Countries around the world celebrate March as International Women’s Month, and Belize is no different. On March 16, 2018, the country hosted its annual 20,000 Strong rally for women’s rights in Belize. Women traveled from all over the country to Belize City to add their voices to the thousands of empowered women making a statement about gender equality. Wearing orange and supporting the businesses of other women, attendees made a public statement that they refuse to live in fear.
The 20,000 Strong Rally
The 20,000 Strong march began in 2014, boasting the slogan “Imagine a Belize Without Women.” Women were encouraged to take the day off from work in order to demonstrate how Belize is dependent on its women. Attendees were asked to wear orange clothes to show support for the UNITE Campaign, a U.N. campaign focused on ending violence against women around the globe.
The National Women’s Commission planned the event and executed it with the help of several other government departments. Speakers came to empower the women in attendance and encourage conversations about solutions for gender-based violence and women’s rights in Belize.
Initiatives like the 20,000 Strong march are critical for ending violence against women in Belize. The country has historically been a dangerous place for women to live. Abuse, rape and trafficking are real threats to women and children in Belize. While the 20,000 Strong march has always had special significance for women’s rights in Belize, the 2018 march could not have come at a more appropriate time.
Coming Together for Justice
On March 1, Belizeans awoke to the news that a 17-month old had been violently raped by her stepfather. She died on March 4, and Belize took to the streets on March 5 to call for justice. Belizeans gathered outside the courthouse in Belize City during the stepfather’s trial, demanding that justice be served and action be taken to protect children from heinous abuse.
The horrifying events of the month added fuel to the flame of the 20,000. On March 16, thousands of children joined the marchers, adding their voices to the conversation about women’s rights and violence against women. The coast guard, the Belize Defense force, the police and the First Lady of Belize joined the march, a crucial demonstration of the government’s support of women’s rights in Belize. Along with hosting speakers, some of whom are in high school, the event also supported Belizean small businesses operated by women.
The State of Women’s Rights in Belize
Women’s rights have been a point of concern for Belize. While rape is illegal, the justice system rarely convicts rapists, typically because the accuser cannot testify for fear of physical retaliation. Domestic violence records contain similar patterns. Belize has laws designed to combat sexual harassment, but they are not incredibly effective in practice. Employers are also mandated to pay men and women the same, but the pay gap and unemployment gap remains substantial. Furthermore, female representation in the government is low, with only 3 percent of Parliament members being women.
Female empowerment initiatives speak strongly to the direction Belize is headed. These women (and men!) are coming together and brainstorming ways to inspire change. With the support of the government, legislation is sure to follow that will improve conditions for women. The high attendance from schoolchildren also provides substantial hope for the future. More than 50 percent of Belizeans are under the age of 25, so they will set the direction for the country in the next few decades. With empowered women and children, Belize can look forward to better equality in the future.
– Julia McCartney