Starfish Works to Empower a New Generation of Mayan Women

Starfish maya women

Rural Mayan women in Guatemala rank at the bottom of almost every statistical measurement of human development.

Only 14 percent complete the sixth grade, and more than half of Mayan women are illiterate, oppressed and living in poverty.

As teenagers, many of them get married and most start having children well before they are mature adults. This, of course, only perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Starfish are one of the most resilient creatures living in the ocean. The beauty and power of the animal inspired the name of Starfish (Asociación Estrella del Mar), an inspiring non-governmental organization that works to support young Mayan women and their communities.

Starfish provides scholarships so that these “Girl Pioneers” can successfully complete their years of formal schooling and offers a mentorship program for motivated Mayan girls living in poverty who would otherwise most likely not be able to get an education. One mentor works with a group of 15 girls for several hours per week, for six consecutive years. The mentors are indigenous Mayan women, and many are themselves graduates of the Starfish program.

“They really blossom with confidence and assertiveness,” according to Hannah Bick, a Starfish field consultant. The program participants take leadership training, develop interpersonal skills, and learn about important topics including financial literacy, voting and reproductive health.

It’s a huge commitment and a slow process full of challenges. The Mayan culture is very tight-knit and family-oriented, so it’s important to involve parents and families as part of the process.

“Big change takes time, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” say Connie and Ted Ning, who founded the organization in 2007. Starfish has offices near Denver, Colorado as well as in Sololá, Panajachel and Santiago. The Girl Pioneers come from pueblos all around the lake. Starfish wants to help empower them to live a choice-filled life.

According to the data from the three classes that have graduated so far, girls who complete the Starfish program are on a drastically different trajectory than their mothers and grandmothers were. Over half are enrolled in university (versus less than percent nationally) and over 90 percent are employed outside the home. These girls are getting an average of 12 years of formal schooling, which is totally unprecedented. Starfish’s future vision includes creating a progressive, private secondary school to improve the quality of the girls’ education.

Starfish’s latest initiative, the New Horizons Program, supports Starfish program graduates as they seek internships during their gap year before beginning University and gives the entrepreneurial graduates guidance and resources for creating their own small businesses. Starfish underwrites 80 percent of the girls’ salaries during their internships. If your organization, school, clinic or company could host a Starfish intern, please contact Hannah Bick at 3065-4734 or

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