In Guatemala, cervical cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related deaths among Guatemalan women. While the disease is preventable and highly treatable if detected early, in countries like Guatemala where healthcare is largely inaccessible, it’s a grim story.
Inadequate health centers, lack of knowledge, and geographic barriers make it difficult for women to get screened for cervical cancer in Guatemala. Ten years ago, WINGS developed its Cervical Cancer Prevention Program to overcome these challenges by providing visual inspection with acetic acid and immediate cryotherapy treatment for pre-cancerous cells. We continue to offer these life-saving services in stationary clinics in Sololá, Cobán and Antigua, and through our mobile clinics, which travel to the most remote areas of the country to reach underserved women. We have provided lifesaving services to improve the lives of thousands of women in Guatemala, even within our own team!
41 year old WINGS’ Nurse Rosy was born in a rural community in San Cristobal, located in northern Guatemala. Rosy travels every month with our mobile team to provide family planning information and contraceptives to the most remote areas of the country.
Like many of the girls and women we serve, Rosy has faced many challenges in her life. When she was only 15 years old, her family forced her to marry a man who turned out to be abusive. Sadly, in Guatemala it is very common for young girls to be married off without their consent. Rosy suffered through her marriage because, similar to many women in her situation, she didn’t have a say in any decisions. Although Rosy was finally able to separate from her husband, the difficulties persisted. As a single mother, Rosy had to figure out how to make ends meet so she could feed her four children and send them to school. Luckily, her former father-in-law was very supportive and encouraged her to go back to school.
Rosy and her family had never received any information about reproductive health and prior to resuming her studies, she knew very little about her own health in general. As a child, she lost her mom and aunt to cervical cancer. Neither had ever been screened and Rosy was terrified that the she would face the same health burden.
However, as an Assistant Nurse providing these important services throughout Northern Guatemala, Rosy decided to undergo a screening with our team. Unfortunately, our staff discovered abnormal cell growth which could lead to cancer, but our team treated Rosy immediately.
As Rosy shared with our team that day, “I am truly grateful to WINGS for supporting me and allowing me to keep being a mother to my children. I now have my nursing diploma and I am so proud to be able to help people who need it. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with WINGS; I love every part of my job. I give educational talks to different communities in my native Mayan language; I provide different birth control methods; and I screen women to help prevent cervical cancer. This work is so important and I hope that I can keep doing it forever.”
Like Rosy’s aunt and mother, there are thousands of women in Guatemala who do not know about the causes of cervical cancer and how to prevent it. WINGS has worked endlessly to change this and provide information and reproductive health services to Guatemalan women in need. In 2015, we surpassed our cervical cancer screening projection by 141%, ensuring that 3,062 women were able to undergo preventive screenings. And in the first three months of 2016 alone, we have already provided 496 cervical cancer screenings. Moving forward, we will continue providing these imperative services, thanks to your unwavering support.
To support women like Rosy, make a donation to WINGS today.
Elma grew up in Chiqueleu, a rural village in the highlands of Guatemala. Having grown up in a remote location with scarce access to education or health services, Elma never learned about contraceptive methods or reproductive health.
She became pregnant at a young age. It came to Elma as a big surprise, mainly because she didn’t understand how one becomes pregnant. She shared that in her community no one ever talks about sex or family planning. Even though 69% of the population in Guatemala is less than 30 years old, sexual education still hasn’t reached most public schools, and HIV prevention programs have been focused on sexual abstinence and delaying first sexual intercourse.
When Elma told her boyfriend that she was pregnant, he said that the baby wasn’t his, and disappeared from her life, never to be seen or heard from again. Elma was devastated. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in patriarchal countries where gender roles are still very traditional. Guatemala is one of the most gender unequal countries in the world. Men are not typically held accountable and many people believe that solely women are responsible for their pregnancies. In Elma’s case, most of her community and family shunned her, launching her deeper into depression.
“Once I saw the results, I couldn’t stop crying, plus my boyfriend had just left me completely alone. I honestly came close to committing suicide because I could not find a solution. Luckily, I made the right decision and I’m still here.”
Elma says that 4 years ago, nobody in Chiqueleu had access to or knowledge about contraceptive methods. Now, WINGS has impacted her community tremendously by making contraceptive methods available and providing reproductive health education. Thanks to this, Elma has had the opportunity to further her education; she only has 2 more semesters left to finish nursing school! “I am going to continue seeking advice from the WINGS volunteer promoter so that I can continue to plan my life, finish my studies and move forward”.
Did you know that 1 in 3 indigenous women in Guatemala have no access to health and family planning services? Along with that, only 14% of indigenous girls in rural areas complete primary school. Guatemala has the highest fertility rate in Latin America and the Caribbean, it has among the highest rates of adolescent pregnancies, and one of the highest rates of unmet contraceptive need. Twenty-two percent of women give birth before the age of 18. One big issue is that once adolescent girls become mothers, they are far less likely to re- enter the education system. In fact, 40% of adolescent mothers in Central America never finish their education.
Education is positively associated with contraceptive use by increasing awareness, acceptability, and utilization of family planning services. It is critical that people learn about contraceptives so they can choose if, when, and how many children to have. It is equally as important to raise awareness and increase acceptability to sexual health so that these topics stop being a taboo in Guatemala. This will result in people not being afraid or embarrassed to seek counseling and information regarding their reproductive health. Reproductive health services are important so that all Guatemalans have the opportunity to complete their education, pursue their goals, and break the cycle of poverty in this country.
To support women’s empowerment and to break the cycle of poverty, WINGS has various different programs that have a direct, cost effective impact on education, poverty, health, and gender inequality.
Though we have stationary clinics in Antigua, Cobán and Sololá, we are aware that there are many women in need who are living in very remote areas of the country. For this reason, we also have mobile clinics that go out to those areas, to provide both short-term and long-acting reversible contraception, cervical cancer screenings, and treatment for the most commonly occurring STIs. We do cervical cancer screenings and same-day cryotherapy treatment for pre-cancerous cells that may lead to cervical cancer. We also offer affordable tubal ligations and vasectomies; the donation cost is typically Q50, roughly $6, but we cover the costs for those who cannot afford it.
We offer community-based counselling and distribution of low-cost short-term methods through our network of volunteer family planning promoters, who have an intimate linguistic and cultural knowledge of the communities they serve. They provide quality counselling, low-cost contraceptive methods and referrals to WINGS for additional services.
We also train young women and men (ages 14 to 19) as Youth Leaders who provide accurate reproductive health information and service referrals to their peers through community-based activities. We improve the quality of information and services by training staff members of women’s rights and youth organizations, public health service providers, and partner organizations.
In Elma’s words, “Here in my community, we had no contraceptive methods in the past. Women here have wanted access to these methods for a long time now. It was very hard for me to tell you my story, but I thank you so much for visiting me, for the advice you have given me, and for strengthening our families through reproductive health.”