Nicaraguan women forge their own paths to technical careers

By Gretchen Robleto

March 8, 2018

EL RAMA, Nicaragua – When Juana Carolina González became pregnant at age 19, she feared she would have to give up her education like so many other young women in her hometown of Muelle de los Bueyes.

“At the age of 13, girls become pregnant and leave the sixth grade and do not return to school,” Juana says. “But my parents have supported me and my child, who is now 4 years old, so I have been able to continue studying.”

Juana also has support from a program called Aprendo y Emprendo, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

Through Aprendo y Emprendo, Juana, now 24, received a scholarship so she could pursue technical education. And as she strives to overcome the barriers to her continued learning, she’s also breaking stereotypes in her chosen career path: Juana is studying to become an agriculture technician, a field traditionally dominated by men.

At Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University in El Rama, Juana is learning the best practices and latest techniques in agriculture and livestock, which makes up a large part of the local economy.

Fourteen other students, including six women, were awarded scholarships through Aprendo y Emprendo to complete the agriculture technician program. The class has much more equitable gender representation than most: According to a project gender analysis of technical education and training institutions in the Caribbean Coast, just 25 percent of agriculture and forestry students are women.

Juana González’s interest in agriculture led her to a technical education that will help her support herself and her 4-year-old. Photo by Norman Saballos.

“Girls, this isn’t for you”

Despite their training, Juana says the women still face some resistance in their work, such as when they visit nearby farms to give recommendations on crop or livestock care.

“People would say, ‘Girls, this isn’t for you. This is for men,’” she recalls.

And Juana is always aware of the risk of gender-based violence as she makes the trip to school from her isolated community.

“It usually takes me around two hours to get to the university, since it’s located in El Rama and I live in Muelle de los Bueyes,” she says. “I have to take care of myself during the journey. I call my parents when I am heading home and when I arrive at the bus stop.”

But Juana, who comes from an agricultural family that depends on the food they can grow themselves, isn’t letting these obstacles stop her from getting an education. Inspired by her older brother to pursue her own technical career, Juana hopes she can give back to her family, who have supported her in achieving her goals.

“What I enjoy most is working the land. My grandfather and my whole family are dedicated to cultivating crops,” she says. “That’s why my career in agriculture is so important: We can have different professions in the family, but we can’t live if we don’t have anything to eat.”

Pressing for women’s access to technical education

“These stereotypes are rooted in the culture itself, in the belief that women are meant for the home.”

Olga Marina Chow, professor of computer science

Aprendo y Emprendo works to empower youth like Juana through technical education and vocational training so they can overcome the factors that put them at risk for poverty, unemployment, crime, violence and migration, issues that are heightened in the rural Caribbean Coast region. Through technical education and training, at-risk youth and their communities can increase prosperity, security and stability.

The project prioritizes the inclusion of women, ethnic minorities, youth with disabilities and LGBT youth, who face additional hurdles to education and employment. Nearly 50 percent of the hundreds of scholarships awarded have gone to young women. And the eight schools that are key partners in the project are also being trained in how to make their courses more accessible to disadvantaged groups.

At one of these partner schools, the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast, computer science professor Olga Marina Chow sees firsthand how gender stereotypes, even within families, can hold female students back or prevent them from pursuing education altogether.

“These stereotypes are rooted in the culture itself, in the belief that women are meant for the home, are meant to care for their children and their husbands and they don’t need to study a career,” she says. “The economic situation has been another challenge … I have seen cases in which parents demand that girls work and stop studying. They do not see their daughters’ education as a priority.”

When women have equitable access to education and work, they have more freedom to make decisions and are more resilient to risk. In her classes, Chow is working to change the prevailing idea that technical and higher-paying fields like computer science are out-of-reach for women.

“One of the biggest challenges has been to change that social image people have of computer science, that gender stereotype where they establish that technological jobs and science and engineering careers are for men,” she says.

Ashley Calero is the only woman in her automotive mechanics program, but has always had the support of her male classmates. Photo by Javier Antonio Castro.

Breaking into non-traditional fields

“I have achieved things that I thought I wouldn’t be able to achieve, and I have overcome every obstacle.”

Ashley Calero, auto mechanics student

Whether they’re working with crops, computers or cars, women face similar challenges in technical education and careers.

Ashley Calero, a 19 year old from El Rama, is studying for a career in automotive mechanics, with a scholarship from Aprendo y Emprendo.

She attends classes through education organization Fe y Alegría, which, with support from Aprendo y Emprendo, expanded its offerings in the Southern Caribbean Coast region to include the auto mechanics program.

Ashley says that at first, she was intimidated – especially since she is the only woman in the class.

“It was a challenge for me to study this career, but I am very happy with the decision I made,” Ashley says. “My male classmates have supported me from the beginning, and I have achieved things that I thought I wouldn’t be able to achieve, and I have overcome every obstacle.”

By breaking gender stereotypes, young women like Ashley are serving as role models and proving that women too can support themselves and their families through in-demand technical careers.

Through her training, Ashley now has the knowledge and skills to be able to tap into an industry that has historically excluded women and become self-reliant at a young age.  

As her graduation day nears, Ashley says she takes pride in forging her own path toward a promising career in a non-traditional field.

“I am very proud of what I have achieved,” she says. “Auto mechanics is a very useful tool, and after I graduate, I want to start a business and own an auto mechanics workshop.”

With editing by Evelyn Rupert.

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