Liliana*, a quiet but determined Quechua girl, sat down to talk with some American visitors who had come to work on a service project in her rural, Andean hometown of Socma, Peru. Surrounded by the dramatic mountain scenery, she was completing her homework for the day. One visitor, Alex, asked her where she would be going to school the next year, as he was aware that she was in the last year of the primary school she attended in her community. Liliana* explained to Alex that the distance, a 3 hour mountainous trek, among other obstacles such as farming and familial responsibilities, would inhibit her from attending high school. The walk itself crosses farmland, narrow mountain trails and puts her safety at risk. Her family, like many others, did not feel it was safe for her to walk alone to attend school and did not have the financial means to provide a place for her to live in town. The visitor quickly realized that without the opportunity to further her education, the future did not hold much opportunity for Liliana* or other girls her age from rural communities of the Sacred Valley.
The national government of Peru provides all Andean communities with a one-room primary school (grades 1-6), so that children can learn how to read, write and do basic math. However, there is little governmental support beyond this for indigenous, Quechua communities. In fact, roughly half of the communities still lack electricity and potable water. For students from rural communities, especially girls, attending secondary school (grades 7-11) is out of reach. There are few secondary schools in the region, and they are all located in the larger towns. For the most remote communities, the larger towns are only accessible by foot and can require up to eight or nine hours of travel. While boys are often able to reside with a family in the town in order to attend school, most parents do not want to risk the safety of their daughters, so girls are less likely to be able to attend secondary school.
This exchange spawned an idea that became the Sacred Valley Project (SVP), a program that provides access for young women from rural villages within the Sacred Valley of Peru to attend secondary school. The Sacred Valley Project provides access to education by running a dormitory where girls receive academic support, nutritious meals, leadership training, and a nurturing and safe home. Located in the ‘living Inca town’ of Ollantaytambo, the pilot program currently houses sixteen intelligent and deserving young women from rural Andean communities. Each participant, like Liliana*, had limited resources but possesses the ability and desire to learn. The girls commute (in small groups so as not to travel alone) to the dormitory on Sunday afternoons, and return home at the end of each week so that they may still participate in their traditional familial responsibilities and Quechua culture.
Once members of the communities of the Sacred Valley began to learn of the project, women from mountain towns commuted hours by foot or horseback to come tell their story to the Sacred Valley Project team. As the team talked about education, our goal was to explore what Quechua families of the Sacred Valley really thought of formal education and how it was valued. Most parents explained that they had not completed school past third or fourth grade.
One woman trekked two hours down from a mountain community and brought roasted guinea pig and potatoes as an offering in order to talk with the SVP team. When we asked her how far she had reached in school, she burst into tears. She proceeded to tell us, between tears and deep sighs, about how her father had refused to send her to school. She told us that she worked very hard as a young girl to make enough money for school supplies. However, when her father found them he threw them into the waterfall near her home. She told us she never wanted to be a farmer but was forced to by her family. She cried that all she had ever wanted was to study and become a teacher. It was at this moment, as we watched this grown woman sob, that it was hard not to wonder how many more women out there were feeling this way.
The Sacred Valley Project has been fortunate to work with young women whose families support their aspirations to learn. Local teachers, psychologists, health care professionals, community members and international and national volunteers have all pitched in to make this project a reality. With this support, the SVP is able to provide a diverse and stimulating supplemental education for its students. Inspirational speakers, including many successful women of Peru, are invited to speak and host workshops in order to expose the girls to as much opportunity, leadership development and vocational knowledge as possible.
The Sacred Valley Project and it’s participants still face many obstacles, but thanks to the support and encouragement she has received through the program, Liliana* excelled in secondary school (particularly in Mathematics), gained enough confidence to join the school’s track team, and just last year, Liliana* successfully graduated. She is now living in the city of Arequipa exploring her next steps towards success. With the education that Liliana* has worked so hard to obtain, SVP believes that she, along with all other graduates of the program, will be equipped to return to their communities as educated and empowered leaders, and will have opportunities to start their own business, teach classes of their own, or continue on to college.
Regardless of the direction the Sacred Valley Project graduates choose, it is the hope of the SVP team that through the support and encouragement received through the program, these girls will be empowered to make informed decisions for themselves and their family, to follow their hopes and dreams, and to lead healthy, happy and fulfilled lives.
*name changed for student privacy