It’s an extraordinary time to be a woman – and by that I mean heartbreaking, exhilarating, exhausting and energizing. Many whose experiences of abuse and oppression have long been ignored are finally starting to be heard. Those of us who are more fortunate, whose eyes have been opened by courageous revelations in many countries and the disgusting responses they often provoke, are sometimes left with a sense of impotence. Clearly, the empowerment and defense of women is an urgent task, but it can be easy to feel useless in the face of the deep-rooted hatred that is increasingly laid bare.
That’s why getting to know Ana Laura Araya and her program Soy Niña, a new organization near my home in Costa Rica, was not only inspiring but also provided me with a sense of relief. Here is a thing that is being done. Soy Niña works to empower women in a way that makes all the sense in the world: by starting when they are girls. Their flagship program, Club Niña, works with girls from Desamparados, just south of San José; it’s where Ana Laura grew up, but where problems and poverty have since multiplied. Club Niña surrounds those girls with weekly support focused on issues from self-esteem to nutrition to STEM skills. It connects them with powerful allies and role models. Most importantly, it promises to stay by their side until they’re launched in life: the program begins at the age of six and is moving up as the girls continue into the upper grades.
It’s an unusual program in that its focus is very specific – to reduce the rates of teenage pregnancy in communities where they are extraordinarily high, and in a country struggling with sexual abuse and statutory rape – but it is working toward that goal in the broadest possible way, both in terms of the time invested and in terms of the base of self-esteem it is building in these girls. This is not a quick fix. And if you’ve been paying attention in Costa Rica, or most any country, you know that this problem is beyond quick fixes. It is about deep changes that must take place one person at a time.
When I visited the program recently at one of their sites, Parque La Libertad (an incredible nonprofit facility that’s worth its own Boost), Ana Laura explained that we could sit in because today was a lighter day; on some others, the discussion among the girls and program staff is of course highly sensitive and not appropriate for outside visitors to overhear. Today, they were learning photography. Their faces were bright, full of enthusiasm. As I have so many times over the years when visiting programs that work with children, I felt my heart both sink and swell at the contrast between the unaffected exuberance on display across the lawn and the daunting statistics and life circumstances Ana Laura had described. Soy Niña works within that contrast, building on that natural resilience and strength to face the challenges head-on. I was amazed to see that because Ana Laura and her staff work with so many volunteers, they provide all this programming with a budget of just $30 per kid, per month.
On this last day of September, a month that celebrates democracy and freedom in Costa Rica, I am proud to celebrate one woman, her staff and a passionate community who are making what I consider a massive contribution to both democracy and freedom: building future citizens, professionals, voters, women who know their own worth. I hope I will not soon forget the joy on the faces of the girls of Soy Niña, running across green grass in Desamparados. It was a balm for my soul, but it was much more than that. It was a call to action. It was a spark to urge us forward. It was a warning about the power of young women – a power we must protect, a power we cannot afford to lose.
Learn more about Soy Niña here. Added bonus: Their Instagram feed is a joy, often featuring portraits of young women from around Costa Rica explaining what being a girl here means to them. Follow for a source of inspiration and motivation. And as always – I’d love to hear from you. What are the organizations standing up for women’s rights where you live? Let me know.
I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook!