Discovering Women's "Safe Space" in Guatemala

Odunola Ojewumi, a college student who won UNFPA's Student Award, journeys to Central America to learn about women's issues.

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.

Today we set out to Chuinimachicaj, to visit a safe space for girls — one of the Abriendo Oportunidades programs started by Dr. Ruiz. The car ride was really bumpy as we drove across dirt roads, and I was admittedly scared as I held on tight to the overhead handle. My fears subsided when I looked out the window and saw endless stretches of green pastures filled with maize, wheat and beans — it was the perfect distraction. It had been raining heavily and we almost had to turn around because the roads were too wet for the video crew's car to go over. Thankfully, Dr. Ruiz's vehicle was just a few minutes behind, so we transferred the video crew into her car (a four-wheel drive) and carried on.

The Centro Comunitario Chuinimachicaj is the "safe space" community center and meeting place for the mentoring clubs. It reminded me of an unfinished basement, with folding chairs as the only accessory.

Twenty-four inquisitive second to sixth grade girls greeted me, all dressed in colorfully embroidered blouses that many had made themselves. They laughed when I told them I couldn't even stitch a button! One of the girls, Claeline, said: "My dream is to be a teacher and a mentor, I want to help other children." Half of the girls want to be doctors, and the other half want to be teachers like Dr. Ruiz, who is a little bit of both.

As funny as it sounds, I was truly hoping the girls would like me. Soon enough, they were asking if they could touch my braids and whether I had a boyfriend. They had a lot of questions for me, and I told them about my personal struggle: having a heart and kidney transplant in seventh grade. I urged them to believe that obstacles should not get in the way of dreams. We bonded even more as their eyes opened wide and it was clear that my words echoed those of their mentors.

Chuinimachicaj is a region where seven out of 10 women are illiterate. Claeline's dreams of being a teacher were inspired by this program, where she learned to aspire to more than the path of her mother and ancestors. With the support of UNFPA and Population Council, these women are creating a new legacy for their community by sharing their lessons with their neighbors and friends.

My two years of high school Spanish began to pay off as the girls grabbed me to play one of their games, "Atención Concentración." I was in the middle, and all of them danced around me. I moved my hips to the beat and began singing "Atención, Atención." This will be one of those fun memories that will stick with me forever. These girls have the same hopes and dreams I had when I was younger. They are no different to children in America — trying to discover who they are, and dreaming of how they will impact the world around them.

This experience helped reinforce my views that as Americans, we have an obligation to the international community. Our help is needed in advocacy to support organizations like UNFPA, which can in turn fund more of these programs. If you agree and have been touched by what I have written here, please share your support by visiting UNFPA's action site.

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

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