Héctor López and a group of friends were walking down the street in this small Caribbean Coast city when a group of men began following them, armed with machetes.
For López – and many other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in this rural region of Nicaragua – this kind of incident and other threats, discrimination and hate crimes are all too common.
“Homophobia attracts violence,” says López, 27. “We managed to escape the men, and we did not file a complaint because it’s useless to go to the police. There is no justice for the aggressions and hate crimes against the gay community in this region.”
In June, Pride Month, López shared this story and discussed the challenges facing LGBT youth with a group of 22 peers from across the Caribbean Coast. The group makes up the Youth Advisory Council for Technical Education for Aprendo y Emprendo, a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Implemented by Creative Associates International, the program seeks to improve the quality of and access to technical education and vocational training for at-risk youth in the Caribbean Coast region.
The Youth Advisory Council, established by Aprendo y Emprendo in 2017, meets regularly to discuss obstacles and solutions to youth pursuing technical careers. And with representation from LGBT activists like López, youth with disabilities and a wide range of ethnicities, the council members serve as important advocates for marginalized groups.
“It has been very important for me to be part of the Youth Advisory Council for Technical Education. This USAID project has been concerned not only with having an ethnic perspective, but also considers sexual diversity,” López says.
Reaching a population at risk
In the Caribbean Coast, which has higher rates of poverty and violence than the rest of Nicaragua, LGBT people are particularly vulnerable.
“Here on the Caribbean Coast, discrimination is greater,” López says. “If you’re gay, they’ll shout insults in the street. Families often reject gay youth and expel them from their homes and schools. Life expectancies are very low, and many young gay people end up living on the streets, victims of drug use and commercial sexual exploitation.”
LGBT youth from the Caribbean Coast’s many distinct ethnic minority groups can also face double discrimination – like López, who is Creole and gay.
Through strengthening local technical education and vocational training schools and by awarding scholarships, Aprendo y Emprendo can open a door of opportunity to vulnerable youth.
While only a handful of the nearly 500 youth who have received scholarships so far have self-identified as LGBT, it is likely that some chose not to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of discrimination in the classroom or workplace – especially since many technical careers are traditionally male-dominated.
Melvin James, Aprendo y Emprendo youth counselor, says in addition to providing technical and financial assistance to students and schools, the program is also working to challenge perceptions and change values so education is more accessible to all. Education and training institutions are becoming more aware of gender and LGBT inclusion and sensitization and how to reach at-risk students.
Group youth counseling and life skills curricula is built on fostering intercultural and inclusive citizens and building a culture of peace and respect for human rights.
“In youth counseling, we talk about values such as respect, love, harmony and coexistence, addressing LGBT rights,” James says. “In soft skills curriculum, we have presented case studies with the participation of members of the LGBT community.”
Raising LGBT voices
Despite the challenges he’s faced, López considers himself lucky – unlike many of his LGBT peers, his family has always supported him.
“I have had the acceptance and support of my family, and that has allowed me to become a professional,” he says. “But that is the exception and not the norm in the Caribbean Coast.”
López is a graduate of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast and works as a psychologist, while also doing LGBT advocacy and outreach.
He says his involvement in the Aprendo y Emprendo Youth Advisory Council for Technical Education has allowed him a platform to advocate for the LGBT community’s access to education and training through the media, at youth-focused events and with the program’s education and private sector partners.
”My participation allows LGBT youth to be included, and we raise our voice for our right to education here in the Caribbean Coast,” López says.