Visitors are lured to Stann Creek in southern Belize by stunning beaches and dreamy landscapes, but the town’s residents experience the far more sobering realities of poverty, violence and gender discrimination.
Adolescents, particularly girls, have limited access to information on sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), which means they are unable to understand and negotiate safe sex. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. According to UN data, sexual activity can begin as early as 11 years old in Belize. Poverty has pushed young girls to engage in sex with older men in exchange for money and basic goods. As a result, the rate of teenage pregnancy is on the rise. To compound the situation, teenage mothers and girls who have become pregnant are asked to leave school for fear of influencing other pupils or bringing the school into disrepute. According to UNICEF, the rate of teenage pregnancy in Stann Creek district is 84 out of 1,000 compared with the country rate of 64 for every thousand. This exposure to unsafe sexual activity leaves adolescents at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. There is little HIV prevention education among young people and due to the negative stigma attached to HIV, many people do not get tested.
Productive Organization for Women in Action (POWA) works to eliminate discrimination and gender inequity in southern Belize and combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
POWA seeks to build the capacity of girls and women and engage the community in bringing an end to violence against children. It does this through a series of workshops, lectures and awareness initiatives. In 2011, POWA established a youth arm called Girl POWA that targets girls who are vulnerable.
POWA teaches girls in Dangriga to develop self-esteem and coaches them on SRHR. Girls are taught leadership and team building skills and encouraged to engage in organised sports.
POWA’s innovative approach to programming and its strong commitment to girl representation in its decision making has been a key factor of its success. Its activities are rooted in the needs and desires expressed by the girls themselves.
The benefit of working in such a small community means POWA members are better able to mobilise support and help girls in their neighbourhoods. As a result, more girls from the area have had access to school and have managed to stay in school despite challenging circumstances.