When picturing Belize, many people imagine beaches, snorkeling, and Mayan ruins. The Caribbean country is about the same size as the state of Massachusetts, and has a population of just over 324,000. The people who live in Belize are as diverse as its environmental attractions. Because of its natural beauty, Belize has become a popular tourist destination.
Despite its riches of natural and cultural diversity, Belize is not a paradise for all. Women face many unique challenges. According to the World Economic Forum’s measure of gender equality—which is based on women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment—Belize was ranked 102nd out of the 135 countries in 2012. It falls second to last among the Latin American and Caribbean countries. The National Gender Policy in Belize states that women are recruited for jobs and promoted at lower rates than men, and they receive lower salaries and fewer employee benefits then men who hold the same positions. The lack of opportunities for women means they often find themselves financially dependent on their male partners.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there is an expectation that in order to be masculine men should have many female sexual partners. Conversely, many women have little control over the situations in which they have sex. Women who engage in sexual activity outside of common-law unions or legal marriages often face severe social consequences, including being labeled as promiscuous or even expelled from school. On the other hand, boys and men face little stigma for their sexual activity.
These contrasting cultural expectations for women and men create sexual and reproductive health challenges for people of both genders. They contribute to a lack of communication between partners about sex, and result in women being hesitant to seek sexual and reproductive health services. When men attempt to establish their masculinity by having sex with many partners, they place themselves and their partners at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Belize has the highest HIV prevalence in Central America. In Belize, HIV is spread primarily through heterosexual sex, and women make up almost half the cases of new HIV infections. In 2009, AIDS was the fourth leading cause of death in Belize.
Furthermore, when women are not able to control the terms of their own sexual activity, they are more likely to have unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. According to the Belize Family Health Survey, one in four pregnancies in Belize is unplanned, and almost half of these unplanned pregnancies are unwanted. Meanwhile, over half of the women in Belize who are not using any form of contraceptives do not wish to become pregnant.
By now it should be clear that women face substantial barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health information and services in Belize. In Part Two of this series, you’ll hear some of the stories Belizean women shared with me about their experiences.
Over the course of a month in San Ignacio, Belize, I spoke with women about their experiences in their relationships and in their communities with regard to family planning. These women, whose ages ranged from 24 to 50, were open and generous when sharing their stories. We talked about a variety of things, like where they learned about sex and their experiences with pregnancy. Although their lives were different, there were similarities in every woman’s story.
When I asked Crystal, who was 24 years old, where she turned for information about sexual and reproductive health, she sighed and said, “Google.” Crystal didn’t have any children, but shared with me that she’d seen a lot of her friends panic when they learned they were pregnant.
“I think most for people, it’s more of a scary situation, rather than a joyful one,” she said. “They wonder what they’re going to do, and if the father is going to sustain the child.”
A Creole woman named Irene agreed. She’d become pregnant unexpectedly at 22 years old. “I really wasn’t making any decision,” Irene said, but took action after giving birth. She spoke to her sister, and then to a doctor. She started taking birth control pills to prevent another unplanned pregnancy.
“Being a single parent, I had to do something,” said Irene. “I thought it would be better not to have a lot of kids.”
When Teresa got pregnant at 19, she was pressured by her religious family to married the child’s father. Although she wanted to use contraceptives, her husband refused, saying family planning teaches women to make decisions that are the right of men. Teresa eventually left him and chose surgical sterilization.
Adela’s husband was also opposed to her using contraception. “My husband said I didn’t have the right to plan anything. He said if I had any time to plan, it was because I was having an affair. Two of my daughters were born in the same year. I was very unhappy.”
Maggie also became a mother as a teen, but when we spoke she was almost 50. Maggie didn’t learn about contraception until after she’d had eight unplanned pregnancies. She told me she wished she’d known how to prevent pregnancy earlier because being a single mother was hard. Maggie’s difficult experiences encouraged her to talk openly with her children about sex.
“My mom wasn’t the sort of person to teach us about birth control, and she wanted to choose a boyfriend for me who I didn’t like,” said Maggie. “I always advise my children, ‘Don’t have a lot of kids, and use birth control.’ My second daughter is 20 and doesn’t even have a boyfriend. But it’s her choice not to have a boyfriend. I don’t stop her. I just tell her to be wise.”
All of the women I spoke with wanted a better future for their children. They believed strongly that their children—especially their daughters—should have access to sexual and reproductive health and services, and the right to choose loving partners. Most of all, they hoped that the next generation of women could avoid the obstacles they had faced in their own lives.
The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of these women.