Above: Belize First Lady Kim Barrow

By Alexander Britell

After winning her battle with breast cancer, Belize First Lady Kim Barrow is on a mission to improve the welfare of women and young people in her country. Barrow, the wife of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, is the country’s Special Envoy for Women and Children, and spearheading several projects aimed at improving the lives of women and children and those with special needs. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked with Barrow about her latest work, her call for a new cancer centre and the future of healthcare in Belize.

What have you been working on of late?

There are a number of projects that I’m working on. One of them is the Inspiration Centre, which is a centre that will be for children with disabilities. At the moment, there’s no place for a child who’s born with a disability to go to get the therapy that they need. So this centre will at least fill that gap that exists currently in Belize. Another project that we’re working on is the construction of the pediatric ICU unit at the National Referral Hospital in Belize. We obviously need a bigger area for these children to have a place where they can recover when they’re born. Those are the two major projects that we’re working on at the moment. The other project, which is in its infancy, is the cancer centre that we’re trying to establish. We have been able to raise a significant amount, a little over a million dollars. So we have started construction. The fundraising is ongoing, but we are obviously still looking for funding for that project. The pediatric intensive care unit is also able to get some funding, and I hope to get some more by the end of this year.

What are the major issues facing women and children in Belize today?

Well, there are a number of issues facing women and children in Belize. I think violence in the communities and homes, domestic violence, child abuse, urban gang violence, those are some of the issues. When it comes to violence in communities and homes, boys’ under-participation in the education system, especially at the secondary school level — there’s a huge drop in boys staying in the education system. We are working along with the Ministry of Education to make sure that 100 percent of our population is well-educated. So that’s something the Minister of Education is definitely working on. I strongly believe that gender relations and teaching our young men and women about gender relations and respect is very important so we can get back to having happy homes and happy families and try to inject that respect in our community for women and men. That is very important to reduce domestic violence in the home.

What are some other issues?

Another aspect I would say I’m trying to figure out is why more women are completing secondary school and tertiary education than men. But women’s unemployment figures are still higher than men, and that’s an incredible statistic right there. Because more women are completing secondary and tertiary education, but, yet, women unemployment is still higher than that of men, and I’m sure it’s not only here in Belize, but throughout the Caribbean. So that’s something we certainly need to address and look at — it also brings to mind equality and whether or not we’re being discriminated upon when it comes to job interviews. So that’s very important to look at.

How can the government address some of these issues?

I must say that, having said all of that, the government has been doing a lot of the relief to the poorest people in the country. Some of the efforts they have been doing are the Food Subsidy Programme, the Education Subsidy, the expansion of the apprenticeship programme, those are some of the things that the government has been doing to assist in filling some of these gaps.

Talk about the Cancer Centre project.

For a while now, we’ve been trying to establish a proper cancer centre. We do have a very, very small cancer centre, and it’s really a refurbished room that two persons decided to do. And it has helped so many people. Of course, when I got ill, I was even more motivated to get this done. So we started a small group, and we enlisted the help of the University of Belize to help with the project proposal. I got an architect to help with the design, we sent her to the US to look at some satellite cancer centres, so she could have an idea of what it was we were looking for. It’s so very important – every day you hear of someone being diagnosed with cancer, whether it be breast cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer — it’s like catching a flu now. So there’s obviously a great need for us to have a place where cancer survivors can go and get treatment that they need. For now, what most people are doing is traveling to neighbouring countries — Guatemala, Mexico or the US, to get treatment, which is really, really costly. It really puts a strain on the families. And for the people who are very poor and can’t afford it, they don’t have a choice, unless they get someone to sponsor their trip and their treatment. So it is very important that we get the cancer centre up and running. And I envision that by the year 2015 we will have a cancer centre in Belize. I am so passionate about this, and I am determined that this should happen in Belize.

What did you learn from your own experience with the disease?

I think that there’s a great need for cancer centres in the Caribbean. To get my own treatment, I started out in Miami and ended up moving to Houston. But I know of many, many people from the Caribbean who went to and are still going to Miami for treatment, and I can only imagine the strain that is on the family. It’s a huge thing to leave your family and go to the states for treatment and then go back and forth. I have a seven year-old daughter. When I was first diagnosed she was six, and that was the most difficult part — leaving my six-year-old daughter at home and then going to get treatment. It was very difficult. It would have been much better for me to get my treatment in Belize, and be at home and have her life continue as normal as possible.

How important is children’s health care for their development?

I believe that children have a right to good health care. And my focus has been children with disabilities and children in general, and that’s one of the reasons I’m working to make sure that this Inspiration Centre is up and running. These children have a right, just like all of us, and it’s important that they have somewhere they can go, to get the therapies that they need, as soon as a baby is born. We have to give them a chance. We have to give them a chance at birth for them to reach their fullest potential. I’m a strong believer in that. All children — not just children with disabilities. I can think back to when I was a child — I never thought that I would be doing what I’m doing here, but I had good parents and I had people around me who were very encouraging and tried to help in whatever way possible. So now I am someone that people would look up to, so I need them to start looking at our future generations. They are the ones that my grandchildren will be looking up to as role models, as inspirations. I am very, very passionate about this. We need to make sure from a very young age that they’re the leaders of Belize.