30,000 Nicaraguan Students Receive Free Laptops

Nicaragua One Laptop per ChildThanks to the One Laptop Per Child program, 30,000 Nicaraguan students from low-income neighborhoods are starting school this fall with their own laptops. A representative of the Zamora Terán Foundation, distributor of the laptops, says that eventually the organization plans to give all 600,000 of the country’s grade school students their own computer.

The program’s XO laptops are designed for learning and come equipped with 52 educational activities, Wi-Fi connectivity, and a camera. Schools that participate in the program are set up with a free Wi-Fi connection.

Despite he controversies that have surrounded free laptop programs in other countries, teachers in Nicaragua say the program helps increase student enrollment.

“Enrollment is up 15% since we started providing the computers because the children get excited about receiving a device like this,” says Martha Patricia Hernández, director of the San Francisco de Asís School in Diriamba, which has participated in the program since 2010. Hernández notes that without One Laptop Per Child, computers would be unaffordable for her students and their families.

Teachers and school directors also receive a laptop as part of the program. According to Hernández, this allows educators to conduct research and stay updated with the latest educational practices.

Félix Garrido, Zamora Terán’s director of education and operations, says that the goal of One Laptop Per Child is to transform Nicaragua’s educational landscape. Currently only 56% of Nicaraguan students finish grade school. In 2013, according to the Global Information Technology Report, Nicaragua ranked 125th out of 144 countries in the capacity to use information technology.

Worldwide, over 2.4 million children use laptops provided by the One Laptop Per Child program.

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Nicaraguan Youth Learn English, Take Action for the Future

doorways: gateway to (lexical) knowledgeStudents in Nicaragua face a tough job market when they finish school. In order to give themselves an leg up on the competition and a chance to win a high-paying position, many turn to English lessons.

In Ciudad Sandino, one of the poorest areas in Nicaragua, a group of students has just finished an English course at their community youth center. They seem inspired by what they’re learning.

“I’d like to be a tour guide,” says one student.

English proficiency allows students to obtain higher-paying jobs, like those in the tourism industry.

The youth in Ciudad Sandino know what they want. As Nicaragua’s tourism and call center industries begin to boom, the demand for English speakers is rising. Youths like those in the group at the community center have realized that the English training they receive in school is insufficient, so they seek out additional lessons in their spare time.

Marlon Saenz, a 22-year-old university graduate, aspires to work for a non-governmental organization.

“I am learning English because most people who work for NGOs speak English,” he says. “The grants and documents are all in English.”

Many young Nicaraguans, however, find they cannot afford English lessons. The average Nicaraguan earns just $150 per month. The cost of lessons, which can be several thousand dollars for the country’s top programs, puts them out of reach.

Those who can afford lessons often find that English is just the first step: high-paying jobs are scarce in rural areas, so they must relocate to big cities.

Many students are prepared. Liechen Rocha, 13, lives in Ciudad Sandino. When she is older she plans to leave in order to become a flight attendant.

“My mom doesn’t want me to go, but my dad says I should if I want to,” she says.

The sentiment is echoed by students across Ciudad Sandino. If they need to learn English, or move to a city, or both, they are ready to do so in order to secure their future.

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Campaign for “Love and Freedom” Changes Lives in Nicaragua

Young people act out a flash-theater scene

Surrounded by their audience in a spacious room, a dozen young people dressed in black perform flash theater: a boy hands a bouquet of flowers to a girl; two girls embrace while a boy looks on in disgust; a girl hands a condom to a boy who pushes it away.

Each is a microcosm of the relationships these young people grapple with.  Their performances are designed for other adolescents to recognize and reflect on patterns of love and control at this critical age.

The theater project is part of The Campaign to Live and Love in Freedom by Grupo Venancia, a feminist organization based in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Domestic violence is widespread in Nicaragua, where a weak justice system, underfunded police, and machista attitudes make women vulnerable to abusive relationships.  While Grupo Venancia also provides assistance to women in crisis, the campaign is designed to prevent abuse at the age when young people begin exploring romantic relationships.

It also aims to open a dialogue about gender roles and sexuality.  A central theme of the campaign is the importance of loving oneself first: the tagline says, “I’m not a ‘better half,’ I’m a whole.

As a volunteer with another of Grupo Venancia’s projects, I caught a performance to find out more about the campaign.

The flash pieces carried an emotional weight beyond their simple staging: the actors’ facial expressions and gestures in each mini-scene conveyed shame, distrust, fear, and hope.  Scattered in pairs and groups of three around the space, the actors repeated their scenes at intervals, their gestures and phrases becoming familiar to the audience.

Throughout the performance, the adult facilitator, Itzel Fajardo, asked the audience for their responses.  “Which image impacted you most?”

The young audience identified scenes of control, like a boy checking his girlfriend’s cell phone, or discrimination.  They also responded with connections to their own lives.

In a longer piece, volunteers from the audience stepped into a scene to replace the actor, offering their suggestions about how to change an action from controlling or passive to healthy and communicative.

Teens act out a controlling relationship

The dozen young people in the theater group range in age from 16 to 20 and come from various rural and urban communities in Matagalpa.

They performed in nine communities over a period of eight months, bringing the campaign to schools in the urban center of Matagalpa as well as isolated communities on the edge of the roadless Caribbean region.

Their preparation started almost a year ago with theater workshops and discussions led by adult facilitators from Venancia.

They used their own experiences as boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, and friends to create the stories they presented to peers.

Tania Meza, a 16-year-old in the troupe, says she’s inspired by the reactions of the audience.  “I want the audience to say, wow, I lived that, too. I want them to respond with their own feelings.”

Irma Mendez, who’s 19, shares that her participation in the theater group helped her end an unhealthy relationship.  “It’s been incredible, excellent.  We’ve been able to share our experiences and feelings and to reflect on them together.”

Fajardo, one of the designers of the campaign, worked with the teens throughout the process.  “Our goal wasn’t exactly to change attitudes, more to raise awareness.  And in that we’ve surpassed our goal, because of the changes we’ve seen” in the theater group.

For the boys, it was their first time reflecting on sexuality and gender roles.  “The process was really important for them.  Some were pretty machista at the beginning, but the reflection helped them make great strides.”

The changes were just as critical for the girls in the group, some of whom have been in abusive relationships.  Fajardo says now they talk about creating healthy boundaries in their relationships.

She sees that the teens have been deeply impacted by the knowledge that their stories are helping other young people.  “Now they see themselves as activists for change.”

For the audiences, she says, the process is “like giving them special glasses, and suddenly, they can see their reality and reflect on it.”

Audience members react to the theater performance

Nicaraguan NGO’s Promote Preschool

Students in rural Nicaragua

During the Global Action Week for Education Nicaraguan NGO’s took the opportunity to call for more support for preschools.

As reported in El Nuevo Diario, the president of the Forum for Education and Human Development Initiative called on the government to enact its policy on early childhood education.  Jorge Mendoza emphasized that the ministries of education and health need to take steps to implement the new policy, approved in November.

While the government’s goal is to provide support for nearly half a million children between the ages of 0-8 years, Mendoza says that 250,000 children are not receiving support.

Currently, half of preschool-aged children attend school in Nicaragua.  Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 47% of preschool-aged children were enrolled in school, compared with the Latin American average of 65%.

The Global Action Week for Education is an annual campaign sponsored by NGOs and teacher unions in over 100 countries.  This year’s theme is Early Childhood Care and Education, one of the six goals in UNESCO’s Framework for Action, signed by 164 countries in 2000.

For more information on Global Action Week go to Education for All.  

Girls Score “Goal against Machismo” in Nicaragua

Girls battle for the soccer ball in Bocana de Paiwas, Nicaragua

On a dusty pitch under intense tropical sun, 22 adolescent girls battle for control of the soccer ball.  The team “Stars of Tomorrow” trades kicks with their rivals for today, the “Crazy Girls.”  The girls come to the small town of Bocana de Paiwas from its barrios and nearby rural communities for their weekly game.

The field slopes steeply down to a wide river and each time the ball goes out there’s a rush to save it.  “Maria!” the girls call to a player on the sidelines, “The ball went in the river, go get it!”

Yet heat and errant soccer balls are the least of the challenges these girls and young women face: some have travelled hours by foot or horseback to get here and will return to hard work at home after the game.   While many girls have supportive families, some are called names by those who disapprove of girls playing sports.

Their league is designed precisely to combat those attitudes; it’s named “A Goal against Machismo” and the players range in age from 10 to 25.  Their presence on the field is a statement of girls’ right to play a sport.

Flor de Maria Espinoza is the goalie for the team “Women with Rights” and the president of the league.  She says the main goal of the league is “to show that soccer is something for girls and women.”  But another, equally important goal for these girls is that they have fun.  Espinoza explains, “We want them to relax and to enjoy themselves.”

After 90 minutes of play, the game goes to the Crazy Girls, 1-0, and the young women retire to the shade of the eucalyptus trees that line the field.

Girls playing soccer was a rarity in their community until 2008, when young women suggested the idea to a local feminist group, the Casa de la Mujer.  Now the league includes four teams with a total of 52 players.

Espinoza explains, “There’s a lot of machismo in this area, and we were discriminated against before. They called us ‘weirdos,’ ‘lazy,’ and ‘lesbians’ just because we were women on the soccer field.”  While those attitudes persist in some, the women have carved out a space of their own.

And their league doesn’t just teach soccer skills.  In addition to practice, the players commit to attending workshops on sexual diversity, sexual and reproductive rights, and teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections.  They also serve as guests on radio shows broadcast from the town’s community feminist station, “The Woman’s Word.”

Some of the girls have been playing for years now, and the community on their teams is evident.

Heydy Espinoza is eighteen and has been playing in the league since its beginning.  She says she loves soccer “because we’re all together and we’re all football fans.”  The best part of the league for her is “having fun with my friends, playing soccer but also going to workshops and events.” She’s travelled to the nearby town of Rio Blanco for a tournament, and has hosted teams from other rural communities.

But fourteen year-old Yarixa just played her first game in the league.  She’s played with kids in her rural community before, but never on an organized team.  Smiling broadly, she says, “I feel happy after today.”

Finding their Voices, Sharing their Wisdom: Kids Create Change In Nicaragua

Boys writing a skit about their experiences as consultants.

This is the third of three posts about an organization in northern Nicaragua, CESESMA, and their model of youth empowerment, as well as their innovative new project on sex and sexuality.  Part I is here, and Part II is here.

Nearly forty of the 70 young people who participated in the consultoria met one day in an open-sided rancho to share their experiences.  Their mission: analyze their peers’ responses and make recommendations to CESESMA.

Working in small groups with consultants from other communities, the adolescents first shared what they themselves learned.

One young woman explained, “Now I understand that sexuality is how we dress, how we love ourselves.”  An adolescent boy said, “I learned that sexuality is something it’s OK to talk about.”

A girl shared, “I learned sexual rights are that we have the right to enjoy ourselves, to dress however we want, even if the boys say we look ugly or make fun of us.”

For the young consultants, the importance of becoming informed about sexuality was mostly framed in terms of their own knowledge and understanding of their bodies, identity, and choices.  They mostly spoke in positive terms, of wanting to be informed, of now knowing they didn’t need to be embarrassed to talk about sex or sexuality.

Yet some consultants brought up kids’ needs to be informed of their rights in order to protect themselves.

Jorleny, 12 years old, explained, “In our future many people will try to trick us and it’s important we know the meaning of things, so if someone tries to trick us they can’t.”

Felix Pedro, also 12, echoed, “Kids need to know that they have rights, and that no one can violate their rights, not their parents or their siblings.”

After more discussion in groups, the consultants made their recommendations to CESESMA.

Several groups mentioned the importance of being able to talk about sex and sexuality with their parents.  One group suggested, “If a girl is abused, she needs to talk about it and not keep silent.  She should tell her mother.”  A common suggestion was that CESESMA offer training for parents so they “would understand it’s not vulgar to talk about sex and sexuality.”  Another group requested that “parents take care of their kids so they aren’t abused.”

The young consultants also requested workshops for kids and young people so they could ask questions and learn more about sex and sexuality.

Consultants present their recommendations to the group.

Through their official recommendations to CESESMA the consultants fully assumed their roles as change-makers in their communities.

Yet many of the young people talked about how much they liked the process of interviewing their peers.  It gave them confidence, and listening to the kids and teens in their communities completed the circle of trust initiated by CESESMA.

As 12 year-old Jaliksa told me, “They trusted us and answered what they thought, without being afraid.  And no one interrupted them.”

Kids’ Survey on Sexuality Creates Change in Nicaragua

One group of consultants shares their experiences in a skit.

In my last post I wrote about an organization in northern Nicaragua, CESESMA, that uses a framework of human rights to address the needs of children and adolescents.  I described their use of consultorias, or investigative consultancies, to empower young people to address problems in their communities.

So, what does it look like when kids and young people are empowered to investigate problems in their communities? How do they talk about critical issues like sex and sexuality?

I traveled to a rural community in northern Nicaragua to observe a consultoria in action.  CESESMA’s most recent consultancy is about sex education, a delicate topic in Nicaragua, a majority-Catholic country.

I took a bus to the rural community of La Grecia, up winding dirt roads into coffee country.  A dozen consultants gathered after school for the last day of interviews.  Ranging in age from 11 to 14, the boys and girls chatted quietly as the facilitator handed out the questionnaires.

Earlier in the process the facilitators trained the young people in consultancy, giving them background on the theme of sex and sexuality.  Then the consultants designed the survey for their peers, including questions about their understanding of sexuality and their sexual and reproductive rights.

While CESESMA usually asks young people to frame their own investigations, in this case they proposed the critical issue of sexuality.  Nicaragua has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Latin America and a staggeringly high rate of sexual violence against girls—two-thirds of reported rapes are committed against girls under 17 years old.

Harry Shier of CESESMA emphasizes, “In Nicaragua, sexual abuse and sexual violence against children is widespread, some say endemic, so children need to be able to protect themselves from these risks.”

Yet despite statistics that show sexual activity beginning at increasingly younger ages, there is little consensus about how to address sexuality with children.

Thus CESESMA’s goal was to find out what children and pre-adolescents know and want to know about sex and sexuality in order to develop an effective curriculum for sex education for kids.

That’s why they chose consultants between the ages of 11 and 15, and their interview subjects were kids as young as eight.

I tagged along with three girls, Josselin, Letys, and Paula, as they interviewed.  I followed Letys to the doorway of a small adobe house.  Fourteen year-old Maria came to the door, and smilingly agreed to be surveyed.

First Letys asked, “What do you know about sexuality?” and Maria responded, “It’s something between two people.”

There were long pauses between Letys’ questions and Maria’s soft answers.

Next Letys asked, “Do you know what your sexual rights are?” Maria responded, “I don’t know.” Similarly, she said she didn’t know her reproductive rights.

Yet when Letys asked what she would like to know about sexual and reproductive rights, Maria did have an answer: “their importance, methods.”

The lack of detail in Maria’s short responses is typical for children and adolescents in Nicaragua. While the national curriculum officially includes sexual education starting in primary school, in practice it is not consistently taught.

Consultants from La Grecia study their results.

And critics say what is taught focuses on sexual biology and doesn’t address the most important needs of kids and teens, like how to prevent pregnancy or sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).

A recent study of 2,800 adolescents in the capital, Managua, found that 28% were sexually active, including 6% of youth between 13 and 15 years old.  The same study revealed a critical lack of care for their health: 75% of the sexually active teenagers used no protection when they had sex.  And less than half of those who did use protection used condoms.

Yet Maria’s replies show young Nicaraguans’ desire to know more about sex and sexuality, though they may lack the vocabulary to even ask questions.

See my next post on Monday, to read the final chapter on the project.

Empowering Kids for Real Community Change in Nicaragua

Letys, consultant, and Maria after their interview for a consultoria on sexuality

What if we asked kids to teach us about the problems in their communities?  What if they gave recommendations for solving those problems?  And what if we gave them the tools to carry out change?

An organization in northern Nicaragua has taken this very approach, focusing on the empowerment of children and young people in order to improve their lives.  CESESMA, the Center for Education in Health and Environment, began its work in health education in 1996.  Since then, they’ve widened their focus to include education around themes of gender, identity, and the environment.

Their goals are radical: to empower young people and to foster their activism in their communities.  By empowerment, they mean the ability to know their rights and demand them.

In CESESMA’s consultorias, or consultancies, young people design their own research.  They select problems that affect their community and survey their peers in order to generate more knowledge around those problems.  Then they develop an action plan, and are supported by CESESMA in carrying it out.

In one consultoria, kids aged 10-17 from a rural community asked their peers, “What kind of violence have you experienced?”  With the guidance of adult facilitators, the young consultants came up with recommendations for reducing violence, which they presented at a national conference in Managua.

Harry Shier of CESESMA told me, “when I work with these kids over the months, I see how they change from the first meeting—they have a completely different self-identity.”

Bismarck, another consultant, preparing to interview

CESESMA operates within a critique of asistencialismo, or dependency.  Shier explains, “We want to shift young people to empowerment.  We want to give tools and conditions,” not charity, to the communities they work with.

The international NGO Save the Children contrasts an asistencialisto approach with a rights-based one in this way: in the former, people are objects of charity, while the latter views them as rights’ holders.

Thus CESESMA’s work is grounded in a human rights’ approach, and particularly draws from the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

Ratified by 192 nations, the Convention guarantees children and young people civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, including the right to an education.  

(And FYI, the US is one of just three countries worldwide which has not ratified the Convention.  Its illustrious company: government-less Somalia and the newly-created Republic of South Sudan.  I’ll write more about the Convention in another post).

The work of the young people in the consultorias is framed by Article 12 of the Convention, which addresses freedom of expression.

 Article 12, Convention on the Rights of the Child

States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

So, what does it look like when kids come up with solutions to their problems?  And what happens next?  In my next post I’ll write about the latest consultoria.  The topic: sexuality and sex education.

For more information:

The factsheet version:

CESESMA’s website:

Latin America’s First “Digital Island” is Wired for Kids


Children with XO laptops in Peru.

Five thousand primary students on the rural island of Ometepe, Nicaragua received new XO laptops loaded with educational software and connected with 24-hour wireless internet in an effort to close the digital gap.  Traffic came to a standstill on parts of the island as every local bus was contracted to bring children and their families to a local stadium.  Students left proudly clutching their laptops, eager to begin using a tool most had never accessed before.

The computers were provided by the Fundación Zamora Terán, which carries out the “One Laptop per Child” (XO) program in Nicaragua.  Their goal: half a million computers distributed throughout Nicaragua by 2015.

The laptops are expected to have a great impact on this island of 45,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers and fishers, many without electricity in their homes and with rare access to computers.  The Fundación estimates that for every child, the laptop will benefit five other people in their family.

Children will bring their laptops home to access national educational curricula and other resources, and also to connect to internet programs.  But the laptops are not completely internet accessible: web surfing is blocked to make them a purely educational tool.

In order to provide internet access across the 280-square-kilometer island, four large transmission towers and 32 satellite transmitters were installed, which the Fundación says makes Ometepe Latin America’s “first digital island.”

And teachers will benefit too—each primary teacher received their own XO with teaching resources.

Ometepe, Nicaragua

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Poetry Out Loud! Nicaraguan Festival Inspires Young People

Girls reading under the Books for Kids tent

Kids were among the notables invited to the eighth International Festival of Poetry in Granada, Nicaragua.  A wide tent of colorful picture books and cushions enticed young readers to relax amid the bustle of the central plaza, as poets and tourists circulated between events in the colonial city.  In the country of famed poet Ruben Darío, the festival offered multiple spaces to celebrate and create poetry, from open-mics to workshops to readings under the night sky.

On the final day of the festival young Nicaraguans read their poetry to crowds of visitors from all corners of Nicaragua and the world.  They shared the (figurative) stage with Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and poets from over 50 countries.

The young poets (university students from different parts of Nicaragua) were chosen by the Nicaraguan Society of Young Writers for the excellence of their work.  The Society also publishes anthologies and holds regular events in support of young authors.

The “Reading Corner” tent is a project of the NGO Books for Kids, which works in a dozen communities throughout Nicaragua to provide access to books.  They host mini-libraries with daily schedules for children to drop by and read books, or to listen to stories read aloud.  Kids come with parents, grandparents, or on their own, and can check out books.

Books for Kids also publishes high-quality children’s literature by Nicaraguan authors.  Their list includes titles by poet Giaconda Belli and musician Katia Cardenal, and they include new talent via competitions for illustrating and writing.

Despite Nicaraguans’ deep love for their national poets, books are a luxury for most.  Yet the enthusiasm of young readers and writers at the festival attests to the transcendent power of words.

The Book Corner at the Granada International Poetry Festival