On March 9th 2020, my boyfriend Jeremy and I met with an incredible non-profit organisation in Cusco, Peru. Our trip to Peru and Bolivia had been planned for a while. Having just started Azickia Foundation a few months before that, it seemed more than appropriate to me to try and meet with local NGOs during our time there. To try and discover the reality that lies beneath the beautiful landscapes these countries have to offer. It took me longer than expected to finish this article but it’s finally here, thanks COVID-19.
After searching online for a few non-profit organisations whose activities took place in one of the cities we planned to visit, I stumbled upon one called Peruvian Hearts. Their mission: empowering the next generation of women leaders through education. Their focus on women empowerment, gender equality and education spoke to me, as these are also some of the SDGs that we chose to support through Azickia. I was also particularly drawn to the fact that they offered to visit them while travelling to Peru, which, to me, was also a sign of transparency. A value that is too often missing or neglected in the International Development and Solidarity sectors. I decided to get in touch with them through their website. A few months later, we met with their Executive Director, Danny Dodson, in Cusco.
Peruvian Hearts is a 501(c)3 charity, based in Colorado, USA. Their actions in Peru mainly take place in Cusco and Lima. The Story behind the creation of PH is particularly interesting and unique: As explained on their website and by Danny during our visit, PH was first created by Ana Dodson, Danny’s sister, who was adopted as an infant in 1992 from Cusco, Peru. After returning to her birth country for the first time at age 11 in 2003, she decided to take action to contribute to the reduction of the poverty she witnessed during her trip. When she returned home, she founded Peruvian Hearts. At that time and in the very early 2000s, about half of the Peruvian population was considered to be “poor, with an income below the cost of the minimum food basket (US$ 42 in the Amazon, and US$ 75 in Lima)”.
Ana’s Story started to draw a lot of attention and received recognition from various bodies around the world: “she was selected as a CNN Hero in 2007 and named one of People Magazine’s Heroes Among Us in 2008. At age 17, she spoke at the UN Headquarters in New York on the International Day of Peace and in 2009 at age 18 received a Caring Award and was inducted into the Caring Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.” “Her story has been shared in publications such as National Geographic for Kids, Time for Kids, and two children’s books have been authored about her inspiring story. Peruvian Hearts and Ana’s story were ALSO featured in the 2014 documentary film about Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, Children of the Light.”
The idea should be to provide women with these same opportunities and empower them to decide for themselves. Easier said than done, obviously. But that is what PH is trying to do, giving back the chance that Ana had to others
Aside from Ana’s personal story, it is the mission driving PH and the way they chose to empower Peruvian girls that motivated this story. As Danny explained to us on the way to the PH headquarters, only 3% of girls from rural Peru go to University. To get in, you only get one chance, as there is only one test to pass. More precisely, each university (private or public) has their “own” Entrance Exam, which for the national university often means more than 2,000 applicants competing for only 12 to 16 vacancies, depending on the career path. There are literally hundreds of “academies” that help prepare students for the entrance exams, which cost S/. 500-800 (or approx. $150-200 US) for 3 months of classes, with a minimum monthly wage in Peru ranging between 900 S/. to 1000 S/. So unfortunately, and just like in many countries, only the families with the most resources can afford these academies.
Another striking number that bears mentioning: only 36% of girls from rural Peru finish secondary school. This is mostly due to all the side costs of education such as books, accommodation and/or transportation, and the more general socio-economic conditions needed to succeed.
And yet, for a country’s development, as some of you might already know, education as well as women empowerment are some of the most important “success factors” that can lift a whole country out of poverty. “Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth”
So, how does Peruvian Hearts try and help change these numbers?
To show us what it is that they actually do and how they pursue their social mission, Danny took us to meet one of the young girls who joined their program and was currently a PH Scholar. After leaving our hostel in the center of Cusco, we arrived about 15 minutes later to a house with a blue door as you often seen them in this town. That is where we met 19 year-old Eduarda who welcomed us with open arms into her home.
What we learned during this visit – among many other things – is that PH does not only provide funding for its scholars to attend school and achieve their professional goals and dreams – which is already remarkable – but that they use a holistic and long-term approach to lift girls out of poverty. What does this mean?
When we were talking to Eduarda, she was telling about her law studies and showing us at the same time all that PH had done for her. This included providing her with a solar lamp to allow her to study later during the evening, fixing the roof of her house that was falling apart because of humidity, providing the whole family with functioning toilets with a door for privacy etc. One of the other PH girls we met afterwards had also been provided with glasses and braces.
It seems obvious but often forgotten that all these basic needs and basic aspects of everyday life must be met before being able to focus on education. Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs clearly illustrates this principle. Such improvements can then have a significant impact on one’s education and on whether or not one is able to fully complete their studies and graduate from university. Only then can it lead to a better life…
At PH, all of this was made possible thanks to the work of the local staff, two of whom we had the chance to meet, Edwin and his wife Jeannette, both acting as mentors to the girls joining the program, in all aspects. To complete the story of Peruvian Hearts’ creation, Edwin was actually the one who helped Ana’s family to adopt her. Miriam, the PH psychologist who we did not meet, is also part of the local team, giving precious mental support to these girls who, for most of them, felt confident enough to tell us about their abusive and/or alcoholic family issues. Lastly, Hammeris is PH’s academic advisor and plays an important role helping to keep the girls on track academically.
After visiting Eduarda’s home, we went to the PH offices and listened to some of the other PH scholars’ stories – One more moving – but more importantly, more uplifting than the other. It clearly stroke us that what PH succeeded in doing was to allow them to keep dreaming and to not give up on their passion. By encouraging them to become who they wanted to be, combined with a sort of “entrepreneurial mindset” as well as a strong team spirit, to help one another. From chefs, to lawyers, doctors or mining engineers, their soon-to-be careers are taking shape and are now becoming achievable in their minds.
The multi-faceted selection process used by PH also has an important role to play in the success of their programs. As Danny explained: “Our selection process is developing on an ongoing basis and has evolved over the last 8 1/2 years of our girls education and empowerment program. We select girls based on different criteria of requirements, which include: a demonstrated level of academic success, economic hardship within her family, their moral values such as solidarity, respect as well as their drive to succeed and strong desire to give back and help others. Potential scholarship recipients will then meet with our PH program director, Jeannette, our PH psychologist, Miriam, and our Academic Advisor, Hammeris, separately. Then the candidate will be invited to participate in a group interview with the PH team in Peru and other PH scholars. When possible, we’ll meet the family members to help us gage the level of family support that exists for the candidate.” This process also helps to insure the sustainability of their mission.
As of today, PH has 32 scholars and 6 Graduates. 4 have their Titles, which means they also finished their Thesis and completed an internship. 5 girls are currently writing their thesis. In the coming years, it will be all the more interesting to follow up on PH Scholars and see how their lives and the lives of their families have improved over time.
Women Empowerment or how to regain control over your own life
The term Women Empowerment is now being more and more used especially in the development sector. Sometimes, its’ meaning is not quite clear or the term not well employed. But here is an interesting definition: “Women Empowerment is the Process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices”.
This definition highlights the importance not to impose our own choices on women in lower-income countries that do not have the same chances in life in terms of socio-economic opportunities. At the contrary, when possible, the idea should be to provide them with these same opportunities and empower them to decide for themselves. Easier said than done, obviously, but that is what PH is trying to do, giving back the chance that Ana had to others. An example to follow for both non-profit organization workers but also for anyone interested in understanding in more depth the importance and the process of women empowerment.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.