Proyecto Patojas: 25 years supporting education in Guatemala

A chance is all that Francisca Morales needed. When she finished primary school in her home village of El Granadillo in San Ildefonso, Ixtahuacán, in the municipality of Huehuetenango, she dreamed of continuing her studies, but her family’s financial situation was difficult. Francisca lives in a department with one of the lowest rates of education in the country (19th out of 22). Through a teacher, she found out about the Patojas project, an initiative started by Entreamigos – Lagun Artean that began in 1995. She applied for and received support to further her studies.

However, luck like Ana’s is not common. In the past 25 years, the Patojas scholarship project (named after a term used to refer to children in Guatemala) has supported thousands of girls, boys, and women in Guatemala with scholarships funded through individual donations, but the state of education in the country continues to be critical. Each year, around 1.6 million children are excluded from the educational system. One of the main reasons is a lack of financial resources. Many of these children abandon their studies after finding a job or are never even enrolled in school due to poverty. On top of this, there is the problem posed by violence. Data from January to November 2018 show 443 cases of child deaths due to domestic violence. According to the child rights watchdog Ciprodeni, 625 out of every 1,000 girls aged 10 to 19 get pregnant.

According to the 2017-2018 school census conducted by the Ministry of Education, it is estimated that 141,337 minors are excluded from the educational system, with 65% of these children being girls and 35% being boys. Seven years ago, Guatemala reported that 11% of girls between the ages of 11 and 19 had not received any formal education. This is due in large part to patriarchic gender norms that relegate housework and care of the family to women and girls, which causes them to be continuously excluded from educational opportunities. This is what happened in the case of María Sales, who is from the same place as Francisca. Before participating in the Patojas project, she said that “It’s just my mom and me. My parents separated a few years ago and her and I have worked hard to take care of the house and get ahead in life, but mom had an operation and I had to take care of her.”

Until 2020, the Patojas project had supported 4,218 children and women with finishing their primary, basic, and secondary education. 59.67% of these recipients were girls, and 40.33% were boys. During this time, 491 students completed their secondary education, including 266 (54%) girls and 225 (46%) boys. Unfortunately, with the Covid-19 pandemic, there are many obstacles impeding educational equality, and the situation has gotten much worse, above all for indigenous girls and women. There is a significant loss in learning due to school closures, and post-covid poverty has caused many girls and boys to abandon their studies, either to find a job or because they lacked the resources (i.e. computer, cell phone, and internet access) to continue their studies online. According to 2018 census data, only 17% of households throughout the country have internet access, and the majority of these are in urban areas.

Before the pandemic, drop-out rates in Guatemala were already high. It is estimated that annually, 40% of children deserted their education after finishing primary school. Furthermore, between 2009 and 2019, primary school drop-out rates fell 18%. More than a year after the Government canceled in-person classes, the challenges and difficulties of distance learning faced mainly by rural girls are various. It is calculated that more than 100 thousand children dropped out of school this year. In many cases, authorities and school personnel developed plans for continuing to deliver their curricula that were out of touch with the reality of the country.

For Entreamigos – Lagun Artean, education is a fundamental human right essential to human and community development. It has transformational power, but to be able to truly achieve real development, the education of girls and women must be a priority. As such, Entreamigos – Lagun Artean began its efforts to support women unable to continue their studies three years ago. Literacy and educational programs for adults in Guatemala do not prioritize women. Instead, they are focused on reaching goals based on quantitative results instead of qualitative results.

Since women are the foundations of families, not only in terms of domestic matters but also economic, few of them are able to dedicate time to starting or completing their education (if they even have the opportunity to do so) even though in most cases there aren’t any spaces for them to do so. As such, when Ana Bocel from Caserío Santa María in Sololá began to participate in a savings group, and later had the opportunity to win a scholarship from Patojas, she gave it her all. “I really like to read and am in my sixth year of training as a kindergarten teacher. There are seven of us in my family and we all support each other. My parents have supported me in everything, and my mother helps me with my homework. Were it not for the money I received, I wouldn’t be studying.” This shows how essential it is that projects like Patojas continue.

Economic collaboration by those who have given financial support for these scholarships has often led to a close relationship between donors and students. Ángeles Líbano Zumalacárregui, born in Algorta, Vizcaya, Spain, started working with Entreamigos – Lagun Artean three years ago. In her words: “This experience has been very gratifying. I maintain friendships with the students, and every time they write me their results are always so positive, thanks to what is perhaps very small, but very necessary help.”

Juan Noj, program manager in Ixtahuacán Huehuetenango, mentions how the lives of many former grantees have changed after the program. They have been able to improve their employment and personal prospects. He says: “Some grantees are already working in schools. One student is involved in the board of directors of CODEDE (The Departmental Development Advisory Board). It’s so satisfying to see how they are already supporting the development of their communities.” Felisa Torres, manager of the scholarship program for adult women, says that “the most satisfying thing is being able to accompany and support young women in their search for a career. Being a witness to the process that they go through in returning to school after having put their studies on pause for so long is so impactful. It’s like watering a dry plant and watching it begin to grow again.”