A Brighter Future for Young People in Belize
Marissa Billowitz, Senior Program Officer - Youth
Upon entering the offices of Belize Family Life Association (BFLA), I immediately felt cozy. Colorful murals covered the walls and the atmosphere is attractive and informal -- the perfect setting for a program exclusively for youth. After a lunch of an amazing variety of homemade tamales, I found myself thinking that a hammock would be the perfect addition to the comfortable conference room, which had a warm breeze coming through shaded windows. This was the place where I met Arthur Usher, a long-time participant of BFLA who eventually became its Youth Officer.
Like many staff at small organizations, Arthur Usher wears multiple hats. He greets the young people who come to BFLA for services and assists the Program Director with coordinating youth programs. I'd gone to BFLA to learn what young people take from participating in its Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM), and what effects it has on their lives beyond receiving sexual and reproductive health services.
Young men in Belize face a significant risk of dropping out of school, and those who obtain an education dream of leaving the country. As I talked with Arthur about his experiences with BFLA, and advocating with the members of YAM, I began to realize what it must mean for a young man to have Arthur in his life. BFLA provides a safe space for young people to grow into themselves, and Arthur represents the possibility of a brighter future not only for the young person, but also for the country.
How long have you been working with BFLA?
I basically grew up in the organization. I became a member of their youth group when I was 13, and then I was its president for five years. When the position of Youth Officer opened in 2007, I jumped at the opportunity to apply and was hired. I’m in charge of the YAM in Belize City, and I develop and implement youth programs and outreach. Since I have an artistic background in graphic design, I design pamphlets that advertise BFLA’s health services and programs.
What made you decide to work with young people?
My history working with sexual health issues created the passion I have to work with young people. I’ve always had an interest in empowering young people to access their rights. I see the multitude of issues that come up for them – economics, education, sexual rights – and I understand the ways they are all tied together. Sexual and reproductive health is a big issue for youth in Belize. Assisting them with that by meeting their needs helps other things fall in line for them.
What challenges do young people face in Belize?
When you work with young people, you see how society impacts them, both directly and indirectly. A burning issue for me is that our political climate does not favor young people. Even though they make up more than half of our population, the youth population of Belize is marginalized and doesn’t have a voice. Young people aren’t given enough credit, and people they think they don’t know anything. Youth programs are often not written into political agendas. Even when they are, they are not implemented or are not implemented well. But I have see how young people grow when they are given opportunities that support their positive development.
How do you think this can change?
Fifteen years ago, I was part of the national youth program. I sat on the board and was one of four young people who represented the country to government officials. We tried to get a youth policy passed then, but it still has not been implemented. The political will has not been there. So, I want to push for change by getting more involved in policy making.
What policies would make a difference for young people in Belize?
Young people need sexual and reproductive rights that allow them to confidentially access services at their own leisure. Access to information and services is critical because a lot of people don’t have the proper knowledge. Even though this generation grew up with tools that give some of them access to sexual and reproductive health information, we need this information to be readily available to everyone.
What do you like most about working at BFLA?
Working with young people gives me energy. You never know what issues a young person is going to come in with, and it’s my job to work with them to figure out a solution. I like that I have the opportunity to be creative and helpful – not only for young people, but also with the staff. It’s very much like a family at BFLA. We are intentional about creating an environment where everyone who comes here will feel comfortable and accepted.