winner of the fourth annual Americans for UNFPA Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. Ola, a sophomore from the University of Maryland College Park, is blogging directly from her weeklong visit to Guatemala.

My trip to Guatemala will be coming to an end soon — I can't believe how fast time flies! I remember the exact moment I learned that I would be traveling to meet Dr. Ruiz, who won the 2010 Americans for UNFPA Award for the Health Dignity of Women. Today, in an in-depth conversation, I finally learned how Dr. Ruiz came to be who she is and why she decided to help open new windows of opportunity for adolescent girls in Guatemala.

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As mentioned in my earlier posts, Dr. Ruiz founded the Population Council's education and empowerment program, Abriendos Oportunidades. When I arrived at the Population Council today, Dr. Ruiz was in the middle of a workshop with mentors of the program. They played a team-building game and then she gave each girl some one-on-one time for guidance. Later, she switched gears and spoke confidently into the camera as we interviewed her for a video being produced about her award. As I watched her in her element today, I began to understand more about the passion that ignited the creation of this program.

As a successful indigenous woman, Dr. Ruiz's achievements are a rarity and an inspiration. She balanced going to school with her household chores, and helped take care of her seven siblings. Abriendos Oportunidades grew out of a research project on adolescent girls, where the initial data showed these girls had zero opportunities in life. Due to financial constraints, many dropped out in middle school, in favor of their assistance around the house — this entraps them in an ongoing cycle of poverty. Dr. Ruiz found that indigenous girls, in particular, had no goals or professional aspirations, so she created Abriendos Oportunidades as a catalyst for them to break out of the cyclical effect of poverty.

"The girls [in our program] can see changes in their abilities to have life plans," explained Dr. Ruiz. "In order for them to get out of poverty, they need to do something with their lives." Dr. Ruiz strives to help girls and parents understand the advantages of delaying marriage and childbirth, and focusing first on their education and life skills.

One aspect of her program involves helping college-aged women obtain paid internships with non-profits. When this happens, their status in the community immediately improves: they have an income and paid employment at a credible organization — a rarity for indigenous girls.

The program reaches younger girls as well, in two different age brackets, 8 to 12 and 13 to 18. It's hard for me to think of 8-year-olds as adolescents, but since many Mayan girls get married just a few years later, the program aims to reach them early — so that by the time they reach puberty, they will be informed about their rights and be able to make educated decisions on their life choices. Dr. Ruiz's stellar track record with the older girls has made it easier to get parents to enroll their younger children in her girls clubs. As a requirement to participate in Abriendos Oportunidades, the girls must stay in school and learn Spanish in order to become bilingual.

Dr. Ruiz considers her work to be essential, preventative medicine. When girls understand that they are valued, and they learn about their bodies, sex education, self-esteem, and gender-based violence, they can rise out of poverty, secure their future and protect their health, rights, and dignity. I never fully understood how much positive impact one person can have on the lives of so many. I can only hope that I am able to do the same someday through organizations like UNFPA/a> and Americans for UNFPA.

Read all of Ola's blog posts:
Seeking Inspiration from Maryland to Guatemala City

Exhausted in Antigua, the Land of Eternal Spring

Meeting the Guatemalan Girls of Abriendo Oportunidades

Discovering Women's "Safe Space" in Guatemala

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