How Maya Women are Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Guatemala

Elena, a Mil Milagros community board member, stands outside of her home with her brother and son.

21 years after the end of a civil war that took the lives of 200,000, and estimated 95 % lost by the indigenous peoples in Guatemala, little has been done to bring justice or economic opportunity to the indigenous Maya. Most of the eight million indigenous Maya people who live in Guatemala suffer from poverty.

According to the World Bank, four in five indigenous Maya in Guatemala are poor and they are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty than others in the country. The life expectancy for the indigenous Maya is 13 years shorter than others in the country and the infant mortality rate is more than twice as high.

Poverty affects indigenous Maya women the most. One in three indigenous Maya women has no access to health or reproductive services,.More than 70% of their children are malnourished which causes them to be stunted and condemns them to lifelong learning problems The UN reports that at least two women are killed violently every day in Guatemala, representing one of the highest rates of femicide in the world.

Most indigenous Maya women in rural Guatemala are unable to access the formal labor market due to cultural expectations and lack of education.

The average years of schooling for indigenous Maya women is three and many indigenous Maya women often see no other options for their lives other than to marry and bear children. 40% of indigenous Maya women are married by age 18. The fertility rate in Guatemala is the highest in all of Latin America at 4.4 births per woman, andthe rate is much higher among indigenous women.

“This male chauvenism has always existed,” says Claudia, a Mil Milagros Community Coordinator. “Women are expected to stay in the home and provide food for their children. Women still have to ask permission from the man to go to meetings, and the men still decide what women are supposed to do.”

A young child hugs his mother’s skirt in rural Guatemala.

Despite the many structural and cultural setbacks they face, rural indigenous Maya women are Guatemala’s greatest untapped resource in helping the country reach the Sustainable Development Goals. The model is simple: provide the resources and the training for mothers and grandmothers to lead and implement programs that support healthy community development including nutrition, education, health, and hygieneMil Milagros has been doing this since 2007 and the success has been astounding. Some of the numbers include:

  1. Sixth grade completion has more than doubled. Attendance rates soar because the children come to school so they can eat. In regions of Guatemala where primary school completion is just 40%, in Mil Milagros partner schools it is 97%.
  2. Chronic malnutrition has decreased by half. Through Early Childhood Development workshops and by providing nutritional supplements and vitamins to mothers, malnutrition has decreased by 50%.
  3. Women are making sustainable changes in their homes. They are investing more in things to prevent illness and promote good health like hand soap and toilet paper, expensive items in rural Guatemala where most families live on less than $2 per day.
  4. Women are leading and teaching other women. In rural Guatemala it is uncommon for indigenous Maya women to hold leadership positions in their communities. In the past 10 years, however, more than 200 women have been trained as Leaders. “I had a group of mothers here in my home. So I took advantage of the fact that we were all together and I gave them a little talk about not eating too much sugar. Because it’s true, when you learn something, you have to teach it to others. Right? It’s not about learning something and then watching as your neighbor does the wrong thing. You have to explain to her what’s good and what’s not. So, yes, I like [being a Mother Leader]. I like to learn and I like to teach.”
A young girl helps at an Early Childhood Development workshop by giving nutritional supplements to a mother.

Perhaps the most impactful, yet hardest to measure aspect of this model is the camaraderie and the women-led change that is occurring. Making small, sustainable changes in the home — such as having the whole family wash their hands before eating or introducing the use of clean drinking water in a country where 98% of the water is contaminated — and encouraging others in the community to do so can prevent malnutrition and disease in entire communities.

“At the beginning, I was uncomfortable. I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ The kids might not listen to me. But, in the end, it’s like we get bigger and stronger in the groups. Now I am brave enough to talk in front of people,” says a mother about working with the children to make positive health and nutritional changes in the community.

Indigenous Maya community leaders and a child pose in a Mil Milagros partner commuity in rural Guatemala.

Mil Milagros/A Thousand Miracles partners with communities to prevent malnutrition and hunger and to improve children’s health and education in Guatemala. With just $13, you can join us and these women by providing the resources to feed a child for a whole month.