The invisible girl lives in rural areas, seldom attends secondary school, marries early and has little control over how often she becomes pregnant and how many children she has. She escapes national data because she is hard to reach and expensive to serve. Yet, she is expected to raise her children free of malnutrition, stay healthy, and contribute to the overall well-being of her community. She appears in brochures to fundraise or promote tourism, provided she’s smiling.
This girl exists to the State up to the age of two, when she’s taken for vaccination. She reappears at the age of six or seven, or whenever she gets a chance to attend elementary school. Once she completes sixth grade, she would only be counted if there is a census, or as a member of a household in one of the national surveys. She will again be eligible for a State-run program when she becomes pregnant. Sometimes the gap between leaving school and marriage is a year; sometimes it is a bit more. In the meantime, she will work at home, collaborate in agricultural production or help her family sell these products. She will be courted and will marry and move to her husband’s family home.
This persistent pattern is often labeled “inevitable” or “part of the culture” and thus relegated in the list of official priorities. Yet, we cannot claim that girls “choose” to marry and bear children early if they are not aware of other alternatives. Racism and ethnocentrism play an important role in keeping these girls invisible, and therefore irrelevant. Ignoring their needs is equivalent to planning poverty.
THE COST OF INVISIBILITY
Programs that target these girls have demonstrated that well contextualized, girl-centered planning works. Girls respond well to programs that focus on building self-esteem and skills, are rights-based and focus on their health and family planning decisions as part of a process that remains girl-centered. Girls recognize the challenges of marrying early and the hardship of having little control over their fertility. Attending school and skills-based programs constitute a protective factor that allows them to postpone their transition to adulthood.
Guatemala will not change overnight but working to make girls visible is a step in the right direction of reaching them. However, there is an ongoing bias in favor of in-school, urban youth. In Guatemala, it is easy to make a case for almost every segment of the population and rural girls have historically “lost” when programs make choices based on cost and accessibility. Today, ⅓ of rural adolescents aged eighteen and younger are pregnant or already mothers. There are services that, if minimal, are available to them. The other two thirds are home, working for little or no pay, most likely in the informal sector. Fewer than 15% will be enrolled in high school. Their chances of participating in programs, governmental or not, will decrease once they are married and have children. There is not much choice in this.
Alejandra Colom is a Senior Program Director with the Population Council, managing program activities in Guatemala, and a WINGS’ board member. You can learn more about her and her work at the Population Council.