Mexico has a 126 million inhabitants, of which 31.4% are young people between the ages of 0-171. The state of Chiapas has the highest proportion of young people (26.3% of the total population). Located in South-Eastern Mexico, Chiapas has some of the lowest socioeconomic indicators in the country (e.g., 72% of the population and 82% of children live in poverty), and has the second-largest indigenous population (28.17%). San Cristobal –where Melel works– has a vast indigenous population: 45% of its 231,345 inhabitants identify as indigenous, and 32% speak an indigenous language. In addition, San Cristobal has a high level of school dropout, with 30% of young people between the ages of 15 and 17 not attending school (two-thirds of those are female). Adolescent pregnancy rates are alarmingly high, with almost one in five births occurring among adolescent girls. Also, the deeply engrained machista social norms reinforce traditional gender stereotypes and naturalize domestic violence (40% of adolescent mothers have experienced inter-partner violence), leading in some cases to femicides or disappearances.
The communities on the outskirts of San Cristobal, where Melel Xojobal works, are predominantly made up of indigenous people that migrate from rural towns looking for better opportunities. Many families survive on odd jobs in the informal sector and therefore do not have the necessary income to send their children to school. When they can afford it, they often favour sons over daughters. Also, the two high schools in the area are both under-resourced public institutions that provide basic instruction that does not address topics such as gender equity and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges. Although the virus has less impact on young people, its effects on this age group can be seen in the increased levels of family violence, unwanted pregnancies, and mental health issues, along with a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. In addition, COVID related school closures had a negative impact on the marginalized young people that Melel works with. Most of them are not “technologically literate” and have limited access to the Internet and technological devices such as computers, TVs, or smartphones. The sum of all these factors has made girls, boys, and young people from marginalized communities even more vulnerable.
Founded in the state of Chiapas in 1997, Melel Xojobal took its name from the indigenous Tzotzil language, translating into “True light.” In its formative years, Melel focused on providing educational programmes for street children. Since then, Melel has expanded its mission to focus on defending the rights of marginalized and at-risk indigenous youth. It believes in the promotion of five core youth rights that directly affect the quality of life of indigenous youth in Chiapas: health, education, protection from all types of abuse, decent work, and freedom of expression and association. Melel is known throughout Mexico as a leader in the meaningful engagement of girls and received a With and For Girls award acknowledging it as a girl-centered organisation in 2015. In addition to a strong leadership from Director Jennifer Haza Gutierrez (20+ years of relevant experience, 15 as a street educator, programme coordinator and Director at Melel and 6 in the design, implementation and evaluation of educational projects with children and youth), Melel has a strong operations team—made up of a Programme Coordinator and two Educators are who are licensed sociologists or psychologists, with relevant Masters degrees, and multiple years of experience running the programme.
Early childhood: This programme focuses on girls and boys from 0 to 4 years of age. Melel works with children and their parents to address topics such as nutritional, physical, and social skills. The organisation also runs a nursery where mothers leave their children when they go to work.
Childhood: This programme focuses on defending the rights of indigenous children between the ages of 6 and 9. These are children that work in the streets, markets, and public areas of the city. In most cases, they work helping their families, who are small street vendors. Melel runs its childhood programme in the San Cristobal and Merposur markets, making sure that children’s working conditions improve through self-care strategies that include age-appropriate gender equity training, among other things.
Adolescence: Melel works with young people between the ages of 10 and 18, encouraging and promoting healthy lifestyles and self-protection strategies that revolve around safe sexual practices (prevention of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections) and gender equality (girls empowerment and prevention of gender-based violence). This line of work is implemented in two public schools located in the neighbourhoods with the highest levels of marginalization in San Cristobal, as well as during Saturday workshops in Melel’s facilities (one space for girls only, called Código F, and one that is co-ed, called Kolem).
EMpower’s sixth grant to Melel Xojobal will help 270 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 (55% girls and 45% boys, mostly indigenous) increase their knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights, prevent violence –especially gender-based violence– and increase their core life skills. Programme participants will also receive school supply kits and tutoring sessions to guarantee school attendance that will help them improve their academic performance. Melel will partner with two local public schools and will offer training for 78 teachers and parents on violence prevention, access to justice and child-bearing skills.
Primary Location: Chiapas
Funded Since: 2016
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