Gender issues in Belize
Despite the fact that about half of our village’s population is female, you will not see many women around. Most of the time, while men go to farm, women stay behind to take care of the house. They get up around 4 am, go to the river to wash themselves and bring water for cooking – only the lucky ones have pipe water in their compounds. They put firewood under the comal and prepare breakfast, usually including corn tortillas, black beans and sometimes eggs. Since most women have big families – anywhere from 2 to 13 children – only preparing and baking tortillas takes a lot of time. Everything has to be ready before 6 am, around which time the men usually leave for their farms; then it’s making sure the kids are off to school and… the work starts!
During a typical day a woman – mother and wife – prepares all meals, unless she has daughters old enough to help (old enough often means as young as 8 years), cleans, washes the clothes, shells corn, fixes the clothing and creates handcraft to sell to the tourists.
Younger girls almost always help at the house: they go to the shop, help with baking and cooking, as well as cleaning, washing, making handcraft and taking care of younger siblings. Depending on the family, boys might get some chores, like chopping bush around the house, taking corn to the mill, helping dad at the farm, etc.
Young people who have finished their education – often as young at 16 – will most likely assume the same jobs their parents do: boys will go to farm while girls stay at home and help with household chores. Some of them will leave for the cities or tourist resorts to look for employment options.
Almost everyone in the village works; everyone has their tasks that they perform in order to make the family life easier. Everyone works hard and to the best of their abilities, and yet, the gender differences are clear.
The differences start when the time for rest comes. Around 4 pm the men return from the farms, high school buses drop off teenagers around the village, and it’s finally getting cool enough to spend time outside of the nice and cold thatch-roofed houses. At this time the village seams to come alive, full of happy and relaxing… men.
Yes, men. At the time when the volleyball court starts to fill with men of all ages: some playing, some watching, others just gathering to spend time together – the women and girls stay in. Some of them still have chores to do: prepare dinner, wash, clean … Others are simply not allowed to go out of the house on their own or to participate in activities with boys. The only times the women seem to gather and talk is when washing in the river and, during the tourist season, when they set up their blankets on the ground by the river to sell handcraft. In the evenings some men will secretly visit a nearby bar, while women stay at home. For those reasons one of our projects: Library Renovation and Modernization, was discretely directed towards girls and women, who would now get an opportunity to spend their time in an interesting way, even if they stay at home.
Gender inequality in education accessibility is still visible in Belize. While everyone is obliged to finish primary school, high school with its high fees is often just a dream for some. If there is some money, parents will most likely prefer to invest it in sons, who will more likely stay close to the family, than in daughters who will get married and move away.
However, money isn’t the only issue here. Even the girls who finish high school will often stay at home waiting to get married. A lot of them don’t try to get higher education or a job; instead they become housewives at the age of 17, 18, 19… and they never get out of the cycle.
Because of very conservative mindsets and subsequent lack of contraception, women get pregnant every 2 years, which has negative effects on their health and well-being. They are also the ones to take care of all the children. I’ve seen women in their 9th month of pregnancy go to the river and wash clothes, women going shopping to town, taking along several babies and toddlers, women walk around with babies in makeshift carriers worn on their foreheads…
The mindsets are at this time undergoing a slow change. Young couples are more likely to use family planning methods and stop at 2 children. Girls are encouraged, for example by scholarship programs, to continue their education. Young women start following in their brothers’ footsteps and looking for employment options outside of the village – or inside, for example by opening a new business. However, those examples are still few and far between. Women in the developing world are still suffering from many issues that western feminists have already forgotten.
Poverty and gender worldwide
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women achieved significant progress in the economically progressive areas dominated by Western culture, including North America, Europe, and Australia. In developing areas dominated by non-Western culture, however, women remain more or less subjugated, and in some countries they are stripped of any human rights.
The above is an introductory statement from Michelle Fram Cohen’s The Condition of Women in Developing and Developed Countries  and it summarizes the issue perfectly. In her article, Ms. Cohen underlines that in many developing countries women themselves assume that violence against them is acceptable, as is their inferior status to the husband. Those values are passed on from generation to generation, leaving less chance for things to change. Young girls in India as well as many African countries are being given away, to be married to much older men, all with their mothers’ agreement – because „it’s always been like that”. Women in those countries, especially in rural areas, are missing the diversity, the outside influence, which – while in many cases harmful – would show them that there is, in fact, a different way of living.
In many African countries women cannot – by custom, which is still stronger than actual civil law – own land. They own the products, i.e. if the husband owns farm – the woman owns the crops, if the husband owns cows – the woman owns the milk, etc. This makes women very vulnerable and their situations uncertain. A widow can lose everything if male relatives challenge her to the inheritance. Being a single mother, even a widow, is in those areas especially difficult, while divorced women often have no rights at all.
One of the customary women’s jobs is to bring water from whatever source is nearby („nearby” can mean several kilometers away). While we know that water is essential for all life, an almost miraculous and certainly necessary substance, the women who carry water in some African countries are considered to be on the same status as cattle! Men wouldn’t even help, because this job is considered below them .
Because of strong traditional and religious laws – de facto stronger than civil laws – women in developing countries are often victims of so-called honor killings. Citing the UNIFEM report (United Nations Development Fund for Women), Cohen notes that, for example, 47% of all women killed in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2002 had been rape victims killed for „dishonoring their families” by their own family members, while in Pakistan more than 1,000 women are killed every year for dishonoring their families. The following is a statement from Jordanian man who had killed his 16-year-old sister – a rape victim:
I shouldn’t have been in prison for a minute. If she had stayed alive, everyone in our family would have hung his head in shame. A girl is like a glass plate. Take a glass plate and throw it on the floor and it breaks. Would it be any use anymore or not? A girl is just like that. If she has been violated, she’s finished. 
Women in poor countries are far more likely to be influenced by economic crises than men. When fewer jobs are available, men are thought to have more rights to those jobs than women. On the other hand, during a crisis, women, who traditionally have many household chores, are expected to contribute to the household economy on top of doing those chores. When there is less income, girls are the first ones to be pulled out of school in order to save on school fees – something that is plainly visible in Belize.
The UN’s Beijing Platform for Action cites after the World Health Organization that life expectancy for women in poor countries is almost 19 years lower than of those in high-income countries, measuring respectively 63.1 and 82 years . 19 years!
Poor women in developing countries are also often victims of human trafficking. They are lured by promises of decent jobs, like selling fruits, and end up being sold to brothels, where they are enslaved for life. Those places often enslave also children that those women will eventually have, using the boys for labor and grooming little girls to become prostitutes at a very young age. As the authors of Half the Sky  describe, the situation can be very tragic because often, even after being rescued, the women from brothels go back to – this time voluntarily – sell their bodies to men. That is because they have no education, no other ways of making money, and in their hometowns and villages they are the ones considered dirty, not their captors.
What can be done?
There are many reports and statistics showing the situation of women in poor countries. UN, WHO, EU and others, all have compiled and published records on the subject. Those studies have been going on for decades now, with more and more agencies and conventions, and yet, while western women enjoy more and more liberties, their sisters in the developing world continue to be severely discriminated. Why is that?
An important obstacle is tradition. A responsible aid worker will not enter a conservative village and demand that people lose their roots and adapt to the western standards. This was one of the more difficult things to do, or rather, not to do, in Belize. Adapting the mindsets of people to include gender equality is a long process and – it seems – can only be started from within. As long as women themselves don’t rebel against the laws of tradition, not much can be done. As long as mothers continue to bring up their daughters the same way they were taught, things will not change.
However, the inspiration for that should come from outside. And the most important outside driving force of development is, of course, education. Education is the key to understanding the world. It also leads to better employment, which in turns makes women independent. Independent women can visit other places, meet other women, and get out of symbolic male domination, as well as the economic one. Educated women will be more confident, less likely to allow household violence, and more likely to use family planning methods.
Several organizations hold entrepreneurship projects directed towards women. In Belize, Humana People to People supports village Women’s Groups in establishing various income-generating projects. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh provides loans without collateral to help poor people establish small businesses and work their way out of poverty. 97% out of 8.4 million borrowers are women! The Barefoot College in India gives away scholarships to women from poor, remote areas all over the world – often illiterate – to come to India and in 6 months learn how to construct solar lamps. The women are then supposed to go back to their villages and become community leaders, bringing light to areas without electricity and teaching others. The inspiring documentary titled Solar Mamas explains the process while following one of the students, Rafea, on her difficult journey to independence, along which she had to fight her husband and parents .
While there are many successful stories and the situation in some parts of the world – like Belize – seems to be getting better, I believe that there is still a lot to be done. However, any project meant to help women out of poverty should be realized with sensitivity and care and take into account the local customs and traditions so that the women who manage to emancipate themselves don’t end up being ostracized from their families and communities.
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1. Asian Development Bank, Mandaluyong City, Philippines “Gender equality and food security—women’s empowerment as a tool against hunger”, 2013, Web. 10 July 2015.
2. Bejing Platform for Action: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Web. 10 July 2015.
3. Fram Cohen, Michelle “The Conditions of Women in Developing and Developed Countries”, The Independent Review, v. XI, n. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 261– 274. Web. 10 July 2015.
4. ldaief, Mona, Noujaim Jehane, dir. Solar Mamas, 2012, Film. (Also known as: Rafea: Solar Mama).
5. Kristorf, Nicholas D., Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky. Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York, 2010. Print.