Can educating girls save Guatemala?

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Molly: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: Cristen, you and I are just one of the many podcasts in the Howstuffworks family. There are many.

Cristen: Indeed.

Molly: You should listen to all of them because they're all great, but we're going to talk about one project of the Stuff You Should Know podcast.

Cristen: Yes, Stuff You Should Know, hosted by Josh and Chuck.

Molly: They got back from Guatemala and they just put out these two podcasts about their time in Guatemala, what they saw, what they learned about the situation in the area, and also the work of this organization, The Cooperative for Education, which we're going to call COED for the rest of the podcast.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: That's an organization that works with children to give them the education that they need to break out of this cycle of poverty.

Cristen: Right, because in the States, we think it's pretty common for a kid turns 5, 6, he goes off to school. Then 18, not 18 years later - then we go through school, we graduate, go to college, whatever. It's a natural part of life in the States for a lot of people. In Guatemala, not the case, so the work of COED is very important to try to reach out to these kids, get them textbooks, get them libraries, get the computers, all things that we take for granted in the States. Molly and I wanted to follow up on the two really great podcasts that Josh and Chuck just put out about their time in Guatemala and the work that COED is doing because we wanted to focus on what's going on with the girls in that country.

Molly: It really draws upon some other podcasts we've done, Cristen. We've done a lot of podcasts that talk about how education is the key for eliminating poverty in many developing countries. I feel like we've always sorta talked about that in the abstract.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: Now we have this really great case study we can look at in terms of Guatemala about how you can really take a situation that's not great for a lot of women and girls, give them the education, and see how those problems can change with education.

Cristen: Yeah. Especially, again, when - research shows over and over again that when you really target girls in the developing countries, it can help have just enormous ripple effects throughout the entire society. So Molly, why don't we just dig in a little bit to stats to give people an overview of the situation for girls in Guatemala. While education is not entirely accessible to both boys and girls, for girls it's a lot less common for them to go to school, and extremely uncommon for them to actually finish school as we would think of in the States.

Molly: Right. So let's talk about sort of let's get the sad stuff out of the way because I think what happens in this country is you hear about all these problems and you don't know how to address them.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: At the end, we'll show you how you can actually address them by helping girls get more education. So let's talk about the situation for women in Guatemala.

Cristen: Yeah. So just in terms of education, the average years the kid will go to school who lives in a rural indigenous community in Guatemala is only 1.2 years for girls. That's compared to 8 years for urban non-indigenous males. Then in primary school, it's actually one of the few countries in Latin America where fewer girls will complete primary school than boys.

Molly: Part of this is just because parents sometimes can't afford to send all of their children to school, so they'll send the boys, but not the girls. They might keep the girls home to do the cooking, the cleaning, and they just don't realize that what they're doing is they're sorta cutting off all the future moneymaking opportunities these girls might have.

Cristen: Exactly, because statistics have shown that females who complete a secondary education will earn 54 percent more than they would with no education, compared to males who complete secondary education would earn 27 percent more than they would. So that's kinda one example of why you hear over and over, and over again that educating girls yields such a greater investment. Not to say that boys don't need education as well, but you get more ROI, if you will, return on investment.

Molly: But it's more than just moneymaking; it also has a tremendous impact on the health of the country. When a woman only has limited access to education, she has a higher chance of dying in childbirth, her children have a higher mortality rate when they are children, and it affects Guatemala's malnutrition rate, which is just awful in comparison to other Latin American countries. It's the worst in Latin America and the fourth worst in the world. So this is another example of how, when you give a child education, they have more money to pay for the food, to improve their health, to buy medicines, things like that. It's more than just making sure they're set up for a career.

Cristen: Uh-huh. I think it's worth noting too, with the malnutrition issue, even though Guatemala's chronic malnutrition rate is the worst in Latin America, it isn't because it is the poorest country. It's not - per capita, it is not actually the poorest country in Latin America, but it has a worse malnutrition rate, which, like you said, it ends up affecting these girls more because it stunts their growth more than boys. Then, of course, it will affect reproductive and maternal health. So I think that that is one indicator of the complex problem that might be linked to education once again.

Molly: So now we talked about the parents pulling the children out of school so that they can cook, clean, and sometimes they just have to put them to work. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child labor in the world. A number from UNICEF shows that 23 percent of children and young people between the ages of 7 and 16 were part of the country's labor force. They're often working in unsafe conditions. So if child labor is a concern of yours, it all goes back to this idea of educating girls.

Cristen: Uh-huh. I think, Molly, one thing that we haven't mentioned that might also give people a better idea of why this social situation is going on and why there is such dire poverty and malnutrition, Guatemala was engaged in a 36-year civil war. The UN-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed. Those numbers are even spotty because a lot of people were actually what's called disappeared during the civil war, in which they just literally disappeared. I mean, they were probably captured and killed, but even still, the country is kinda having to dig its way back out of - I mean, imagine almost 40 years, four decades of civil war. I mean, it's a pretty huge issue.

Molly: You know, Cristen, when I was reading about this civil war, I came across something very heartbreaking, but certainly not limited to Guatemala in any respect, is the use of rape and violence against women as an instrument of war. As a way to intimidate people in villages and to dominate the people you're trying to fight, this idea of raping the women and committing violence against them has continued to this day. There have been high numbers of women murdered every year since the civil war ended. It's really a big problem, this violence against women. The Guatemala Human Right Commission traces it back to this war in terms of sorta institutionalizing this idea that women aren't your equal, that you don't have to treat them with that sort of respect. So I think that, again, they've done these studies about educating girls for longer. When boys see girls in the classroom for longer, they have more respect for them. So that might seem like such a silly comparison to make, but just by keeping a girl in school longer, you learn that they are your equals in some respect.

Cristen: Well, and I think that also brings up an important issues as well, which is early marriage. According to a 2004 UN report, 26 percent of girls in Guatemala between 15 and 19 years of age were either married, divorced or widowed. The interesting thing is, according to the country's family code, the minimum age for a girl to get married is 14 years and she has to have parental consent if she's under 18, unless she has a child or she's pregnant. One thing kinda linked to all of that is we found out that up until 2006 a rapist could be exonerated if he promised to marry his victim - okay, so there we go - unless she was under 12 years old. I mean, those laws have been somewhat tightened since then, but kinda like you said, I think that that feeds into this cycle of devaluing women and violence against women because the laws have been so loose, especially in terms of prosecuting rapists and actually making it a punishable crime.

Molly: Right. And so I think that's where they get stuck, Cristen, in this vicious circle in that women never get that respect because they are so devalued. For example, sexual exploitation of girls, sometimes it's the parents selling their own daughters into this lifestyle because they need the money, and because you're raised to think that the girl is not valuable for anything else.

Cristen: Right, especially in the more urban center in Guatemala, that kind of child sex trafficking is more common. According to UNICEF, the statistic that we got was an estimated 2,000 Guatemalan children being sexually exploited, and the law has been doing little to protect them.

Molly: So again, just to hammer home this idea about educating girls is if the girl's in school and has this promise of having a career one day with the skills she's learning in school, perhaps there's less of a chance that her parents will feel the need to do this. Also, then she too is saved from an early marriage, from having children very young, because she's in school preparing for her future career.

Cristen: Right. I mean, obviously, at this point, we've painted a pretty grim picture, I think, of what's going on in Guatemala. Just to reiterate what you've said, the kinda tangible benefits you'll see from educating girls - and this shown in case study after case study - is that you have reduced rates of fertility. For instance, according to USAID, half of Guatemalan women have a child before the age of 19, and 20 percent have two or more children by their 18th birthday. Then by their early 30s, many women have given birth to seven or eight children. If you're caring for a family of eight or ten, and when you're in dire poverty, I mean, what are you going to do? Obviously, education is probably going to be one of your last resorts, especially if you're in one of these rural indigenous communities where there's not a school on every corner. It's not easy to get textbooks or get in front of a computer. So I think that that's where we can kinda come back to the importance of groups like COED that is filling that gap, that is going in and providing those resources for these people who otherwise wouldn't have it. It's not going to be a priority. The priority is putting food on their table and somehow getting by from day-to-day.

Molly: So we've done a few podcasts where we'll talk about all the problems and, then, we'll say, "Education can fix this because it does X, Y and Z."

Cristen: Now this X, Y and Z, Molly, that you're referring to comes from USAID, and it's pretty great stuff. I mean, studies have shown that educating girls will improve the health and survival rate of infants and children. It reduces the rate of fertility and greater use of modern contraceptive methods. You also obviously have higher rates of school attendance, attainment and completion in the next generation. Like you said, we - it's all about breaking that vicious cycle. The women are keys to that because they have the most influence over their children in the home. Then we also have, as our Z, our No. 4, improvements in the status of women within families, the local community and the political arena. So I mean, it's huge ripple effects not only within these girls' lives, but also within their families, to the community, to the entire country.

Molly: So bearing in mind that girls only get that 1.2 years of education in Guatemala, let's talk about how this organization, COED, is going in and trying to change that, and keep the girls in school and give them the resources they need to make money for their families, to break the cycle of poverty. Let's talk specifically about how their programs accomplish that.

Cristen: Yeah. As Americans, we might think of - we hear the mantra of, "Yeah, stay in school," like it's just something easy to do. In Guatemala, that is much easier said than done.

Molly: So COED, again, we learned about them through Stuff You Should Know. They have these programs that improve education in the hopes of then improving everything else, big ripple effect. Their main programs are providing textbooks to middle schools in the rural areas who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford them. Basically, COED will go in and buy the textbooks and then the students will pay small fees to use them, which makes the program sustainable because then the community can go and buy the next set of textbooks when they need it.

Cristen: Right. I think we should point out too that the country is so poor that they don't have some kind of tax base that the government can go in and pay for these books.

Molly: Right, and the same with the computer centers. COED will go in and buy computers so that children can learn the skills they're going to need in this economy to have an entry level job, which requires computer use. COED buys the computer and then the students pay, again, a small fee that's affordable for them to use the computers to learn basic word processing, spreadsheets. They provide scholarships for young people. We've read a lot of anecdotes about how COED will go to parents and say - the parents might just want the scholarship for the boys, but they'll show them, "Oh, the girls need this scholarship." I think one thing we've got to talk about, Cristen, because we've done so many podcasts about the books that really influenced us when we were young girls, is this culture of reading that COED works to foster in these small communities. These girls have never seen books, which sounds so alien to us who have talked for hours about the Babysitter's Club by Nancy Drew and Ramona and all that. They'll take sometimes those first books that those girls ever see and teach them about a love of reading and build these little mini libraries, and that to me is sorta one of my favorite aspects of what COED does is fostering that love for knowledge and reading in these young girls.

Cristen: Just as an example of how important it is that COED goes in and really fosters that culture of reading, Molly, like you said, one thing that they have to do is actually teach the teachers how to read to children. I mean, before COED goes in there, the teacher might just read a book aloud, but when you were a kid, the exciting part about reading is following along and seeing the pictures, and really engaging with the story in the words on the page. The teachers weren't doing that. By not doing that, it didn't really cultivate kids' desire to read, so that's one important thing too that COED goes in and actually demonstrates.

Molly: They'll also teach the teachers how to use the textbooks. I think a big problem in Guatemala has been that before the kids got the textbooks they all copied down notes from the blackboard. There was no engagement with learning. That's why if the kid couldn't even stay there for financial reasons, he would just drop out, join a gang, which are also a big problem in Guatemala. So going in and teaching a teacher how to use this textbook so that a kid enjoys going to school and enjoys learning about things is another vital service that they provide.

Cristen: It sounds like COED could also do a lot of work in the States in terms of teaching kids to read. Anyway, well, just to give listeners too an idea of more of an anecdotal idea of how their programs have benefitted these schools, because we've sorta been talking in the abstract, I'm going to share the story of Juan Jose, who's the principal of a middle school in Guatemala. When he started 15 years ago, the school that he worked at had 28 students, and only one of those was a girl. Like we said, it's far less likely for a girl to even go to school. Even if she goes to school, she's not going to stay as long as boys in her community. So he said knowing that the health and economic success of Guatemala communities were inextricably linked to the education of its girls, Juan Jose really made it his mission to try to get more girls into the school, try to equalize the ratio of boys to girls in the classrooms. One thing that he had to do was demonstrate to these girls' parents that them leaving the home and leaving the work that they would have to do there, and actually going to school, would be beneficial in the long run for the girls at home. So first of all, he lobbied COED for books and computer training at the school, so he had all of these resources to begin with. Then he also added a home economics class and asked COED for equipment such as a refrigerator and sewing machine, and mixers. That way, by having those kind of resources, he could convince the parents that the girls would become better cooks and would keep the house better, since a lot of the parents just didn't see any point in educating girls. Why would they need to read? Their time would be better spent at home. His strategy worked. There are now over 75 students at the school and the number of girls and boys is close equal. From a lot of stuff we talk about on the podcast, we might bristle at the thought of, "Oh, he's adding a home ec class to bring more girls in, teaching them to sew and cook." Those are essential skills in this country and I think it was as pretty brilliant strategy on his point as well to target those parents and convince them to get the girls into the classrooms. Of course, they weren't just taking the home ec classes, they were also in front of the -

Molly: Oh, by the way -

Cristen: Yeah, they were also in front of the computer.

Molly: [Inaudible] and have some math.

Cristen: Exactly, exactly. So COED has many examples of these sort of anecdotes on their site, which is Just to throw out some more statistics of how they're evaluating their program, when the schools get the textbooks, they're experiencing a 68 percent improvement in retention of the information, a 67 percent increase in attendance, and 90 percent of those students indicate the books have a significant positive impact on their ability to learn and retain information. So just imagine going to school and, for the first time, having something to look at. Of course, you're going to stay. Of course you're going to learn more. Of course, you're going to see education for the first time as something that's worth investing in. So more anecdotes about the people experiencing that revelation are on their site.

Molly: Personally, it was pretty - for me, it was enlightening to read these anecdotes and to see these statistics because we take public education and textbooks, and libraries, and all of the stuff for granted. It seems like kind of a no-brainer. Yeah, I mean, sure, provide textbooks for poor children, that's great. No. I mean, really, I do encourage you guys to check out the site because it's pretty powerful when you find out just what a single textbook in the hands of a child can do.

Cristen: Then, to take it back to the beginning of the podcast, the whole reason we went through all those fairly dismal statistics is you can read that website and just think about it in terms of a child. But when you think about it in terms of a whole culture of women that you can help just by giving a child a textbook, that's what's really remarkable to me. We've said it several times on this podcast in the abstract about how educating women in the developing world has this huge impact on poverty. To read about COED's work and then to place women sorta in the center of your thoughts as you read it, and knowing that that textbook and the scholarships that are available at COED, and that fostering of a love of knowledge, when that can really change a whole society's perception of women, that's a huge, huge thing.

Molly: Right. When that perception changes, you also see the tangible effects in the health of the communities, violence in co mmunities, birth rates, maternal health, children, so everything. I mean, there's really no aspect that it doesn't touch.

Cristen: So now if you listen to Josh and Chuck's podcast on their trip, and I encourage you to do so, so you can get more information on the programs and the country, you know that there's a text campaign going on. If you text "Stuff" to 20222, COED gets a $5.00 donation. You can also make donations on their site which, again, is COED is getting a tremendous help from all the SYSK fans and we wanted to give them some help. So if you're a fan of ours and you haven't donated yet, please check out their site or text, again, the word "Stuff," s-t-u-f-f, to 20222.

Molly: You'll receive a text back asking you to confirm the donation and simply reply with the word "yes" to complete your donation. Messaging and data rates may apply. Remember, the campaign only runs through July 25th.

Cristen: Molly, since we've been talking a lot about the power of reading and books, I thought it would be good for our listener mail segment to maybe share a couple of reading lists.

Molly: Reading lists. We've gotten so many. We love them, keep them coming.

Cristen: Yes. This one is from Angela, and she is reading right now Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, which was very popular last summer as well. She says, "After that, I'll probably move on to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter." She said, "I will also read books by Sherrilyn Kenyon, Janet Evanovich, and Jennifer Crusie."

Molly: All right. Who is that reading list from?

Cristen: This was from Angela.

Molly: Okay. I've got one from Lori, who says, "Based on your obvious love for the Ramona books, I wanted to recommend to you for your summer reading list Beverly Cleary's two memoirs, The Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. I was delighted to find out that some of my favorite details from Cleary's fiction came from her own experiences, such as naming a doll Chevrolet. Beyond that though, Cleary was a very cool woman who had just as much spunk as her fictional heroines. So if you're looking for a summer reading list, The Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet."

Cristen: All right. To cap things off, I've got a reading list here from Jim. He is going to read Collapse, by Jared Diamond, The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, The Man with the Golden Torc, by Simon R. Green, The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum, and The God Engines, by John Scalzi. The God Engine [sic], that sounds interesting.

Molly: That sounds interesting. So again, keep the summer reading lists coming. Keep any emails coming to us at During the week, you can get in touch with us via our Twitter, which is at Mom Stuff podcast, or our Facebook, which is Stuff Mom Never Told You. During the week, you can also check out our blog, also titled Stuff Mom Never Told You at our website, which is

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