Learn more about Voces y Manos’ approach to youth empowerment and health promotion in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala below!
About Voces Y Manos
Voces y Manos is a youth development organization based in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala whose mission is to empower youth to advance the health and wellbeing of their communities. To achieve this, Voces y Manos coordinates a youth leadership program and provides high school and college scholarships. Through Voces y Manos’ leadership program, students learn how to implement community projects that improve child nutrition, combat deforestation, and promote sustainable agriculture. Their vision is that by fostering youth leadership and by facilitating access to higher education, Voces y Manos’ graduates will become leaders who transform social conditions in their communities and broader society.
Although the youth involved in Voces y Manos have been successful developing sustainable projects in their local communities, broader social and political conditions remain unjust and inequitable for Guatemala’s youth. The Guatemalan government allocates just 2.8% of its GDP to education — far below the UN recommendation of 5% — and U.S. policies toward Guatemala continue to prioritize the health of the business environment over that of the Guatemalan people. As a result, education and other public services are drastically underfunded, forcing parents to use scarce resources to purchase textbooks, uniforms, and other school materials. For many indigenous families, these costs are simply unaffordable, and many have no choice but to remove their children from school. In fact, three out of every four indigenous girls have been pushed out of school by age 16. In the realm of healthcare, young people in Rabinal do not enjoy access to youth-friendly services of any kind. Although there is a high incidence of teenage pregnancy, access to contraception is extremely limited. In addition, despite an alarming number of youth suicides in recent years, psychological services are nonexistent.
For these reasons, the youth and facilitators in Voces y Manos felt that it was necessary to attempt to create change in the broader social arena. Because 2015 was an election year in Guatemala, the youth believed it was an opportune moment to put youth issues onto the political agenda. Using strategies of YPAR, the young people in Voces y Manos conducted research to identity key issues facing youth, drafted a proposal to address these issues, and held a forum in which they introduced their proposal to local decision makers.
The entire YPAR project followed a two-stage format of investigation and action. In the investigation stage of the project, students designed and administered a survey to 250 youth at local high schools. The survey asked students to report on the quality of their relationships with teachers and peers, the amount of money they spend each month on school-related costs, and their overall satisfaction with the their education.
The action stage of the project involved students presenting research findings and policy recommendations to mayoral candidates. Working with an extraordinary coalition of local organizations and youth organizers, the Voces y Manos students drafted a policy proposal and invited local mayoral candidates to a public forum to discuss the proposal and other local issues.
A Balancing Act: Promoting Youth Engagement While Respecting Time Constraints
Voces y Manos’ program facilitators knew that carrying out the entire YPAR process would be a tall order for the 26 high school students involved in the program. Between attending school, completing homework assignments, and assisting their families with farming, childcare, and other responsibilities, facilitators and students agreed that students’ time commitment to the project would need to be limited to biweekly, 3-hour sessions. Because biweekly meetings would be insufficient to complete all steps of the project, Voces y Manos facilitators hired a core group of four first-year college students — two of whom were recent graduates of Voces y Manos’ program — to facilitate the biweekly meetings and to carry out the multiple tasks that would need to occur between meetings. By having the core group facilitate meetings with the full group of youth, the latter were able to be as involved as possible in all stages of the project without being overburdened. The core group guided the full group of students as they: (1) researched the issues, (2) brainstormed solutions, (3) developed a proposal, (4) built a coalition, and (5) coordinated a political forum.
I: Researching Issues
To identify key issues facing youth in Rabinal, the core group conducted focus groups with 26 students in the Voces y Manos scholarship program to elicit perceptions of their school experience. The core group used audio recordings of these focus groups to identify key themes. In a second meeting, the core group presented these themes back to the full group of youth for validation. The youth then were split into five teams to draft survey questions related to each theme. The questions generated in this session provided the core group with a “question bank” that they used to draft a survey with assistance from the Voces y Manos staff and other local professionals. The first draft of the survey was presented back to Voces y Manos students, who provided feedback on items. The core group incorporated this feedback into a final draft of the survey, and then administered the survey to 250 high school students in classrooms throughout Rabinal.
II: Identifying Solutions
At the following biweekly meeting, Voces y Manos youth were again split into teams, with each team responsible for analyzing data related to one theme from the survey. Teams worked cooperatively to (1) generate graphs from survey data related to their theme; (2) rank the issue as “very important,” “moderately important,” or “not important” based on survey responses; and (3) develop a list of possible solutions to address the topic they had analyzed. Groups presented their results to one another at the end of the meeting. A surprise guest — one of the local mayoral candidates — made a last minute appearance at this meeting, which provided students with an authentic audience with whom they could practice their presentations and gain initial feedback on the feasibility of potential solutions.
III: Developing a Proposal
The survey had clearly pointed to numerous issues faced by youth such as lack of trust with teachers, economic difficulties, and inadequate sanitary facilities in schools. However, these issues were disparate and did not point to a clear, over-arching solution. After extensive brainstorming, the group decided that rather than selecting a specific issue (e.g. lack of soap in the bathrooms), they should focus on creating institutional change that would allow these issues to be addressed in a long-term manner. It had come to the group’s attention that although there is an Office of Childhood and Adolescence in Rabinal, this office is habitually under-funded. The group reasoned that by getting the future mayor to commit to providing adequate funding and support for this office, they could create a sustainable mechanism for addressing the wide variety of youth concerns they had identified.
To develop the proposal, the core group worked collaboratively with several partner organizations in the area. Together, these organizations and the core group developed a preliminary proposal comprised of three components. The first component was youth leadership, which called on the Office to create a youth board of directors that would advise the Office’s staff on all key decisions. The second component was sexual and reproductive health care for youth and young adults, which would be provided in a youth-friendly environment by a physician or professional nurse. The third component called for the Office to be staffed by a psychologist who would attend to mental health issues. The collaborators on the proposal believed that the combination of professional staff and youth leadership would allow the issues identified in students’ surveys (and other newly-identified issues) to be addressed. For example, the youth board of directors could negotiate with school principals to limit of out-of-pocket expenses for students, or create more transparent grading systems to reduce perceptions of favoritism.
Although the full group of youth were not involved in drafting the original proposal, they were given an opportunity to contribute to the proposal at their biweekly meeting. Students worked in groups to review the proposal and pose questions, concerns, or suggestions. In addition, teams reviewed legal documents including the Guatemalan Constitution, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and several other international and national conventions to identify key sections that could provide a legal justification for their proposal.
IV: Building a Coalition
In order to attract the attention of local politicians, it would be necessary to show that the youths’ proposal was supported by civil society and by a wide range of local organizations. Approximately two months prior to the elections, the core group sent out invitations to numerous organizations working in culture, health, and education in Rabinal and invited them to attend a planning meeting. In this initial meeting several key organizations agreed to co-sponsor the forum including the local Ministry of Sports and Culture, a local health promotion organization, and a local Catholic charity. In addition to these established organizations, the meeting was also attended by a newly formed, ad-hoc organization comprised of local college students who had independently been working toward the goal of holding a forum for mayoral candidates. The group had already achieved several impressive results, including securing agreements from local media outlets to cover the forum on local TV and radio stations. Within a few minutes of discussion, all the organizations present came to the unanimous decision to pool resources and work together to put on a single, unified forum.
V: Coordinating the Forum
In the following weeks and months, co-sponsors of the forum met extensively to coordinate logistics for the event. Some of the key pieces to coordinate included extending invitations to the candidates, publicizing the event through social media and on the radio, deciding on a format for the forum, identifying a suitable location, finding a moderator to host the event, and planning the Voces y Manos students’ presentation of their survey results. At times, these meetings were tense, as groups did not always align on their priorities for the forum. For example, Voces y Manos wanted to highlight the youth proposal and presentation, while other groups wanted the question and answer session with political candidates to come first. In the end, all groups managed to come to agreements around issues that were sticking points.
The day of the forum itself was a reflection of the extensive preparation that went into it. By 7:45 A.M. some 300 chairs had been set up in the church auditorium where the forum was to take place. The stage had been beautifully set up with a white tablecloth, and nametags indicated where each candidate was to sit. A special “filter” table was set up to review questions that came in from the public, and a large media center was created in the center of the auditorium that would broadcast the event on two local television channels, livestream the event online, and broadcast on the radio.
The moderator for the event gave a warm welcome to the candidates and the audience, and then introduced the first agenda item: the presentation by Voces y Manos students of their survey results. The four students from the core group, plus two representatives from the broader student group, delivered a PowerPoint presentation in which they introduced key findings from their survey. They shared their survey results, which indicated that roughly 40% of all high school students had considered dropping out of school due to these costs. The youth then segued into the reading of the proposal that they had developed. From their seats on stage, candidates listened respectfully as the students read through the various clauses of their two-page proposal. As soon as they finished reading, the youth delivered copies of the proposals to each candidate and politely requested that the candidates indicate their support for the proposed policy to strengthen the office of childhood and adolescence by signing the document. The students promptly collected the signed forms, and the moderator smoothly transitioned to the next agenda item: presentation by each political candidate on their plans once they take office. Candidates were each given 10 minutes segments to explain their work plans, followed by questions and answers from the public. The question and answer session gave members of the Rabinal community a rare opportunity to engage in dialogue with prospective politicians, and the signed proposals will serve as a powerful tool for advocacy once the incumbent mayor takes office.
The forum was an important achievement for the students in Voces y Manos, and evidence of the power of working in coalitions. These were some of the most important outcomes that emerged from the process:
- ALL seven mayoral candidates attended the youth-led forum.
- Over 250 members of the general public attended the forum, and another 600 tuned-in online.
- Youth gained valuable skills in research and advocacy.
- Youth had the opportunity to have their voices heard by local politicians.
- Youth were able to network with other local agencies in the local area.
- All seven local candidates signed an agreement that they would provide funding to strengthen Rabinal’s Office of Childhood and Adolescence.
The experience conducting research, developing a proposal, and collaborating with other organizations taught the Voces y Manos students and staff valuable lessons may be relevant for other youth development organizations. These lessons include:
- Having a core group of slightly older students act as facilitators on the YPAR process allowed the research and action to move forward in an organized way.
- Having staff of Voces y Manos coach the core group on how to best involve youth in research and action given their time constraints allowed the entire group to play a meaningful role in the project.
- Building a broad coalition was essential to achieving the recognition and impact the forum received.
- Supporting the proposal with data lent legitimacy to the proposal, even though the proposal was only partially driven by survey results.
- Hosting the forum in a warm, non-confrontational environment was essential to creating productive relationships with political candidates and ensuring safety for youth participants.
Despite these promising initial outcomes, the students know much work lies ahead to encourage candidates to make good on their promise to provide the funding necessary to ensure that the Office of Childhood and Adolescents provides its vital services to the youth population. Currently Voces y Manos is planning to network with other youth advocacy organizations throughout Guatemala that have led successful advocacy campaigns. By sharing best practices and lessons learned, the group hopes that the incoming mayor will ultimately implement the proposed improvements to the Office of Childhood and Adolescents.
You can learn more about Voces Y Manos at their website (http://www.vocesymanos.org/) or on their facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/vocesymanos/). You can support one of their current campaigns here: https://www.crowdera.co/campaigns/VocesyManosYouth/michael-142