SEATTLE — Women in Belize continue to face significant challenges towards parity with men in myriad societal institutions, including in the political sphere. Efforts at bridging the gap are being redoubled after the country failed to meet several key components of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) pertaining to gender equality.
Belize is a small, English-speaking Central American nation east of Mexico and Guatemala. As a parliamentary democracy belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations, Queen Elizabeth II serves as head of state of the Belizean government.
Aside from the Queen, however, whose governmental role is predominately symbolic, women were entirely absent from the top levels of public office until 1981, and the percentage of female representation in Parliament has never topped 5 percent. There have even been legislative terms in the past decade when the percentage was 0 percent, such as between 2008 and 2012. At that time, Belize joined Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei in the joint last position on the Gender Gap Index in the area of political empowerment of women.
Though this figure has marginally improved with the election of one female representative in the 2012 election, it is clear from the percentage of women in the lower house of Parliament that the MDG of improving equality in national decision-making and equity in national development was not met by 2015, the target year.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports that Belizean women are far less likely to be voted into office at the national level, or even to enter into public life, than men due to a variety of socio-cultural factors that center around women traditionally being accorded a subordinate role in society. Anecdotal evidence and interviews were cited as confirmation that cultural norms and traditional perceptions of women in Belize dictate that their role is to remain behind the scenes and in the home, rather than in roles that are socially prominent or carry the weight of important decision making.
The UNDP views the societal paradigms regarding women’s roles as the root cause for the poor representation of women in the Belizean government, and has declared its commitment to creating platforms of national action that improve “the relative capacity of women to access opportunities to serve as constituency representatives.”
Since the existing MDG platforms have proven ineffective, UNDP Belize and the National Women’s Commission have launched a collaborative initiative that aims to:
- Analyze the political context of Belize and existing policies with special emphasis on developments and issues related to gender
- Update research relating to the situation of women in Belize and expand the analysis of socio-economic, cultural and political obstacles to political participation
- Foster a national dialogue on the issue
This initiative is being guided by representatives from 16 separate international and national organizations, including the Embassies of the United States of America, Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico, the British High Commission, Women’s Issues Network Belize and the University of Belize.
The renewed commitment to developing solutions to the challenges facing women towards finding parity with men in the highest levels of the political sphere was augmented by the successful results of an additional facet of the MDG pertaining to gender equality: equitable access to education. One milestone achievement of the original initiative was that near parity of educational access at the primary level was reached by 2015.
Hopefully, by the time the young girls currently attending primary school are ready to enter the public sphere as adults, the initiatives put in place by UNDP Belize and the National Women’s Commission will have fostered the creation of a Belize with opportunities for women at the highest levels of leadership.
– Savannah Bequeaith