By: Denise Restauri; Originally posted on Forbes
Elba Graciela Velásquez Hernández is a 16-year-old indigenous girl activist from Guatemala. The oldest of six children and proud daughter of Dario and Olivia, Elba is from Concepción Chiquirichapa, a small Maya Mam community in the country’s Western Highlands. She plans on studying law and becoming a lawyer and journalist. Her dream for the future is a world with better opportunities for adolescent girls, one where girls become respected leaders in their communities. Elba is a leader in Let Girls Lead’s girls’ empowerment program and a star of the upcoming short film ¡PODER!, which tells the story of how she and her friends convinced their town to stop discriminating against girls and start supporting girls’ education, health, and empowerment. The word poder has a double meaning, both “power” and “ability.” My interview with Elba:
What do you think is one of the most important things in the world that needs to be fixed?
The lack of educational opportunities and the discrimination against indigenous girls and women are the biggest barriers facing girls like me. A few years ago, my parents wanted to pull me out of school because they didn’t think it was important to invest so much in a daughter who would likely end up a housewife. I desperately wanted to continue my studies because I liked participating in class and dreamed of one day becoming a lawyer. My grandfather had always encouraged me to stay in school and he was able to help me convince my parents that I deserved an education just as much as my brothers. This experience made me realize that I needed to stand up and speak on behalf of other girls who might not have the support of someone like my grandfather.
In the upcoming short film I star in, ¡PODER!, we show some of these negative attitudes towards girls’ empowerment, from boys telling us that we shouldn’t be in school because we’ll just end up pregnant and drop out, to the Mayor advising us not to worry about matters best left to adults. We need to work to change our parents’ and the opinions of decision-makers, to show them that even though we’re teenage girls, we can achieve what we set out to do, and that we deserve to be treated the same way as everyone else.
What will it look like when it’s fixed?
Girls everywhere will be able to enjoy their rights with dignity, including the right to education, health, protection, and participation. Girls will be consulted on issues that matter in their communities, with representation – a voice and a vote, as we say in Guatemala. I’ve already seen the positive impact that my own participation has had on myself and my family. I had the opportunity of a lifetime when I was invited to New York City last month to speak at Social Good Summit about the work I do in my own community. It was my first time outside of Guatemala, and I had to stand up in front of thousands of important people and share my story. I felt a little nervous, but mostly proud to share my story. After all, I had lots of experience speaking in front of adults. After my presentation, my father called me excitedly from Guatemala to congratulate me and tell me how happy he was to have such an accomplished and inspiring daughter.
What are you doing to help fix it?
Starting three years ago, in the town where I live, a group of us girls worked with an adult ally, a woman named Juany Garcia, to make our town a better place to be a girl. We learned about advocacy and human rights, practiced our public speaking skills, and developed a policy proposal to fund girls’ education and health programs in our community. It took some convincing, but the Mayor finally agreed to fund our proposal, and is now one of our biggest supporters. We achieved this milestone in a town where fewer than 10% of girls complete school, which is a major achievement. People have started to take notice of our success, and with the help of Let Girls Lead and Emmy-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell, we’re sharing our story in ¡PODER!, our short film. I hope that girls in other countries see ¡PODER! and are inspired to create change in their communities, too.
I’m continuing to work to convince parents and decision-makers that girls and young women are capable of doing may positive things for future girls and for our communities. Even just by going to school, I am showing them that school isn’t only for boys. In my community and around the world, I want to achieve equality of opportunities for boys and girls.
What can others do to help fix it?
We need support from adult allies like Juany to help us gain the knowledge and skills to achieve our dreams. Juany works with Let Girls Lead, a global campaign that empowers girls and their allies to lead social change through advocacy, education, economic empowerment, storytelling, and partnership. Let Girls Lead has helped share the story of our success in Guatemala, and here are two easy ways that you can support us, too:
1) Help girls like me share our stories: Empower and encourage a girl you know to raise her voice and lead change in her family, school, or community. Encourage girls to share their inspiring stories with others by uploading their 1-2 minute video clips to Let Girls Lead’s interactive girls’ media platform.
2) Champion girl-led change: Learn about the realities facing girls around the world. Invest in programs to support girls locally and globally, and share your commitment with your friends, networks, and community. ¡PODER! will premiere in March 2014 for International Women’s Day, and I hope you’ll watch it, and help spread the word that girls have the power to create change.
3) Above all, everyone — especially adults — must trust in the capacity of adolescent girls and give them the opportunity of better education. The world needs to let girls define what living a good life means to us and how we want to achieve it.