Sunflowers and Pathways: how strengthening employability is expanding opportunities for Costa Rican youth

The author, Diana P. Carvajal, is a volunteer legal adviser. She is deployed in Costa Rica as part of the project “Protection of Children, Women and Other Communities in Vulnerable Situations” (PRODEF). The project is implemented by Lawyers without Borders Canada (ASFC) and the International Bureau for Children’s Rights (IBCR), thanks to the financial support of the Canadian Government, provided through Global Affairs Canada.

January 11th, 2019. Costa Rica enjoys quite a good image as a peaceful and tourist paradise. The decision was taken decades ago to not have an army and the omnipresent environmentalism reinforce this image. Personally, I admire the decision to reject mining projects that the country authorities have seen as involving risks of damage to the environment and potential grave health consequences for people.

My current volunteer post as Legal Advisor includes strengthening the skills of the IBCR’s partner, the Paniamor Foundation, to promote and raise awareness about children’s rights and prevention of violence, abuse, and exploitation. My work here has led to work on problems, most would not recognize in such a paradise. Even though Costa Rica is known for having a stable economy and ranked globally as an upper middle-income country[1], inequality[2] persists and this translates for youth, who are in a greater vulnerability. Youth from marginalized areas face major difficulties getting access to a job. The opportunities that exist within the tourism industry do not turn into jobs for this population. This relates to employers who are reluctant to hire local youth and would rather give jobs to foreigners with better skills.

Convinced as I am that the effectiveness of human rights can only be obtained through social structural changes, two remarkable projects from Paniamor, positively impacting young lives, have gained my attention. I had the opportunity to meet and interact in November and December 2018 with more than a hundred teenagers and, I saw first-hand how these development programs motivate youth to change their future. 

Overcoming the imminence

The projects offer opportunities to participate in vocational training, aiming to help young people to “overcome the paradigm of imminence as a way of life” (in the words of Gilda Pacheco, director of Paniamor) and understand the advantages of planning in order to access better opportunities. With the purpose of making these projects sustainable in the long run, the model projects are offered to the government, so they can scale them up across the country. The State could benefit of proven strategies and use them to better comply with its international obligations to effectively ensure children’s rights.

The Girasoles (Sunflowers) project focuses on women’s empowerment, social leadership and the professional insertion to the workplace. It addressed the situation of young female teenagers, between 15 and 21 years who are neither studying nor working and living in contexts characterized by social exclusion and conflict in vulnerable areas. The model project was started in the cities of Santa Cruz (in the province of Guanacaste) and Garabito (in the province of Puntarenas), two cities with vulnerable populations, at the North and Central Pacific coastline of Costa Rica.

These young women participate in workshops on employment skills such as customer service, tourism, food handling, and ICT skills, among others. Physical artistic training is also part of the curriculum in order to prepare the participants for job interviews. They also get to learn and practice teamwork, understand the gender gaps, ideal work environments, and labor standards. Last, but not least, the girls learn soft and emotional skills which are deemed essential due to their huge impact in being employable.

After an almost two-years of different workshops and complementary training, from the 154 participants, 69 have obtained an internship, 21 had been hired (mostly in the tourism industry), 46 have returned to the studies, and 10 have launched an entrepreneurial endeavor.

As for the Youth Pathways project, it is an initiative that will run as a pilot model project until 2020 in the Caribbean city of Limon (province of the same name). In this project, boys and girls participate in the project. The young follow the first trimester of soft skills training, to then be directed towards internships of three months, where they are trained at the workplace.    

A first brief visit to the project center where the workshops are held allowed me to chat with some admirable young people. The teenagers attend classes on a daily basis, despite the difficulties of motherhood, lack of resources for transportation or even food. As curious as they are, the young people were particularly interested in how different life in Canada is, our bilingualism, and of course, how to deal with the inclement weather.

Afterward, I had the privilege to participate in the selection of young people who will take part in the second cohort of the project. Participating in a complete “week of the challenge” the young aspirants demonstrated their desire and capacities to follow the whole program with discipline. The impossibility of offering the program to an unlimited number of teenagers forces Paniamor to implement filters to select candidates for the program. The challenge week along with an individual interview seek to guarantee that the young people chosen have the characteristics necessary to finish the program and take advantage of the opportunity offered to them.                     

The changes

Most of the young participants describe the process as a transformative experience. They highlight how the workshops have been helpful, not only in identifying their own abilities and competencies, but also to overcome self-confidence problems. This is especially recurrent in the case of young girls who are learning to recognize themselves as valuable and with potential.

For instance, Lorena Elizondo is an 18-year-old graduate from the first cohort of Girasoles. She quickly stood up as creative and dynamic and is one of the young participants that was able to land a job with a regional well-known hotel chain.

Another case is that of Francini González, a 17-year-old teen mother (of a 5-year-old kid). She struggled against prejudices and overcame her own shyness to become one of the leaders in her cohort. Her career and life inspirations include to develop a personal entrepreneurship project and to become an instructor in the technology field. To that end, she currently receives the support of Girasoles to access educational training in technological skills.

Lastly, Tania Ortega is a 21-year-old girl who has just completed her development with the project in Limon. She recently shared with us her excitement of receiving a scholarship from her experience participating in Youth Pathways to study photography at Veritas University in San José (Costa Rica).  

Continued strengthening

The next months, I will be facilitating workshops on the protection of children’s rights, prevention of child marriage and trafficking in persons with the participants of the Youth Pathways second cohort. For myself, it is a great source of gratification to be invited to participate in this process and contribute to this commitment to build a more inclusive Costa Rica. This purpose requires sustainability of the empowerment and socio-economic integration, especially in areas where exclusion and social conflict are rampant. To that end, capacity building for youth, and particularly for young women, is a step towards the elimination of poverty, a goal to which Canada contributes through the Volunteer Cooperation Program.

[1] The World Bank in Costa Rica: Overview, World Bank, 4th of October 2018, available online:

[2] The Gini index is 0.51, indicating a very high level of inequality in Latin America (already the most inequitable region in the world).