In impoverished countries such as Guatemala, education and other opportunities for women and girls could help substantially in improving the state’s overall economic health. However, Guatemalan women, particularly those belonging to the Mayan tribe, are all but ignored when it comes to proper education and healthcare. Rebecca Ross ’14 spent the summer in Guatemala, analyzing the conditions facing Mayan women and studying the concept of battling poverty through gender equality. Her research was funded through an Emerson Grant.
At least 65 percent of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line, and most of this poverty is concentrated in the country’s Mayan population. At the same time, indigenous Mayans comprise at least 50 percent of Guatemala’s overall population. As a result, indigenous communities have the country’s highest rates of illiteracy, and both the education and healthcare available to these people is of low quality and limited availability. Guatemala also has one of the highest birth rates in the hemisphere.
Mayan women are largely absent from governments and decision-making spaces and they lack a strong presence in their communities. Their voices are often unheard, their basic needs unmet, and their potential unused. Ross explains, “My research was aimed at sifting through Guatemala’s racial and gendered dynamics to see how they intersect with the country’s poverty levels.” After a few weeks of preliminary research using written materials, she spent 6 weeks in Nahuala, Guatemala, a town in the department of Sololá with a 100 percent indigenous population. Ross conducted filmed interviews of women, including house servants, pioneers in women’s and community organizations, donut-makers, and deaf weavers.
The experience required Ross to immerse herself completely in Nahuala’s culture and community, which she was particularly looking forward to. She wanted to understand the oppression and discrimination that these women face, both because of their gender and their Mayan heritage, and to examine how some women resist these harsh conditions. This case-study approach allowed her to forge close and important relationships with the women of Nahuala. Her findings support the theory that increased gender equality would work to combat the extreme poverty in the area.
This sort of poverty-alleviating formula, referred to as the “girl effect,” is a method that is used worldwide. The formula aims to empower girls as well as boys through better education, give women the freedom to move to cities and find work, and promote later marriage and reduced childbearing. Initiatives like these can be so successful that they may boost the national savings rate.
Ross is very interested in pursuing issues of social injustice and gender equality, and she is considering becoming a women’s studies major. At Hamilton, Ross is on the Recycling Task Force, she is a head tutor for America Reads, and is involved in HEAG and Amnesty International. She adds, “I am interested in poverty and gender equality and how art can be used as a tool of empowerment.”
Rebecca Ross is a graduate of Lincoln East High School in Nebraska.