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   Date: 2/15/11 Bookmark and Share

Bringing Education to Teenage Mothers in Peru

Smith Pair Raises Funds for 2,000-Book Library

By Lily Samuels ’11

Two Smith students, 2,000 books, and two dozen women, victims of sexual violence in Peru.

That is the equation that will add up to new opportunity for teenage mothers at La Casa de Acogida Mantay, a home for teenage mothers and their children in Cusco, Peru, situated in one of the country’s poorest districts.

Victoria Henry and 4-month-old Alexandra, a resident of La Casa de Acogida Mantay.

To donate to Engineering for Education or for more information, visit the project Weblog; click on "support the project" to make a contribution.

Victoria Henry ’12 and Geneviève de Mijolla ’13 are working together to build a 2,000-book library at the home as a way to provide educational opportunity to the young women.

“Statistically, a woman is raped every 20 minutes in Peru," explain Henry and de Mijolla. "The prevalence of sexual violence leads to a high number of unwanted pregnancies, particularly in teenage girls. As of September 2010, 13.7 percent of teenage girls in Peru were pregnant or were already mothers. The majority of these teen pregnancies occur among poor, uneducated women, whose circumstances make them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.”

After childbirth, the options for young mothers in Peru are limited, due in large part to a heavy social stigma toward those who become pregnant as a result of rape. They frequently give up on education and the possibility of financial independence. Many of the women and their children are destitute.

Thanks to facilities like Mantay, the future is not hopeless. The home supports the women and their children with sustenance, housing, education and psychosocial support. Currently, 15 women live at the facility with their children, and another 10 previous residents visit daily, Henry says.

A model, constructed by Henry and de Mijolla, of the library they plan to build in Cusco, Peru.

Beyond the basics, however, Mantay lacks sufficient resources to provide diverse reading materials and a designated study area. Henry, an English major, and de Mijolla, who is majoring in physics and engineering, plan to change that.

The pair will travel to Peru this summer to build, stock and organize the library. With a projected budget of $15,000 (U.S.) (see sidebar above for donation information), they will create a space that will facilitate a broad range of educational activities as well as reflect environmentally sustainable building practices.

“As an English major, I am very passionate about literature and literacy,” says Henry. “I am infinitely grateful to be at Smith, and I want all women to know the empowerment that comes from an education.”

The idea for the project, titled “Engineering for Education: A Library for Teenage Mothers in Peru,” took shape when Henry volunteered at Mantay in summer 2009, between her first and second years at Smith.

“I couldn't stop thinking about the women of Mantay,” recalls Henry after returning from her first visit to Peru. “I was amazed by the resilience of the women I worked with. Many of them were learning to read and write. When asked about their dreams, nearly all of them said that they wanted to see their children go to college and/or be professionals. I wanted the mothers to have this chance, too.”

Back at Smith, Henry and de Mijolla, who were lab partners in the popular course Engineering for Everyone, taught by Paul Voss, discussed the possibility of collaborating on the project. They set to planning, finding ways to show the residents of Mantay how education can transform lives.

“Education has been very important in my own life,” says Henry, “and I think that education is a powerful tool for women to change their roles in society.”

De Mijolla sees the project as a way to practically apply what she has learned at Smith. “It offers not only a number of social benefits to the women of Cusco, but it also offers me a number of scientific and engineering challenges that I would like to face in ways that respect the environment,” she says.

Though they intend to bring valuable educational resources to the women of Mantay, Henry and de Mijolla are aware of what the project may teach them as well. “These mothers are younger than we are and have faced so many challenges,” says de Mijolla, “and yet they still find the strength to be good mothers and strong and inspirational women. I feel I can learn from them.”

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