In the fight for girls’ education, this Guatemalan teen won’t take no for an answer

(Courtesy of Misha Friedman / NPR)

(Courtesy of Misha Friedman / NPR)

After the town mayor laughed her away, Emelin perseveres to get funding for girls’ education.

Looking around her rural community of Concepción Chiquirichapa in Guatemala, 13 year-old Emelin didn’t like what she saw. Too many girls were out of school — prevented from reaching their potential by societal forces outside their control.

“The mindset [was] that it was normal for girls not to finish school,” Emelin told NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.

Guatemala has 2 million children not in school and the majority of them are indigenous girls like Emelin who live in rural areas, according to Global Education Fund. Early marriage, limited funding and poverty are some of the main barriers preventing girls from attending school. With only 14% of girls in this region finishing secondary school, a girl was more likely to have a child by the age of 18 than a high school diploma.

Emelin set out to change that. She knew the power of her voice — and decided to use it. Along with her friend Elba, she met with community leaders to demand girls in her community get access to education.

To start, they came up with a proposal of ways to address these barriers preventing girls from finishing their education and presented those plans to the town’s mayor.

The mayor did not share Emelin and Elba’s commitment to girls’ education. In fact, he laughed in their faces. “You are wasting my time — you should go home,” he told them.

Despite this setback, Emelin and Elba did not give up. They continued to advocate for the rights of girls in their village. They teamed up with Let Girls Lead, a girls’ leadership initiative that trained them in public speaking and advocacy.

They used these skills to gain prominence in their small community, with the newspaper, television and radio stations all covering their work. Soon, the mayor who laughed them away had no choice but to pay attention to their campaign.

Almost seven months after their first meeting with him, the town mayor signed legislation to fund their proposals. Thanks to the perseverance and commitment of Emelin and Elba, girls in their village now have better access to education and health care. The Municipal Office of Childhood and Adolescence was constructed as a result of their advocacy.

News of their incredible work in Guatemala received international recognition. In 2015, Emelin was invited to speak at the United Nations alongside then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and Melinda Gates.

Knowing firsthand the awesome potential of girls to speak out and create change, Emelin declared in her speech at the UN, “We [adolescent girls] have a voice and we are going to use it.”

An educated girl is a force to be reckoned with. Now 17 years-old, we can’t wait to see what Emelin does next.



Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.