When I first came to Guatemala I was overwhelmed. As I spent more time here, I was able to sort through things. I work with a nonprofit aiming to better the lives of those living in the red zones. That’s a staggering task, but we are targeting the youth and pairing them with mentors to invest in their lives. And, it works. The next generation of youth are less likely to become involved in gangs, fall into abusive cycles and are more poised than their parents to break cycles of their communities.

One thing I’ve learned however, is you can’t do everything. We target the youth equipping them to pursue their dreams and look for an alternative path. But what if that path is not there? Meaning, what if jobs don’t come for people living in these red zones. What if school is so unaffordable for them? How do they continue on the path of transformation if the system is literally against them?

The Job Market

In Guatemala, most companies don’t offer jobs to people with addresses in a red zones. They see people from red zones being connected to the gangs and bringing nothing but problems. Admittedly, this does happen and this stereotype isn’t exactly unwarranted. However, it harms the people who are genuinely trying to break out of these cycles. Some companies only hire people from red zones or from outside of the city. Conditions are bad at these businesses. Employees are paid minimally – under $300 a month. Their pay gets docked for every little thing. Employees are required to live at the facility (the businesses argues they provide housing for those who could be living sub-standardly). However, the living conditions are subpar and the employees are almost restricted from seeing their families – they have less than 24 hours a week to visit them.

These are the type of working conditions for those that are uneducated. But, with achieving, at least a high school diploma, work options increase greatly. If you can be enrolled, or even better graduated, from college, the world is your oyster. Salaries for a college graduate at entry level can jump up to Q10,000 or more (~$1,333/month). So why isn’t everyone pulling up their “big boy pants”, working hard and getting it done to go to University? Why is the average education level at a 6th grade equivalent!?

The Education System

The Guatemalan government only requires a 6th grade education. What “public schools” they do fund, end at the 6th grade. From 7th grade and up, the institutions are privatized. Despite the 6th grade mandate, only 3 out of 10 kids finish the 6th grade. I know many that have already dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out. Why is this?

Even though the government does fund some schools, they are not free. While a tuition may not be required, students still need to pay enrollment fees, cleaning fees to the school, school supplies, uniforms, books and stock the school with supplies. Just to get students ready for the school year – for 6th grade and under – costs $325 for one student. The average salary in Guatemala is roughly Q2,500-3,000 (~$333-400) per month. In the families I work with, most are single parent households with at least 6 people in the home. Even if there are two incomes for the home (an $800/month income), with 4 kids in school, the costs just to start the year amount to $1,300. Families also need to be paying utilities, food and other expenses. The numbers just don’t add up. And this is just for grade school.

A typical home- in Zone 3 of Guatemala City, one of the city’s red zones.*

Once kids pass the 6th grade, if they’re lucky enough to keep studying, the costs continue to rise. Likely, the parents aren’t making a larger income. But now, that the kids are in 7th-9th grade, enrollment costs average about $530 per student. Furthermore, tuitions are required and are about an additional $40 per month. From there, high school just increases even more. There is only one public university in Guatemala (where no tuition is paid). However, classes are overcrowded and it is common that students spend 6+ years in school before graduating, if they even do. Education at the private institutions are much better. Classes are smaller and they are targeted towards the success of the student. However, to enroll at one of these universities, the cost is $318 per semester plus the $273 monthly tuition fees. Some universities offer loan programs but they are not common.

What is being done?

Guatemala sits in a vicious self-fulfilling cycle. Red zones are a breeding ground for violence and crime. Even those living in areas not deemed a “red zone” struggle. Organizations, like Champions in Action are investing in the youth, encouraging them to break out of the cycles of their communities. In order to do this they need a good job. In order to get a good job, they need the highest education they can get. Often times their parents can’t pay for them to continue their education. If they do somehow achieve their education goals, the job market is vicious and they can’t find a job because of where they live. Thus, continuing the cycle once again.

Organizations are now calling attention to businesses not hiring people based off of their addresses. This is helping. Businesses are now, more than ever, likely to hire qualified people despite their neighborhoods. So one part of the problem is being addressed. What about education? Addressing the education question is complicated and multi-layered. Some non-profits have established schools that are free or have minimal fees. But the overall issue of the education system still exists. I don’t have the answers to this. But, I am trying to be active in lessoning the financial burden.


One of the scholarship students in front of her school.

I started a scholarship program for girls last year. Statistics show that girls are the less likely to continue in schools versus boys. Additionally, the World Bank states that when a developing country increases the number of women with a high school education, the per capita income of that country also increases. My scholarship program covers all expenses from whatever grade the girls are in until they finish high school. While I currently am only supporting two girls, it is my hope to grow this program and bring in more girls each month. While it doesn’t solve the overall issue, it’s making a small impact on female education and a huge impact in the lives of these families. For one girl, she’s able to continue on to 5th grade this year and is studying a Mayan language and English (hello trilingual!). With her educational needs cared for, mom’s health has increased (stress was taking a major toll on her), the family has regular meals on the table and their living conditions have increases. For the other girl, she had already dropped out of school and was helping sell chocobananas from the house and side cleaning jobs. She’s now enrolled in 8th grade and is loving it. While I don’t have the answers to the overall education problems in Guatemala, maybe through this scholarship program one of the girls will be the change needed to resolve the issue permanently.


* Photo credit: Forever Changed International