By Published: Sept. 13, 2016

With help from a group of CU Boulder alumni, young women in Peru learn to envision a better life, higher self-esteem and more personal agency


Its 3 a.m. on a Sunday, and Katheryne Rosa Barazorda Cuellar is prepar­ing to work in her mother’s soup stall in the small Peruvian town of Anta, near the Inca capital of Cusco. Smart and seemingly indefatigable, she has a quick smile and infectious laugh.

Rosa is studying to be a chemical engineer, and she has unmistakable talent and drive. She needs them. Poverty, gender bias, and violence darken the lives of many young Peruvian women, including her.

But Rosa is lucky. She has a supportive family and help from a local nonprofit that cares for and provides scholarships for young women. And for the past four years, she’s also gotten the support of Visionaria Peru — a leadership and self-empowerment program in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

CU Boulder alumna Genevieve Smith, standing, encourages young women during a Visionaria Peru leadership institute. Photo by Chris Carruth.

CU Boulder alumna Genevieve Smith, standing, encourages young women during a Visionaria Peru leadership institute. At the top of page, CU Boulder alumna and PhD student Abigale Stangl works with a young Peruvian woman. Photos by Chris Carruth, who is an alumnus and now instructor in the Technology, Arts & Media Program at CU Boulder.

Young alumni from the University of Colorado Boulder launched the summer program for adolescent girls who dream of career and community service. This is why:

In Peru, women suffer higher rates of poverty and unemployment than men. About 50 percent of Peruvian women in the Sacred Valley region, which lies outside Cusco, will suffer severe physical or sexual intimate-partner abuse during their lifetimes, the World Health Organization reports.

Peruvians — particularly in rural areas — endure high levels of smoke from cooking over indoor fires. About 4 million of the country’s 30 million residents lack access to clean water.

In 2012, CU Boulder alumni who are also Boulder Rotarians forged a plan to help address those problems by working to “empower” local women — specifically in their ability to make and act upon their decisions.

That plan yielded a nonprofit called Visionaria Peru.

“The program helped me a lot because I had visions and goals, but I did not feel capable in making decisions,” says one girl in an assessment. “Now I am capable of making decisions and taking risks for my life.”

The group’s work is centered in the town of Urubamba, which shares its name with the river that flows past shops, farms, and ramshackle buildings painted with political symbols. Downstream, the river snakes below Machu Picchu and tumbles toward the Amazon River.

Here, tourists may drop $475 apiece — nearly the mean monthly salary in Peru — to ride a luxury train from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Visitors glide past squalid barrios where grandmothers bathe in ditches, children may breathe toxic indoor stove smoke, and dogs paw through piles of garbage, seeking food.

Here, in Urubamba’s La Quinta Eco Hotel, young women gather for a weeklong leadership training institute through Visionaria Peru. The girls — the team calls them visionarias (female visionary, in Spanish) — come from both the bucolic Andes and the noisy city.

A young Peruvian woman shows off a solar-powered light, which can help residents see and read at night. Photo by Chris Carruth.

A young Peruvian woman shows off a solar-powered light, which can help residents see and read at night. Photo by Chris Carruth.

At the end of the institute, the visionarias form teams and enter one of three “activ­ism tracks”: improved cookstoves, water and sanitation, or solar lighting. The “activism tracks” enable participants to work on sustainable-development projects that they themselves envision and implement.

The project started in 2012 when Genevieve Smith (IntAf’11, summa cum laude) was in Peru and visited a hogar (home for girls) supported by Peruvian Hearts, a Colorado-based nonprofit that works to end poverty and gender inequality by “educating young women and creating community leaders in Peru—one girl at a time.”

At the Peruvian Hearts’ hogar, Smith and Lindsey Ratliff (EnvSt’12) asked the girls what kind of sup­port they would need as they got older.

While the students in Peruvian Hearts’ college-prep program were smart and qualified to attend a uni­versity, they lacked confidence and felt discriminated against because of their in­digenous, and often troubled, backgrounds. By the end of that day, Smith and Ratliff crafted a project plan to support the girls.

Katheryne Rosa Barazorda Cuellar, kneeling, demonstrates a water filter that rural Peruvians can use to get safe, affordable drinking water.

Katheryne Rosa Barazorda Cuellar, kneeling, demonstrates a water filter that rural Peruvians can use to get safe, affordable drinking water. Photo by Chris Carruth.

Marika Meertens, (EngrPhys’11, Mus’11, MSElEngr’13) a fellow Rotarian with experience at Engineers Without Borders, pitched the Peru project to the Boulder Rotary Club’s New Generations mem­bers. Abigale Stangl (EnDes’08, MSInfSys’13), who is now a PhD student at CU Boulder, eagerly joined the team.

Each member of the core trio assumed roles reflecting her strength: Smith with planning, Meertens in fundraising (including two grants totaling $55,000 from The Rotary Foundation), Stangl with project evaluation.

Visionaria Peru’s implementation team comprises 11 young people, eight of them Rotarians, seven of them CU Boulder alumni (see list here).

About Peruvian Hearts:

Ana Dodson founded Peruvian Hears when she was only 11 years old. She had been adopted by the Dodson family as a baby from Cusco, Peru, in 1992. When Ana visited Peru in 2003, she was moved by the extreme poverty and found her life’s mission to improve conditions in her home land for other children, especially young girls. Peruvian Hearts is the founding partner of Visionaria Peru and continues its work to empower the young women of Peru.

In four years, 55 visionarias have installed 62 cleaner cookstoves, sold 61 water filters and 75 solar lanterns, and addressed 145 students in workshops. Some 1,640 individuals have been touched by this work, Visionaria Peru calculates.

Visionarias themselves report positive results in their own lives: 80 percent said participating in Visionaria Peru improved their status in their communities, and 100 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the program improved their capacity to imagine and create change in their lives and the lives of others.

“The program helped me a lot because I had visions and goals, but I did not feel capable in making decisions,” says one girl in an assessment. “Now I am capable of making decisions and taking risks for my life.”

Peruvian Rotarians are preparing to take full control of the project once Rotary funding ends this year.

Rosa, meanwhile, believes she will find a good job in chemical engineering with “perseverance and with my sacrifice.” Getting to the university in Cusco is a four-hour trip several times a week, but the time she has put in has borne fruit: She just completed an internship at a top laboratory in Lima, Peru’s capital.

She is quick to credit Peruvian Hearts for its steadfast support. And she praises Visionaria Peru, which helps “us to believe more in what we may be able to achieve each day, empower us, and give us strength to achieve our dreams.”

For more information on Visionaria Peru, click here. For more information on Peruvian Hearts, click here.