Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Children's Rights in Belize

Yesterday I had the opportunity and privilege to accompany a friend of mine as she presented a workshop on children’s rights to a group of girls at a summer camp. My friend Flo works for an organization called WIN Belize (Women’s Issues Network of Belize) and a lot of her job is give presentations and workshops all around the country. She is also a talented documentarian, but during the day she presents to groups about topics such as sexual health, gender issues, cultural adaptation to oppression and even children’s rights. And so yesterday she invited me to tag along.

The summer camp is run by an organization called YES (Youth Enhancement Services) and facilitated by two North American women. One woman is a new arrival from the Peace Corps and the other has been in the country for the last year through the Jesuit Volunteers International Program (the counterpart to the JVC domestic program that I was a part of back in Detroit).

In typical Belize fashion, Flo and I arrived late because….well time is different here. And we got to camp right before they were beginning an icebreaker activity. It was the one where each person holds part of a statement from an international proverb and you had to find your match and then decipher the meaning. I’ve played this game a few times before with college students and was wondering how well it would work out with 12-14 year old girls but I found that it just took a little extra time. I found that when I participated in the icebreaker I went right into “teacher mode”, taking on the demeanor and foundationally inquisitive attitude that I once had in a former life as a teacher. It was a relatively natural switch for me and I wondered to myself…why is that…

At any rate, even though some of the proverbs were difficult, the group as a whole was helpful. I must admit however, that there were a few very shy girls in the group and it took a lot to get them to speak. Part of that could be in relation to the new guests but I’m guessing that it went a little deeper than that.

After the ice breaker Flo began her presentation, chatting really briefly about the UN Declaration on Children’s Rights and what that looks like here in Belize, and then there was another activity. The object was for each group to compile a list of what rights children have, or should have. You could make a list, draw a picture, write a poem or some other variation. I spend some time with one group which included three of the older girls and then the two youngest girls who were sent to camp with their older sisters. To my surprise, even when I engaged them in the subject matter, they too had some good answers. Here are a few of the things that I took note of…

Children Have the Right…
• To Play and have fun
• To brush your teeth and pray to God (one statement)
• To eat good food
• To have a house
• To privacy
• To be punished but not hurt (this one was a challenge to articulate because they had the idea but not the words)
• To be sad and happy
• To go to the clinic
• To not talk to strangers
• To be safe from harm
• To go to church
• To get an education

Really, the list went on and on and there was even one poem which I found particularly striking (wish I wrote some of that down). But really what struck me the most was that they already knew their rights. And I think they also knew that they were not always receiving those rights either. Sure, there was some talk at the end about what one might do if they know their rights are being violated, but really, I wondered how tangible the suggestions really were. And given the cultural history of Belize and some of the current reality, children in here are particularly vulnerable the system and the families they live in.

As we left camp and drove back to Belize City I learned that these girls come by bus from all over the district. It’s free, which is good, and there are even field trips. I was impressed by that and excited for them as well. Given what they are up against, these girls need all the support they can get and free summer camp is a step in the right direction.

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