Over the years, the National Women's Commission has hosted a number of women in politics workshops, trainings, gender equality seminars among other events.

But today the Commission held its first National Women in Politics Conference at the Biltmore. It might sound like one of those fancy official meetings but behind it all is the same objective that women have been fighting and pushing to attain for years: to get more women in leadership positions - after all, something has to be wrong if women make up more than half the population, but only hold 6% of the seats in the House of Representatives. Courtney Weatherburne has more on the conference that's trying to do something about that inequality.

Courtney Weatherburne reporting
Gloria Gaynor's "I will survive" is one of the most well-known and performed songs.

But this was no karaoke session, women from all over the country embraced this song as their anthem for the first National Women in Politics Conference. Now it wasn't all about having fun and singing along.

These women gathered today to continue that ongoing conversation about their roles across the political landscape.

Ann-Marie Williams, Executive Director, National Women's Commission
"This conference is being held ahead of the 2018 municipal elections and it is primarily to inspire women to run for the upcoming elections, even if they don't run they are reminded that I could do that someday, the conference is also being held to help women leaders to develop better organizational skills within the workforce, let them be aware that they have the confidence and they have the ability and they can lead and it is also to create a role modeling effect for women who want to run for politics."

And a few of those role models are women like Minister of State for Trade, Tracey Teagar Panton, former 2 term Belize City Mayor Zenaida Moya, Punta Gorda Mayor Fern Guiterrez and former parliamentarian, Dolores Balderamos Garcia among several others.

Dolores Balderamos Garcia, Former Parliamentarian
"I do feel that the focus must continue for us to include more Belizean women not only in the political conversations but also around the tables of decision making."

Those words were echoed in the presentation by the guest speaker, American Assistant Professor of Political Science Kelly Dittmar. The struggles women face in Belize are quite similar to those faced in the United States.

Kelly Dittmar, Professor of Political Science
"The United States is not ranking so well we are midway, middle of the pack we rank 100th in the world. Only one in five women in our house of representatives or one of five members in our house or representatives are women and here in Belize obviously lower than that 176 out of 193 countries and that is because of the low numbers specifically in the house of representatives."

And in order to change that dismal reality, it is conferences like these that help women to move forward towards a common goal.

Ann-Marie Williams, Executive Director, National Women's Commission
"Our national plan or work plan speaks to that fact that at least we want to raise 20% of women in politics by 2020. The international standard is having 30% women in politics and move towards parity and move to 50%."

The National Women's Commission started the women in politics movement in 2009 with 98 women - and a few of those women who participated are in politics today. The Women in Politics training known as "WIP" ended in 2012 but the commission is looking into reviving the training program.

What Are The Barriers Facing Women In Politics?

And still on the National Women in Politics Conference, another important element is understanding why more women aren't in political positions. Guest speaker Professor Kelly Dittmar discussed the social and cultural structures that work against women.

Kelly Dittmar, Professor of Political Science
"Political institutions were built by and for men. I think our speaker earlier talked about when women couldn't vote right. When women are formally excluded from any political process the norm is that they shouldn't be there. And so the cultural change and the structural change that we have to go through to make it normal for women to participate becomes harder."

"In the US congress one of the clear examples of this is that there was no women's restroom in the US congress adjacent to the floor of the house until 2006. Our first women in congress entered in 1917. So it took almost 100 years for there to be facilities for the women who were serving. Why? Because when they built that actual brick and mortar institution they didn't think women would be there that is the most symbolic example but you all can probably think of other structures, rules, processes, uniforms that are created with only men in mind. Politics as an institution has been like that not only in the US but here in Belize. Also stereotypical expectations right? So this is the cultural stuff what do we think about, what do we see when we think of elected leaders or candidates or politicians, what comes to your mind when I say the word politician? Is that the image of a man or a woman? Too often it is the image of a man."

Adrienne Galanek, Charge D'affaires, US Embassy
"We need to move beyond the idea that girls can be leaders and create the expectation that girls should be leaders."

"Many people around the world say the same thing about politics, that politics is dirty and they don't want to be involved. My mentors and I echo Mahatma Gandhi's words "Be the change that you want to see in this world."

The commission hopes to make this conference an annual event.

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Women, Power and Politics in Belize Under Discussion at Conference

The national women’s commission held a first of its kind women in politics conference today. The event, held under the theme ‘Empowered Women: Empowering Women for Meaningful Change,’ brought together women in political office as well as women of leadership roles in organizations and communities.  With objectives to inspire, empower and educate so as to see higher representation of women in government and positions of leadership, the conference featured an international presenter as well as several local presenters who spoke about their experiences in politics in Belize. News Five’s Andrea has more on the conference.

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

The first national Women in Politics Conference was held today in Belize City. It is being held ahead of the 2018 municipal elections with the objective to inspire women aspiring for office, but also to empower women in the wider community. Forums like this one is critical for the political arena and governance in Belize. Women are largely under-represented in politics, and that is why the National Women’s Commission hopes to use this event for more than just talk.

Ann-Marie Williams, Exec. Dir, National Women’s Commission

“Recommendations will come out of this conference, this afternoon during our breakout sessions we will have recommendations that we will be presenting at the end that we will act upon. Maybe the group decides now that they want to form a group or a foundation of something like that. So, whatever comes out of it with the idea that we must continue the Women in Politics Project. So, that is what the Commission will actually continue to do.”

Guest speaker of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics Dr Kelly Dittmar says that the under-representation of women in politics is universal. So what can women whether in office or not, do to help make the playing field more gender friendly in Belize?

Dr. Kelly Dittmar, Scholar at Center for American Women in Politics, Rutgers University

“I think that is key. One is recognizing that women’s underrepresentation or men’s over representation is a problem, that we should actually care that there is not enough or an equal number of women in politics. And women can help raise that awareness that it is a problem. And two, is also having women’s backs when they run for office and when they put themselves forward in a very male dominated institution doesn’t mean you always have to support ideologically that woman, but it means that you don’t contribute to the negativity that women often face when they run for office and that you call it out when they are attacked on things that are totally unfair and other than politics. Lastly, women can also help very directly by helping financially or helping strategically providing a support network for women who are running for office.”

Andrea Polanco

“What is one thing you hope that these women take away from your message today?”

Dr. Kelly Dittmar

“My hope is that these women here today are inspired to see that even though there are challenges in politics, that it is worthwhile and it is necessary for them to stay engaged and participate, whether that be in running for office or supporting other women running for office or just making their voices heard in their communities. I hope that they are inspired to keep going in light of some hurdles that women face.”

Supporting the initiative is the US Embassy in Belize.

Adrienne Galanek, Charge d’ Affaires, U.S. Embassy in Belize

“As you know, we work in areas of mutual importance, including citizen security, economic prosperity and promoting democratic governance. All of those things, you can’t advance unless you have full participation of women. One of the things I also learnt in my time at the Navy War College is the importance of diversity and they taught us about an agile and flexible force and in order to achieve those goals you need to have a diverse team. And so, in anything bringing a diverse team together is the recipe for success and in politics, in particular, really having a slate of candidates that represent your populace will really improve decision making anywhere.”

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