Here in Guatemala, I have met a teenage girl, Josephine. She’s grown up in a rural area in between Guatemala City and San Pedro Ayumpuc, the next large city to the northeast. This area is known for violence and it is common to hear gun shots every evening. Gang members permeate throughout the community. For much of her life she grew up with a single mom. When she was younger, her mother would lock her and her older brother in the house alone; afraid to allow them to be in the neighborhood unsupervised and with no other child care options.

In order to support the family, their mother worked long hours. She left home by 5 am to make it to work in Guatemala City by 7:30. She travelled at least 2 hours each way just to have a job. With mom not returning until 8pm most days, Josephine and her brother had to raise themselves. They learned how to cook their own meals and entertain themselves. When they were old enough to go to school, both Josephine and her brother were so excited to not have to stay home alone all day. School was an escape for them.

There were times of great financial struggle for Josephine and her family. Her mother had to choose to continue with educating the children or putting food on the table. As a result, education was left by the wayside. In recent years, Josephine’s mother remarried and had a baby with her new husband. Finances are better and Josephine is back in school… although she’s only in the equivalent of 9th grade, almost 4 years behind in school for her age.

Now, it is Josephine’s responsibility to wake up and travel into the city with her mom and baby sister. It is Josephine’s job to wait for the daycare to open at 8am and drop her sister off before returning back home. While their economic conditions have changed – her mother can afford both day care for the baby and to send Josephine to school – Josephine is still left alone for the majority of the day. School is only from 1-5pm. In order to help the family, Josephine has to return home, do the laundry, collect the water when it is delivered and keep the house in order. From 8am until she leaves for school, and again when she comes home from school, Josephine is alone. On the weekends, when both her mom and step-father are at work (Monday is the traditional day off in Guatemala), Josephine stays home with the baby, caring for her and keeping the house running.

It’s difficult to imagine so much responsibility for a 17 year old. The responsibility of having to care for her 2 year old sister is now starting to weigh on Josephine. At an age when girls are striving for their independence, she is being relied on more and more. Unfortunately, Josephine didn’t have much opportunity for a typical childhood and is now starting to feel the effects of it.

This is one of many typical stories of children I work with. With Josephine, I am working with her and her family to identify ways in which to help Josephine address the issues and conflicts she is facing, as well as to help identify how there can be a better balance between personal and home responsibilities.

What do you think about Josephine’s story or the differences in childhoods for children in Guatemala versus the United States? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.