The Abriendo Oportunidades Response to COVID-19: Advocating and Providing for Indigenous Populations in Guatemala (Part 6, Covid-19 Response Series)

by Angel del Valle, Country Representative to Population Council Guatemala Office

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to advance in the Mesoamerican region, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) expressed concern about the disproportionate effects experienced by indigenous and afro-descendant populations. PAHO/WHO called on governments to intensify efforts in order to prevent further spread of infection within these communities, as well as to ensure adequate access to healthcare services. When the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Guatemala in mid-March, the President announced a series of Government lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus that included school closures, curfews and stay-at-home orders that may exacerbate conditions of vulnerability for indigenous communities. To date, the Ministry of Education has not announced protocols to reopen schools and has focused its efforts in remote education, and also asking teachers to deliver worksheets in-person to the homes of students with limited access to electricity.

To reduce the spread of COVID-19 and suppress the pandemic, national and local authorities require timely and relevant data and evidence to inform prevention, control, and mitigation measures. To support policymakers in generating this evidence, the Population Council conducted a series of rapid phone-based surveys to assess the needs, knowledge and practices with 144 key informants in 10 indigenous municipalities in Guatemala. Findings show that by late April 2020, key informants (parents, teachers, municipal officers and frontline health responders) were facing irregular access to essential services like water and electricity, loss of income, food insecurity and disconnection from schools. By late July, with 45,000 cases and 1,700 deaths, there is very limited knowledge on the “right” mechanisms to support indigenous communities and children in periods of lockdown and the strategies that should be put in place to guarantee their enrollment through the 2021 school cycle. 

Abriendo Oportunidades Response Plan
With support from Summit Foundation and NoVo Foundation, in May 2020 we started to work on preliminary steps to launch the Abriendo Oportunidades (AO) response to COVID-19 plan that will engage 17 mentors, 2 linguistic groups, and 8 communities located in 2 indigenous municipalities.

We conceptualized a roadmap in three phases that starts with urgent action in the short-term and built

Guatemalan indigenous girl participants of the Abriendo Oportunidades program. Photo Credit: Mark Tuschman.

enhanced partnerships between communities and municipal services for the longer term. Our team plans to extend the implementation through 2021 and complete a cycle of 9 months in all communities. Research and documentation efforts will also continue through 2021.

The AO response plan revisits the current state of community contracts and expands its content to include connections to local schools, coordination with the local health system and cooperation with the Office of the Mayor. We recruit 2 AO mentors and 1 indigenous midwife in each community. Mentors and midwives receive stipends as compensation for their work, while frontline health responders and community leaders are supported with personal protection equipment and resources for mobilization.

With the goal of testing different assumptions on delivery approaches that work best, we select communities new to the AO approach and communities where the program has cultivated networks of mentors. The group of 17 mentors are engaged weekly through online platforms that offer trainings, content on curricular topics, learning opportunities on areas of interest and resources provided by the Government (e.g., protocols, guidelines, emergency lines directories). Mentors work in couples in each community and will coordinate syndromic surveillance efforts with midwives.

The curricular content is delivered to girls through municipal radios, combining radio episodes with workbooks (developed by a National Radio Institute, IGER). The AO radio episodes include information on prevention practices and feature podcasts recorded by mentors. Topics focus on life plans for girls, information about COVID-19, gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, food security, promotion of public programs to support women, traditional medicine and agricultural practices that can be replicated at home. To complement the AO curricular content, mentors distribute materials to girls by conducting household visits following the protocols from the Ministry of Health.

Responding to Increased Domestic Violence
In response to the increasing reports of domestic violence, the Council partnered with the Office to the Defense of Indigenous Women (DEMI) to launch the first emergency line for indigenous women in 4 languages (the same linguistic languages considered in the AO response plan). Meetings were held in May and June with the National Police and the Public Ministry to align efforts and design a platform that links the DEMI emergency line to pertinent actions by the police and the Public Ministry. The emergency line will be operated by 4 AO interns, recruited and trained by the DEMI, the National Police and the Council. Data collected through the emergency line will also be subject to analysis.

Supporting Education
As demonstrated by the multiple efforts to assess the impact of the AO program, offering continuous access to mentoring can equip indigenous girls with the skills and resources needed to pursue alternative life paths, avoid child marriage, and build skills to live free of violence. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in indigenous communities, we are focusing our efforts in developing safe implementation mechanism that offer:

  1. tutoring for 500 girls (ages 10 to 19) and regular engagement with their families through phone calls and household visits implemented with safe-distancing measures;
  2. access to the AO curricular content delivered through radio in the local language (adapted to be listened by all children in the household) focusing on the links between education and life plans, information on COVID-19 prevention protocols, and availability of services that communities can access during lockdowns;
  3. a longitudinal approach in data collection that captures progress on key schooling indicators such as enrollment, interaction with teachers and academic achievement from all children in the households; and
  4. a regular channel of communication with the Ministry of Education to inform the strategies to be deployed over the coming months to re-open schools and promote indigenous children to the 2021 cycle.

Combined, the four components can increase the chances of keeping girls in school through the 2021 cycle as the pandemic continues to unfold.

For more information on our work in Chisec, please watch:

For the findings of our Round 2 surveys, please visit:

For more information on the Abriendo Oportunidades program, please visit:

For more information about Population Council Covid-19-related research, please visit: