As a young girl, Mabel Iriarte dreamed of becoming a dancer. She was a Venezuelan migrant living in Cartagena, Colombia, and one of the brightest students in her class. But at the age of 18, as Mabel neared graduation and made plans for her future, she learned she was pregnant. It turned her world upside down.

She was dealing with fighting at home, both with her family and in her relationship, which had become abusive. Her self-esteem was so low that she avoided speaking to strangers or even making eye contact.

Mabel was not alone in struggling to support herself either. In Colombia, the unemployment rate among young women ages 15 to 24 is 24 percent, which is more than double the national rate and nearly double the 14.4 percent unemployment rate among young men.

Workforce Program Offers Job & Life Skills Training

Then an opportunity came her way when Mabel joined Fundación Juanfe’s workforce development program. Fundación Juanfe works with adolescent mothers from some of the most marginalized neighborhoods of Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean coast famous for its tourism but marked with deep social inequalities.

The Program of Alliances for Reconciliation, funded by USAID and implemented by ACDI/VOCA, works alongside Fundación Juanfe, promoting dialogue, empowerment, trust, and respect through a methodology called DecidoSer.

DecidoSer is a tool created by ACDI/VOCA that provides psychosocial support to victims of Colombia’s armed conflict as well as victims of gender-based violence, youth forced into illicit activities, and many others.

Through the program, Mabel began training to work in the tourism and restaurant industry. She also took part in workshops emphasizing conflict resolution, communication skills, and life planning. 

Mabel remembers the moment she reached a turning point in her life. It happened during a DecidoSer workshop about resilience. After that, she decided it was time to reconcile with her family.

“It was the first time I became aware of everything I am capable of.”

– Mabel Iriarte, a Program of Alliances for Reconciliation participant

With her new leadership skills, Mabel became a Juanfe Ambassador of Reconciliation, along with 22 other adolescent mothers. Ambassadors received in-depth training in the DecidoSer methodology and replicated its workshops with 800 children and youth in schools throughout Cartagena. Mabel led workshops for 200 students ages 12 to 19.

In October, she spoke at the 2019 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, held near Washington, D.C., to share her story and inspire others. “I thought I was a nobody,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t get anywhere in life because I had a baby at such a young age. I never thought that I would be here telling my story. But this is all fruit of a process.”

The Program of Alliances for Reconciliation focuses on women’s empowerment and social inclusion to help participants like Mabel understand their rights and how to access the resources and services available to them.

Learn more about the Program of Alliances for Reconciliation.

Learn more about the DecidoSer methodology.

Learn more about our work in Colombia.