One blistering Guatemalan afternoon in February, 86-year-old Candelaria gathered with three generations of women in her family to watch her great-granddaughters, Rosalina and Elvira, receive bicycles. The indigenous women, their skin wizened from decades of cocoa farming, were dressed in colorful huipils, a traditional square-cut blouse made with an embroidered design — a nod to their ancient-Mayan heritage, shared by 40 percent of the population. These simple hot-pink bicycles, unremarkable for many American teenagers, transform their three-mile walks to school, through unpaved stretches of bumpy terrain, into short rides — and will hopefully break the cycle of poverty in their family.
"I've only ever seen men ride bicycles," she said, fondling her great-granddaughters' helmets and laughing like a schoolgirl. "Girls riding them — and to schools? Never!"
Indeed, it's only recently that girls in Chisec, a disenfranchised municipality in the north, have attended school regularly. Facing severe poverty, indigenous families like Candelaria's often raise girls to farm and grow cocoa on nearby fields.
Last February, SchoolCycle (my initiative with the UN Foundation's Girl Up campaign) distributed hundreds of bicycles to indigenous schoolgirls like Rosalina and Elvira. Around the world, prohibitively long distances to school keep many young girls at home. While a bicycle is no silver bullet to endemic poverty, it's a tangible piece of a complex puzzle that gives girls autonomy and more ownership of their futures.
By age fifteen, six out of ten indigenous girls are out of school. By age eighteen, almost 40 percent of Mayan girls are married — nearly twice the percentage of nonindigenous girls. While Guatemala's population is one of the youngest and fastest-growing in Latin America, it's also the least educated: only 39 percent of indigenous women are literate, compared to 77 percent of nonindigenous women. In isolated indigenous regions, one can go miles without seeing a school or hospital, especially one with speakers in their local language.
"Long walks everywhere in this country is just one reminder that you don't have a place in society," says 24-year-old Elvira Cuc Choc, a mentor with a group called Abriendo Oportunidades ("Opening Opportunities"). Funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the energetic group of young indigenous women mentor girls ages eight to eighteen. Since launching in 2004, they've reached thousands of girls, providing reproductive-health education and free tutoring.
"This bike means that not only can we go places, but we can get there ourselves," Cuc Choc says while showing her mentees how to ride. "Girls will be more motivated to go and stay in school because they know they're more in control of their destinies."