Fostering resilience in indigenous Maya girls: The power of education

The Mayas are resilient people. They have survived colonization, the so-called henequen haciendas, which were estates that required large pools of low-paid indigenous farm hands, the Caste War in the late 1800s waged by Maya in the face of the European-descended population, and the unresolved issues of indigenous land and autonomy as captured in the theory of ‘indigenism’.

My research focuses on the obstacles Maya children, girls in particular, face in school and beyond.

In this video, Maria Cristina Osorio Vázquez, 2017 Echidna Global Scholar, describes her work in education with Maya girls.

First some broader context. Despite constituting a large share of the population of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Maya people barely participate in political and economic life. This is in no small part due to unwritten discriminatory practices, where race and skin color determine social status and opportunity and where the status quo leaves the Maya population behind.

Maya children face additional challenges just for being indigenous when they attend school. This situation is more difficult for Maya girls who face the quadruple burden of rurality, poverty, indigeneity and gender norms that hinder their educational advancement.

Findings from my new report, Understanding Girls’ Education in Indigenous Maya Communities in the Yucatan Peninsula, suggest that indigenous girls face greater challenges compared to other girls in the region. For a start, the remoteness of their communities to schools limits their opportunities to continue their studies to more advanced levels. Even when economic resources are available to pay for attendance at distant schools, dominant gender norms dictate that such opportunities go to boys in the family, since custom assumes they will become the main household providers.

High rates of poverty are also common in these rural populations, along with language barriers for Maya girls, who at primary level barely participate in classes, since often they do not fully understand Spanish, the language of instruction.

Education is a key intervention to narrowing gender and other social gaps, as well as to promote social mobility. My paper lays out several recommendations for promoting best practice interventions for ensuring that Maya girls can achieve higher levels of schooling. What I propose is based in large part from feedback and insights provided over several years by indigenous leaders who support the advancement of indigenous girls through education. These leaders understand firsthand the multiple burdens that hold such girls back.

Key recommendations are as follows:

Support networks. It is important to use existing social capital among indigenous peoples as the foundation of their support networks. Such an approach allows Maya girls to build on resources they already have. This is especially helpful for girls when they move outside their local context, as it allows them to have a safe and supportive environment within which they can develop academically.

The importance of supporting responsive relationships with adults has a strong influence in the cognitive development of girls. Such relationships allows indigenous girls to cope with stressful situations, taking into account that they have to deal with social barriers not faced by other children. It is especially important that these support networks include relatives who are emotionally close to the girls. My findings suggest that the mother figure should be leveraged, as they effectively support their daughters when challenges occur that could jeopardize their willingness to attend school.

In a supportive environment, girls can receive encouragement and increase their confidence. Many indigenous girls suffer from name-calling and belittling by peers and teachers. As Coleman stated, if a child self-concept is low, it undoubtedly impedes the likelihood of academic success.

Self-determination. It is important to foster strength and perseverance in Maya girls through a sense of pride in their race, traditions, and language. This should be encouraged in their communities at an early age before girls move to nearby cities to pursue education or work. A sense of pride can help girls prevail in the face of discriminatory attitudes that they often face once they make such a move. Without such grounding, they may be discouraged from continuing in school.

Research finds that early phases of education lead to imitative behaviors; girls emulate the female figures who are closest to them. As one indigenous Maya student studying for a master degree explained: “I know I have to endure and to finish my degree, because I’m the older, I’m an example for my little sisters, and I know they will follow my steps.”

Thus, as my study suggests, we need to promote peer-to-peer conversations with Maya girls who stand out academically and are strong Maya women who can share their experiences.

Out of school activities. Involvement in extracurricular activities is essential to empowering girls mentally and physically. Promoting team sports, for example, could help develop important socioemotional skills such as collaboration and communication. Artistic activities could provide Maya girls an opportunity to develop their personalities through the creative process, fostering an enduring source of cultural pride as another positive outcome. And finally, church activities can provide critical life guidance, especially when it is not fully provided at home. These extracurricular activities encourage other positive behaviors, including a sense of belonging and community engagement through volunteering.

These practical and promising recommendations for the academic advancement of indigenous Maya girls, together with the empirical evidence from my research, can create an education system that promotes Maya girls’ achievement of higher levels of schooling. This will have important ripple effects by building her resilience against abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination she will likely experience throughout her life.

Educated Maya women are far more likely to embrace their immense value to society, their rights citizens, and their capacity to overcome multiple burdens.