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.
I write this post from the inspiring Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo, which is made of three ancient historic houses. I feel like I am in a totally serene and distant place. From my room, I can hear the traditional Marimba music being played live from the hotel restaurant. I just finished having an incredible meal from the "much" (plentiful) items on the menu — which included grilled pork served with rice, potatoes, refried beans, and corn tortillas. The authentic Guatemalan meal was a welcome change since normally I would have been at the University of Maryland Cafeteria, eating a sandwich on a bagel on the go!
I had an amazing experience today just listening to the first-hand accounts from young women, close to my age (20), who have benefited from the leadership of Dr. Marta Julia Ruiz, the 2010 Americans for UNFPA International Honoree. Dr. Ruiz works for the Population Council, which, like Americans for UNFPA, is headquartered in New York.
In a region where women are considered less valuable than men, Dr. Marta Ruiz certainly seems to have broken through the cultural barrier and led by example. She is living proof as to how one woman's strong leadership can bring about positive change in communities worldwide. Today, Dr. Ruiz and members of the Population Council helped me understand how UNFPA enhanced the lives of indigenous young women throughout Guatemala. In 2007, UNFPA provided the Population Council with a $100,000 grant to create and support the "Abriendo Oportunidades" program, in which indigenous girls from ages 8 to 18 create community-based leadership, through participation in clubs and special programs designed to educate young girls on reproductive health, education, and life skills. I also found out that these blog posts that I write, which are published by Marie Claire, will be used to help teach and improve their English skills. How exciting!
I met five of the first-year graduates today, and they spoke passionately about how inspiring Dr. Ruiz's work and the program has been for them. Their enthusiasm for education and self-empowerment paints a clear picture of how UNFPA's work gives women the tools to create change in their lives, in their communities, and eventually their countries.
The story of student and mentor Silvia Ester touched me deeply. Silvia dropped out of school at age 15 due to family pressures — she had only completed her middle school education. In Guatemala, many girls are taken out of school to care for younger siblings and are trapped in a social sphere of domestic duties. After applying for the program, Silvia completed school and is currently enrolled in her second year of college, studying social work. She credits the work of Marta Ruiz as, giving her "the opportunity to dream."
These mentors are the first women to ever finish secondary school, and now college, in their families. Their motivation and desire for an education is inspiring and sets a strong precedent for the generations of girls to come. Wow — I am so overwhelmed and grateful to be a part of this.
Read all of Ola's blog posts:
Seeking Inspiration from Maryland to Guatemala City