An Interview with Ana Laura Araya, Co-Founder and Director of Soy Niña

Empowering Girls in a Safe Space During COVID-19 and Beyond

EXPERT'S TAKE

Editor’s Note:  At Together for Girls, we focus on data-driven solutions to prevent violence against children.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, our team is interviewing violence prevention leaders in our “Expert’s Take” series. 

In countries around the world, organizations are working to put an end to violence against children and to support girls in understanding their rights. In Costa Rica, however, no such organization existed until 2018, when some passionate hearts and minds came together to establish Soy Niña, a nonprofit working to prevent early pregnancies and empower girls. 

 

Together for Girls spoke with Ana Laura Araya, Co-Founder and Director of Soy Niña, to learn more about their great work in Costa Rica and how they have modified their programming to continue supporting girls in light of COVID-19.  

Headshot 2019 Ana Laura

What inspired you to start Soy Niña?

Ana Laura: I am originally from Costa Rica, but spent some time in the United States. When I moved back to Costa Rica seven years ago, there was not a single girl-serving organization in the country. I was shocked that there was very little being done to prevent teen pregnancy, given that we have such high teen pregnancy rates. Latin America and the Caribbean is the region with the second highest adolescent pregnancy rate in the world, and is the only region where teen pregnancy is increasing among girls younger than 15 years.

 

In my travels to Guatemala, I met 11-year-old girls who were about to give birth. These girls looked like children to me–because they were–and I just couldn’t believe it. It was around that time that I saw the documentary “Girl Rising,” which inspired me and showed that when girls are empowered and can make informed decisions, they can change everything–their families, communities, and futures.  

On International Day of the Girl, Ana Laura shares about Soy Niña’s work.

What do you wish people understood about early pregnancies?

Ana Laura: I often hear people say “I know someone who had a kid at 17 and they overcame all obstacles and are doing great,” but the truth is, that’s very rarely the case. Teen pregnancies are a violation of human rights and a large percentage of girls who get pregnant at a young age repeat the cycle and are trapped in poverty. Girls don’t learn their rights and they don’t learn about sexual education which is so important for preventing early pregnancy. That’s why we strive to prevent teen pregnancies through empowerment.

Girls at Club Niña doing arts and crafts

How does Soy Niña work to tackle early pregnancy?

Ana Laura: Our main mission is to prevent teen pregnancies through empowering girls. When you empower girls and teach them their rights, you help enable them to make informed decisions and learn to identify types of gender-based violence. We have a girls club called Club Niña, which focuses on girls’ emotional well-being and mental health. Girls in grades 1-3 and 4-6 meet in groups and take part in sessions where they learn about everything from self-esteem, to puberty, to how to be a good friend, to how to identify violence. Our program is structured so that the girls stay with us throughout their formal education years. 

 

For the girls, Club Niña is a safe space where they can go and be listened to, respected, loved, and not judged.  

The girls at Club Niña watching an educational cartoon.

How have you had to change or adapt your activities in response to COVID-19?

Ana Laura: We knew that COVID-19 was going to make life more difficult for these girls. Now they would be stuck in their houses, sharing a small space with family members, not seeing their friends. The girls went from going to school every day to getting homework assignments through WhatsApp. Many of them don’t even have internet, making access to virtual education very limited.

 

So we asked ourselves, “How are we going to help these girls?”  

 

We decided to take everything we previously spoke to the girls about at Club Niña and put it into a magazine. Now, the girls have interactive booklets filled with bright colors and positive messages including how to deal with their emotions during COVID-19. We also created a magazine for their parents on how to manage emotions as an adult, make sure their children are safe online, and more. Throughout COVID, we’ve been giving all of the girls empowerment kits, which include the magazines, supplies like paper, colored pencils, and scissors, as well as sanitary pads for the older girls. In addition to the empowerment kits, we set up an emergency helpline for the girls to use in a crisis situation, we stay in touch with them all through WhatsApp, and we created content for them on our YouTube channel. We regularly check in on the girls and their families, and they have our numbers so they can always call us. We strive to be someone consistent and constant in their lives, because sometimes they don’t have that.

The magazines, called “Planeta Soy Niña,” include information and activities about managing emotions, COVID-19, what to do in situations of violence, and more.

What are some of the impacts you’ve seen Soy Niña have on the girls?

Ana Laura: I’ve seen changes in the girls ever since Club Niña first started. Parents and caregivers tell us that their girls are more confident and have started getting better grades since attending Club Niña. I’ll never forget one mother started crying and telling us that her daughter used to have so much anxiety that she would get sick and never eat, but that she started eating just three months after joining Club Niña. We also surveyed the parents and caregivers, and 95% of them agree or strongly agree the girl can now tell the difference between affection and violence and can recognize their rights, and 93% of them agree the girl expresses her feelings and emotions more openly. 

“Club Niña is a safe space where they can go and be listened to, respected, loved, and not judged.”

A girl works on the activities in her empowerment kit from Soy Niña.

What motivates you to continue with this great work?

Ana Laura: What inspires me is seeing more and more people join our cause. The first week that we put out a flyer calling for volunteers, 120 people signed up. There’s a lot of interest in our cause, and I think that’s because every woman had her own insecurities in adolescence and can relate to this cause. The volunteers inspire me so much and they often tell me “the reason I’m at Soy Niña is because this happened to me and I don’t want it to happen to these girls.” I feel like I’ve never been alone in this work.

To learn more about Soy Niña, you can access their website by visiting soynina.org, visit their Facebook, or check out their YouTube channel.

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