The visionaries: Young women in Peru learn to see a future for themselves


From the August 2016 issue of The Rotarian

It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday, and Katheryne Rosa Barazorda Cuellar is up, preparing to work in her mother’s soup stall in the small Peruvian town of Anta, near the Inca capital of Cusco. Smart and seemingly indefatigable, she has a quick smile and infectious laugh.

Rosa is studying to be a chemical engineer, and she has unmistakable talent and drive. She needs them. Poverty, gender bias, and violence darken the lives of many young Peruvian women, including her.

Rosa is lucky, though. Her family supports her. And for the past four years,  so has Visionaria Perú – a Rotary Foundation-supported leadership and self-empowerment project in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Colorado Rotarians launched the summer program for adolescent girls with career and community-service aspirations. The project team hopes to generate measurably effective and sustainable empowerment projects worldwide. Peru is the first step on that ambitious journey. 

In Peru, women suffer higher rates of poverty and unemployment than men. About 50 percent of Peruvian women in the Sacred Valley region, which lies outside Cusco, will suffer severe physical or sexual intimate-partner abuse during their lifetimes, the World Health Organization reports.

Meanwhile, Peru’s environment suffers. Peruvians – particularly in rural areas – endure high levels of smoke from cooking over indoor fires. About 4 million of the country’s 30 million residents lack access to clean water.

Untangling such a knot is difficult.

In 2012, members of the Rotary Club of Boulder’s New Generations pilot satellite club came up with a plan to address all of those problems by concentrating on empowering local women – specifically in their ability to make and act upon their decisions.

The town of Urubamba shares its name with the river that flows past shops, farms, and ramshackle buildings painted with candidate ballot symbols from the 2011 general election – a soccer ball, a mother and child, a purple striped potato, a traditional cap. Downstream, the river snakes far below the misty ruins of Machu Picchu and tumbles toward the Amazon River.

Here, well-heeled tourists may drop $475 apiece – nearly the mean monthly salary in Peru – to ride the Hiram Bingham luxury train from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Visitors glide past squalid barrios where grandmothers bathe in ditches, children may breathe toxic indoor stove smoke, and dogs paw through piles of garbage, seeking food.

On an early January morning in Urubamba’s La Quinta Eco Hotel, young women gather for a weeklong leadership training institute through Visionaria Perú. The girls – the team calls them visionarias (female visionary, in Spanish) – come from both the bucolic Andes and the noisy city. Most receive tutoring, scholarships, and other help from Peruvian nonprofits such as project partner Peruvian Hearts, which supports Rosa.

Sitting in a circle, the young women each take a small piece of paper and write a fear they harbor. They put their paper in a hat, and each (anonymous) fear is read aloud and discussed. Genevieve Smith, a Rotarian and program director of Visionaria Perú, works with them to understand that shame and fear need not stifle their personal or professional growth.

This “fears in a hat” exercise is one of the lessons taught during the institute, in which visionarias are coached on leadership skills, professional growth, environmental awareness, and self-esteem. The training follows a 150-page curriculum developed by Colorado Rotarians in partnership with local Peruvian professors and experts.

“Before, I never really thought much about how I treated myself. I always used to tell myself  ‘You can’t’ and ‘You’re so stupid because you messed up,’ ” one participant says after the training. “But not now. Now I know I should treat myself better. And I know that when I fail, it’s just a chance to learn how to do something  better the next time around.”

At the end of the institute, the visionarias form teams and enter one of three activism tracks: improved cookstoves, water and sanitation, or solar lighting. The activism tracks give participants the chance to exercise their skills by working on sustainable development projects they envision and carry out from beginning to end.

Members of the Rotary Club of Cusco attend portions of the leadership institute to review and provide feedback on the girls’ community project plans. They also participate during implementation of the projects and attend the final celebration to review and support the girls’ achievements. A mentor and local NGOs assist each team in project planning and implementation, and Rotary Foundation-supported vocational training team members such as Smith participate.

The project started in 2012 when Smith, then a Rotaractor, was in Peru through her studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and visited a hogar (home for girls) supported by Peruvian Hearts. There, she asked the girls what kind of support they would need as they got older. She found out that while the students in Peruvian Hearts’ college prep program were smart and qualified to attend a university, they lacked confidence and felt discriminated against because of their indigenous, and often troubled, backgrounds. Smith crafted a project plan to support the girls by the time her bus took her back to where she was staying.

Marika Meertens, a Rotarian with experience at Engineers Without Borders, pitched the Peru project to the Rotary Club of Boulder’s New Generations members. And Abigale Stangl, who has been working alongside one of her instructors at the University of Colorado to produce metrics that show how well the project works, “got on board as soon I heard about the project,” she recalls.

The trio is the driving force behind the project. They assumed roles reflecting their strengths: Smith with planning, Meertens in fundraising (including two global grants totaling $55,000 from The Rotary Foundation), Stangl with project evaluation.

Evaluating the annual program design and execution is one thing. “Measuring empowerment is a different kind of challenge,” Stangl says.

In four years, 55 visionarias have installed 62 cleaner cookstoves, sold 61 water filters and 75 solar lanterns, and addressed 145 students in workshops. Some 1,640 individuals have been touched by this work, Visionaria Perú calculates. Visionarias themselves report positive results in their own lives: 80 percent said participating in Visionaria Perú improved their status in their communities, and 100 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the program improved their capacity to imagine and create change in their lives and the lives of others. “The program helped me a lot because I had visions and goals, but I did not feel capable in making decisions,” says one girl in an assessment. “Now I am capable of making decisions and taking risks for my life.”

Peruvian Rotarians are preparing to take full control of the project once Rotary funding ends this year. Flavio Miraval, past president of the Rotary Club of Cusco, is working to form a nongovernmental organization to carry on the work. Colorado Rotarians have sought local input every step of the way, including cultural adaptation of lesson plans, involvement by local NGOs, and adjusting the program to fit participants’ priorities. That transfer back to local control, the final objective of the Rotary project, is what the group means when it speaks of “sustainability” and is an important component of any vocational training team project.

With all metrics in hand, Colorado Rotarians want to replicate the empowerment program for women in other countries and continents. Since 2014, the team has conducted empowerment, leadership, and business training in 10 countries, including Bolivia, Kenya, India, Uganda, and Guatemala, with funding from USAID, German partner GIZ, and the United Nations Foundation.

The team recently launched Visionaria programs in two Peruvian schools and plans to expand throughout the country. It is designing a mobile-friendly online platform to allow visionarias to share their visions with one another. This team doesn’t think small.

Meanwhile, Rosa believes she will find a good job in chemical engineering “with perseverance and with my sacrifice.” Getting to the university in Cusco is a four-hour trip several times a week, but the time she has put in has borne fruit: She just completed an internship at a top laboratory in Lima, Peru’s capital. That lab offered her a chance to pursue her thesis work this fall. She works hard but is grateful. She is quick to credit Peruvian Hearts for its steadfast support.

And she praises Visionaria Perú, which helps “us to believe more in what we may be able to achieve each day, empower us, and give us strength to achieve our dreams.”

But the young Rotarians behind Visionaria Perú believe that such power and strength existed all along and that their work to unleash adolescent girls’ powerful visions has only begun.



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