Revolutionizing Guatemala

guatemalan children

Revolutionizing Guatemala, One Sex Education Workshop at a Time

Like many post-graduate students who finally leave the cocoon of university, I was lost. Nine years of university had left me with plenty of airy-fairy theoretical knowledge and fancy ideas which, for the most part, no corporation was willing to pay for. The reality of my situation began to sink in: I was unemployed and, given my lack of practical work experience and my ideological beliefs – you know, that we should all be socially responsible human beings in private and in business – perhaps, unemployable. As the student loan debt collector began to call more frequently, I realized that I needed to act fast. I needed a job and this meant doing one of two things: leave the ideology at home or take a job that pays little but offers a lot of „feel good benefits.‟

Guatemalan mother and her children

Guatemalan mother and her children

Opting for the latter, I found my first job in international development with a nongovernmental organization called Women’s International Network for Guatemalan Solutions (or WINGS for short), which provides reproductive health education and family planning services to underprivileged Guatemalans. For someone who used to have a board game called “Sexual Trivia‟ that quizzes participants on the symptoms and prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (thanks for that one Mom) and who used to listen to Rhona Raskin’s “Sex, Lies and Audiotape‟ rather religiously as a teenager, not to mention nine years studying gender and development at university, it was the perfect inaugural job.

 

You might ask “how exactly is reproductive health education and family planning linked to development?” and you certainly would not be the first. The link might be unobvious, but the ties are very strong. For starters, take the availability, accessibility and acceptability of contraceptives. When a couple does not use a contraceptive they may have more children than they can feed, clothe and educate, leading to the physical and mental stunting associated with malnourishment and the under-education of youth. Or, to take another example, when a woman continues to have child after child, pregnancy complications are more likely to occur, she is less able to participate in the paid workforce and, as a result of high rates of population growth, greater pressure is placed on public services and natural resources. Furthermore, a lack of access to contraceptives means greater numbers of deaths from unsafe abortions and a higher level of STIs. I could go on.

alicia wings

Alicia, one of WIGS youth trainers

Indeed, family planning addresses seven of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals. It helps to: end poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases and encourage environmental sustainability. The link between reproductive health education, family planning and development is, therefore, not as obscure as one might initially think. Moreover, for those women who can think back to the revolution of the pill, they will likely remember the personal liberation that came from the ability to decide when, or if, and how many children to have. While reproductive health education and family planning might be part of the key to national development in the long run, they have an immediate and positive effect on the lives of women today.

 

It seems so simple: contraceptives = development, but, of course, there is a catch. Women in many developing countries face a slew of barriers to accessing family planning, and not all of them can be easily overcome by making affordable or free contraceptives  available. In Guatemala, where only a third of women of reproductive age use a modern form of birth control (Guttmacher Institute), women’s partners often present a formidable barrier to their use. Given the fact that my boyfriend is quite happy (overjoyed actually) to delay having children, this was quite a foreign concept to me. But machismo (roughly translated as male chauvinism) runs very strong in Guatemala and many men believe that only women with loose morals use contraceptives. There is also a belief that the more children a man fathers, the more man he is. Many husbands are, therefore, not too keen, to put it mildly, to allow their wives to use a contraceptive, let alone use one themselves. In fact, one could say that machismo is standing in the way of development. Changing this is not exactly easy, but I had an experience while on the job that gave me hope.

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