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For anyone who knows anything about Latin American culture, you know the quinceañera is a big deal. The quinceañera is a girl’s coming out party, signifying her transition into womanhood. She puts on makeup, has her hair done, wears heels and dances her first dance. Quinceañeras are elaborate affairs, and can be as big of a production as a wedding. They are such an important and expected part of the culture here that it’s almost a tragedy not to have one. However, for our families, this type of affair would be financially out of reach.

But three years ago a support team came. The team members were a church youth group and their chaperones. It just so happened that two of the girls on the team turned 15 the week they were here, and another girl had turned 15 shortly before. The team decided to throw an impromptu quinceañera so that those three team members could celebrate their 15th birthday with all of the girls in the project who turned 15 that year. The event was a hit, and the husband and wife group leaders decided to do it again. The next year it grew. This year, the event was a full-on production that was in the works for months. A committee worked closely with the girls and took care of all of the logistics. The girls took part in classes on sexual and reproductive health, pregnancy prevention, self-esteem, being a professional, emotional intelligence, table manners, ballroom dancing and more. This year, we wanted to be as true to the spirit of the event as possible by equipping the girls with the tools necessary to navigate womanhood.

The girls had a lot of say in the actual event. They designed a mandala as the logo. The mandala was featured on the invitations and a t-shirt for event volunteers to wear. They also chose the colors: hot pink, turquoise and lilac. A dressmaker presented a number of style options, and each girl got to tailor her own dress accordingly. The event coordinator, Rachel, wanted to be sure to empower the group with as much decision-making as possible.

Finally, the day of the event arrived. The volunteers involved packed in to a van before 6 a.m. to get to the project. We immediately jumped to work prepping breakfast. A number of us were then called to help the girls paint their nails. Luckily, I have had exactly one manicure in my life, so I at least had the vaguest notion of how one was supposed to go. It’s a good thing, too; my poor subject unwittingly did her best to test my mettle. “You want dark blue French tips?!” (Gulp.) “Sequins in a swirl design?!” (Heart palpitations.) We both, miraculously, made it through, and I may even have identified a fallback career as a manicurist in case this education policy thing doesn’t work out (and lets all hope it does for the good of fingernails everywhere).

After the spray-dry was on and the manicures complete, most of the volunteers were called to the Guardería to finish set up and decorations for the main event. I was lucky enough to get to stay and help the girls get ready. I spent the next couple of hours stuffing tulle in to satin, zipping, pinching, pulling, poking, prodding and every other alliteration you can think of. I can loosen straps, I can tighten straps, I can do it all! After flourishes of hair and makeup, we were ready to go.

We very carefully stuffed the ladies in to their chariots (read: the Safe Passage vans) and they were off. While their guests were seated, the girls got one last pep talk, mainly urging them to take a deep breath. At long last, the girls were presented, to the wild cheers of their family and friends, and took their places at the head table.

To kick off the festivities, Julio Roberto, a member of the Social Development staff and the quinceañera committee, talked about the process that the girls took part in. Then, each young lady was honored. A special person the girl chose, in most cases her mother, came up to give the quinceañera a candle, as well as words of support, advice and congratulations. It was such a beautifully touching moment to hear each family’s very real and personal advice about navigating womanhood and their hopes for the girl’s future. Then, the quinceañeras had their first dance as a woman — most with an invited male partner, some with their mothers. The young women and their partners all looked so elegant; everything was coordinated from their well-rehearsed waltzes down to the shirts and ties matching the dresses.

Next, it was time for lunch. The volunteers who were working the event served the catered lunch. First, we brought around “champagne” (Sprite mixed with rosa de jamaica – brewed hibiscus petals – to give it a rose hue), and I dazzled everyone with my ability to carry 15 full glasses on a tray. Apparently waitressing is like riding a bike; the old high school waitressing skills came back without blinking. We served plates, bussed plates, served cake and bussed more plates. Finally, it was our turn to join in the celebration, too. The dance party commenced after eating, and lasted until they tore us off the dance floor.

This, start to finish, was an amazing event. It was incredible to watch the girls blossom as the weeks went by. For me, the best part was the conversations I had with the girls. One of them opened up to me about her dream of being fully bilingual and working in the tourism industry. I pledged to provide her with some English materials to help her learn relevant vocabulary. All of the girls have hopes and dreams, and, at 15, they are still in the project out of an intense desire to meet those goals.

The quinceañera, in particular the process leading up to it, held particular significance for me as a tool for empowering our female students. Of the roughly 90 million children globally that do not have access to education, far more than half are girls. According to UNICEF, in Guatemala, the literacy rate for girls lags 5% behind that for boys, and about a quarter of the girl population does not have access to primary school. Only 24% of girls attend secondary school. Countries that marginalize their women tend to be poor. When men are poorly educated, they often do not permit the women in their lives to work outside of the home or to attend school. When women are poorly educated, they do not have the potential to earn high wages, and are relegated to low-paying, low-skilled work as housekeepers or in agriculture, for example. When women do have a higher level of schooling and are allowed to work outside of the home, they often serve as economic driving forces for their country. Women are far more likely to reinvest their earnings in the community, such as paying school fees for their children.

Numerous people have written on the effects of putting resources, particularly educational resources, in to the female population in developing countries. I wholeheartedly agree that women hold a special power to effect sweeping changes in their communities. Of course, this could be accomplished by a few women doing big things. But I think the most potential lies in the ability of millions of women to make small-scale changes that add up to massive social movements. Women have particular power to insight these movements because of their particular role in the home, most specifically with child development, and in the community. I see the type of programs like we have created with our quinceañeras here at Safe Passage as just one step in achieving the goal of greater gender equity, as well as social and economic development.

This week I saw peace in the girl effect.