Second chances at education can have big impacts on life outcomes for adolescent Mayan girls

A Mayan girl smiles.

It has been said that good opportunities come along only once, but what if this were not the case? What if communities created the conditions so that after a failure, you could try again? Would there be a greater chance of success the second time around? For socially marginalized girls, access to second chances during adolescence, such as the opportunity to reenter education or gain technical skills, can play a key role in fostering well-being and improving life outcomes for them and their families.

In southeast Mexico, enrollment in public education is a challenge for Yucatecan Mayan girls, with gender norms often limiting their participation in village schools. Even if a girl has the support of her family to attend primary school, she has only a 48 percent probability of continuing her studies at the secondary-school level. This primary to secondary transition is critical, however, as it has been statistically proven that once girls finish secondary school, the possibility of achieving higher levels of education increases considerably.

In our recently published study, “Enhancing Adolescent Mayan Girls’ Education through Peer Support,” we document how girls who leave school early are often forgotten by the education system. Once a girl lives with a male partner—even without children—her society no longer considers her a girl—regardless of her age—but as a woman with family responsibilities. She is expected to stay at home, limiting her educational advancement. As one of the girls we interviewed stated: “I stopped attending school because I was told that because I already lived with my boyfriend, I was no longer a girl, I was a grown woman and I should no longer attend school, because I was a bad influence on the other girls.” This mentality limits opportunities for girls to achieve higher levels of study and attain their professional goals, not only for their own benefit but also for their partners, families, and communities.

Secondary school coincides with a crucial life period—adolescence—in which behaviors such as unprotected sex, teenage pregnancy, and cohabiting with a male partner are all too common, especially in disadvantaged contexts. Girls attending secondary school need appropriate support to help them successfully graduate.

One of the most important enabling factors for a girl to continue her studies is financial and emotional support from her close family. This is true for all girls enrolled in the national educational system. Girls who drop out of formal schooling require additional support and specific programs for their reintegration to be successful.

Our study demonstrates that solid support from close family, parents, and—preferably—partners can shield adolescent girls from restrictive gender norms that undermine their motivation and ability to stay in school.

Based on our research, we propose the following five modes of support that can help girls combat restrictive gender norms and improve their educational opportunities:

  1. Peer support. Based on gender and kinship or lasting friendship, girls can support each other as they face similar challenges in a shared context, learning from each other’s successes and mistakes.
  2. Community leaders. It is critical to involve community leaders to boost the acceptance of girl’s education locally, as these leaders are respected and their recommendations are followed.
  3. Emotional support. Mothers, partners, or others closest to the girls can deflect criticisms from other family members and neighbors who are influenced by patriarchal structures and help ensure a girl’s education doesn’t become secondary to family interests.
  4. Child care. Availability during and after school hours is essential for girls to obtain the time and attention necessary for academic development.
  5. Education reintegration programs. Programs such as the National Institute for Adult Education, a federal program of the Mexican government that provides free educational services in rural and marginalized contexts, can help girls reintegrate into school.

Our study demonstrates that solid support from close family, parents, and—preferably—partners can shield adolescent girls from restrictive gender norms that undermine their motivation and ability to stay in school. It is important to work with girls in their context to enhance their educational opportunities, as it is the strength of purpose in the girls’ minds and the influence of the people that surround them that determine their success or failure in educational advancement. Only then will second chances become meaningful for girls.