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The State of Sexual and Reproductive Health in Belize
When picturing Belize, many people imagine beaches, snorkeling, and Mayan ruins. The Caribbean country is about the same size as the state of Massachusetts, and has a population of just over 324,000. The people who live in Belize are as diverse as its environmental attractions. Because of its natural beauty, Belize has become a popular tourist destination.
Despite its riches of natural and cultural diversity, Belize is not a paradise for all. Women face many unique challenges. According to the World Economic Forum’s measure of gender equality—which is based on women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment—Belize was ranked 102nd out of the 135 countries in 2012. It falls second to last among the Latin American and Caribbean countries. The National Gender Policy in Belize states that women are recruited for jobs and promoted at lower rates than men, and they receive lower salaries and fewer employee benefits then men who hold the same positions. The lack of opportunities for women means they often find themselves financially dependent on their male partners.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there is an expectation that in order to be masculine men should have many female sexual partners. Conversely, many women have little control over the situations in which they have sex. Women who engage in sexual activity outside of common-law unions or legal marriages often face severe social consequences, including being labeled as promiscuous or even expelled from school. On the other hand, boys and men face little stigma for their sexual activity.
These contrasting cultural expectations for women and men create sexual and reproductive health challenges for people of both genders. They contribute to a lack of communication between partners about sex, and result in women being hesitant to seek sexual and reproductive health services. When men attempt to establish their masculinity by having sex with many partners, they place themselves and their partners at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Belize has the highest HIV prevalence in Central America. In Belize, HIV is spread primarily through heterosexual sex, and women make up almost half the cases of new HIV infections. In 2009, AIDS was the fourth leading cause of death in Belize.
Furthermore, when women are not able to control the terms of their own sexual activity, they are more likely to have unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. According to the Belize Family Health Survey, one in four pregnancies in Belize is unplanned, and almost half of these unplanned pregnancies are unwanted. Meanwhile, over half of the women in Belize who are not using any form of contraceptives do not wish to become pregnant.
By now it should be clear that women face substantial barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health information and services in Belize. In Part Two of this series, you’ll hear some of the stories Belizean women shared with me about their experiences.
Charis Davidson is a doctoral student in the department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior at the University of South Carolina. She is passionate about gender equality, sexual health, and using qualitative research methods to help people tell their stories.