Markham College awards King Constantine Medal to María Antonia Acuña

Posted: 16 February 2024

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Markham College in Peru awarded its 2023 King Constantine Medal to María Antonia Acuña for her service initiative, ‘Regla Sagrada’. It is an organisation she founded to support girls through period poverty. The Medal was presented to María during the school’s closing ceremony for the class of 2023.

María has a supportive matrifocal family who values her opinions and interests, she believes that it was this support that provided the foundation for her beliefs on female empowerment.

“Growing up in such a nurturing environment in which my feelings were not only valued but validated, I was able to not only pursue what I loved, but realise I had the ability to lead within it. In a world where femininity is so often shunned and dismissed, I found I became drawn to female-oriented stories and causes, like period poverty.”

Conscious of her privileged, access to education, María was aware that for some girls, their periods act as a barrier to education and inclusion within communities.

“Seeing the abilities and intellect of my friends and classmates – all brilliant young women -made me think about the potential behind every girl who is not able to attend school and obtain higher education because of lack of access to menstrual products and, sexual education. This is why I believe projects like ‘Regla Sagrada’ are essential to Peru’s development.”

With the empowering foundations provided by her family life and inspired by classmates, María began researching the extent of period poverty and how it is affecting communities in Peru. It was after this research that she formally launched Regla Sagrada in February 2023 with a clear mission to destigmatise, raise awareness, and educate communities about period poverty in vulnerable areas of Peru.

The organisation coordinates educational outreach visits in impoverished regions of Peru where girls would benefit from menstrual and sanitary education. Each of the outreach visits consists of a three-hour talk given to an audience of girls between the ages of 10-17 by a doctor and a psychologist, covering the biological and psychological aspects of getting your period (as 12.5% of girls and young women in Peru reported not knowing what was happening to their body when they first got their period). These talks cover consent, menstruation itself, and reproductive health for girls older than 14. Subsequently, the girls are provided with packs containing sanitary pads and information booklets on the topics covered during the talk.

María hopes that by educating girls about their bodies, over time such conversations will become more normalised in these communities and the “girls can gain a better sense of their capabilities, autonomy, as well as pursue a higher education.”

Regla Sagrada has spent its first year organising fundraising events to pay for the doctors and psychologists whom María finds through known contacts in her community. Fundraising also helps buy sanitary pads, manage transport and make the booklets.

María juggled Regla Sagrada work alongside her International Baccalaureate. Over time, María’s support system grew and so did her time management skills.

María heavily relied on her team, friends and mother for emotional and practical support.

“I would often be answering the project’s emails in-between classes. I would have meetings during lunchtime. I would supervise the project’s social media as I ran late from activity to activity. I would even do my schoolwork during the project’s events. It was extremely exhausting at times, and definitely hectic, but finding community and a sense of purpose within the project and having these conversations was my driving force. Seeing the girls’ motivation and excitement concerning the project (as well as the brilliant ideas proposed by them) made every bit of chaos worth it. Also, knowing we were doing a female-oriented project in a school that was historically ‘all-boys’ was pretty cool.”

Reflecting on her steps ahead María says, “we hope as the project grows, to have more volunteers so that the funds we gather can be used to visit other communities and make more educational material.”

María’s service initiatives and outreach go beyond Regla Sagrada.  She founded a school initiative to knit and crochet scarves, gloves and hats for patients with Multiple Sclerosis in a local hospital, she’s also been involved in teaching English to girls in underprivileged areas of Peru, as well as being a club member of ‘Operation Smile’, which organises fundraisers and events to raise awareness about cleft lip patients. María’s compassion-led mentality comes from a deep appreciation of the impact of effective service to others.

“I believe service is being able to contribute to a cause and help in a way that those being aided have something they take away beyond material possessions. Considering Peru is a country with a significant amount of poverty, I believe that acts of passive service do more to hinder development, as they propel cycles of dependency in rural communities, rather than help with their advancement. I believe that education is the pillar of every society. Therefore, I believe that good service initiatives steer towards giving the communities not only goods, but abilities, or knowledge that they can subsequently apply to their own life and make changes within their respective communities. Often, service in some communities is a one-off. Good service initiatives make a significant impact without generating dependency.”

Having graduated in December 2023, María has entrusted ‘Regla Sagrada’ to Paula who is two years below and about to enter 5th form. “I believe that she’ll do an amazing job at furthering the project and continuing our initiatives throughout school.”

María plans to go to University in the USA and study Political Science with a minor in either Economics, Media Studies, or Public Policy. She is passionate about continuing her focus on positive impact “I hope going to university and pursuing these interests will provide me with the tools to aid with Peru’s development as well as further ‘Regla Sagrada’ as a project when I come back.”

Proud of her achievements, Markham College’s Coordinator, Gonzalo Murdoch says “Maria has been campaigning to reduce gender and educational inequalities in marginal areas of Lima. Her idea sparked the interest of many other young women at Markham; she has shown excellent leadership skills, connected with many sponsors outside the school and ensured that her project will continue growing in years to come, allowing other young women to avoid the consequences of period poverty.”

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