Less than 20 minutes away from Asuncion’s bustling city centre and high-rise buildings is Juliana’s home, the marginalised communities known as the Bañados (Spanish for swamp lands).
Set on the flood plains of the Paraguay River, her community is littered with mountains of waste, polluted river streams, and makeshift dwellings. Formerly the rubbish site of the city, it is now populated by migrants from rural parts of the country, and home to over one-fifth of the city’s population.
Marked by levels of extreme poverty and poor infrastructure, the community suffers from annual floods, with water reaching up to five meters high as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.
Passionate about bringing change to her home, Juliana, 12, became the voice of her community through Plan International’s Day of the Girl activities on 11 October. The initiative was part of a global action to allow girls to occupy spaces and places where they are rarely seen or heard, to tear down barriers that deny them their rights.
Juliana took over the role of the Mayor of Asuncion – one of 40 takeovers that happened in Paraguay – grabbing national headlines as she raised awareness about her often overlooked community. On the day she was formally inaugurated as Mayor she was presented with a ceremonial plate by the Municipality of Asuncion – a treasured reminder of the day.
“I was so happy when I was told I was going to be Mayor of the city,” shares Juliana, 12, in Guarani, her native tongue. “I felt a bit shy,” she explains. “But I told the Mayor and the Municipality about the floods and the suffering girls face in my community.”
In 2016 more than 90,000 people were affected by flooding in Asuncion, the majority live in communities like Juliana’s.
Walking towards the river a couple minutes from her home, Juliana recounts what she said to the Municipality. “It can be dangerous for children here. There’s a lot of trash,” she says, pointing at glass pieces and broken electronics scattering the ground.
Approaching the river, Juliana tone changes. “It’s not safe to walk alone by the river,” she reveals. “Men have approached me here before to ask if they can show me around.”
Indicating the river she continues, “The water here is quite polluted.”
“We don’t drink from it because it makes you sick. Some people get red spots if they wash in it” – a result of the heavy littering.
On her walk back home she points at enormous holes filled with water. “There is so much mud, it makes it difficult for people to build on. Even if we do build a house or a school it gets ruined by the floods or the rain.”
Despite these setbacks, thanks to Plan International Paraguay’s Cháke Ou Project, Juliana’s community is developing its resilience to disasters through training and capacity building.
Cháke Ou helps affected communities recuperate, and works closely with institutions to ensure quick and effective responses to any disasters.
The collaborative project involving the Ministry of Emergency and the European Commission has been actively involved in the area since 2014.
“The entire community is proud of Juliana for speaking to the Mayor,” says her mother, Elisa. “People need to be informed about what is happening in our community.”
To mark the International Day of the Girl, Juliana asked the Mayor to sign a declaration pledging to uphold girls’ rights, improve schools, and guarantee equal opportunities for children and adolescents.
In addition, Miguel Angel Lopez, Finance Director of Itaipu Binancional, the world’s largest generator of renewable clean energy, guaranteed a thousand grants for prospective university students, 65% of which will be for girls.
The Paraguay government also announced a commitment to empower girls through the creation of a National Council of Girls comprised of those involved in takeover activities. It is also expected to consider legislation to mark 11 October as the National Day of the Girl.
In face of all these exciting changes, like many girls her age Juliana has big ideas and aspirations for her future.
“I love science,” she enthuses. “When I grow up I want to be a scientist to help my community… actually, I want to be Mayor.”
She pauses, “I want to be a scientist and the Mayor.”