Elvira Cuc Choc grew up in the small, rural town of San Juan Chamelco in Northern Guatemala. In her community, Elvira says most of the men work in agriculture, and most of the women sew traditional clothes and stay home to take care of the family and children. The average family has 7-9 children, Elvira explained, adding: “Families are quite big because they don’t have access to family planning services or information.”
She was one of four children, but even with her relatively small family, she was still forced to drop out of school in 6th grade. “Once I finished 6th grade my father said I could no longer study, first of all, I am a girl … and second because there was no money to afford it,” said Elvira. Elvira’s mom was her biggest advocate and pushed to make sure Elvira could go to school at all. “My mom was very supportive on this education issue because she made it clear that she did not want me to live the life of domestic violence that she had lived with my father. My father sometimes beat her up because the food or the house wasn’t taken care of as he would have liked,” said Elvira. When Elvira was 20, her mom passed away from cervical cancer. “There are no health services nearby. We found out she had cancer when it was too late.”
Shortly after her mother died, Elvira heard an advertisement on the radio for Abriendo Opportunidades, or Opening Opportunities, a mentor program that teaches girls and women in Guatemala about their health and rights. Elvira said that without her mother, she knew she had to take her life into her own hands, so she signed up to become a mentor.
The Abriendo Opportunidades training changed her life, Elvira said: “I’m most proud of learning about human rights, particularly women’s rights. I enjoy the way I can now participate in public spaces. I was afraid to participate in anything before …. Before, I depended fully on my father, knowing about my rights makes me know what I want from life. For example, not to get married at an early age. Through knowing my rights, I have become independent.”
Today, Elvira has a boyfriend, and she uses the three-month Depo Provera shot. When asked if she wants children someday, she laughed and said, “I’ve seen the labor videos, and I’m afraid …. I don’t want to have any children. I just want dogs.” Her boyfriend supports her use of contraceptives, said Elvira, but she’s still making her own decisions: “Yes, he supports me, but he doesn’t decide for me,” she said.
In addition to Abriendo Opportunidades changing her own life, Elvira feels motivated by her ability to change the lives of other young girls in her community by serving as a mentor and role model. She said that the first question the girls ask when they meet her is if she’s married. When she says she’s not, she said their jaws drop, because they have never before met a woman who is 24 and unmarried without children. Elvira feels her ability to model a different path for the young girls in her village is opening their minds to a whole new set of possibilities.
When asked how her life would be different if she had never heard the radio ad that day and went into apply for Abriendo, Elvira’s smile quickly disappeared, and she said, “Before joining the program, I had a boyfriend and he used to tell that we had to get married quickly. I would probably be married with a lot of children.”
Abriendo was founded with a $100,000 UNFPA grant and continues to receive UNFPA funding today. But this work, and similar work led by UNFPA, the lead UN agency providing reproductive health information and services in over 150 countries around the world, is now in jeopardy after the decision by the administration to cut off all U.S. funds to UNFPA. For millions of young girls and women like Elvira who haven’t yet benefitted from a program like this but could, their health, rights, and dreams will have to wait until the U.S. Administration restores funding for UNFPA.
“I’m most proud of learning about human rights, particularly women’s rights. I enjoy the way I can now participate in public spaces.
“Before joining the program, I had a boyfriend and he used to tell that we had to get married quickly. I would probably be married with a lot of children.”