Headline — 07 March 2014 — by Adele Ramos
Catholic Bishop opposes “20,000 Strong” march

Churches fear march is part of a “wider agenda” for “abortion and same-sex relations”

Plans for an unprecedented “20,000 Strong” march for women—in commemoration of Women’s Month observed every March—were met with resounding opposition from the most powerful church in Belize, the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a rare caution to its membership about the event, on suspicion that the move to have women rally behind the women’s empowerment banner is part of a wider agenda to get them onboard with changing gender norms, including the promotion of abortion and same-sex relations.

The march is one of the highlights of Women’s Month, which Anthony “Boots” Martinez, Minister of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation, said, in a printed message in commemoration of the celebration, is “a time to pause to celebrate the achievements of women in their quest for gender equality.”

Before the controversial 2013 Gender Policy came into effect, such a statement would not have elicited a strong response, but against the backdrop of a new gender policy which makes clear provisions to accommodate genders other than male and female, and which acknowledges the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transsexual (LGBT) community and rights for which they have been lobbying, the temperature of the conversation has changed.

In fact, Bishop Dorick Wright, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the leading church in Belize – which does not believe in the ordination of women priests, although the Anglicans in Belize do – issued a statement this week saying that the 20,000 Strong march and rally does not speak to the complementary roles of men and women, as taught by the church, and furthermore that the National Women’s Commission (NWC), one of the coordinators for the event, promotes values which contradict church and moral teachings as they relate to respect for human life, family, marriage and human sexuality.

“It is very disappointing that the Roman Catholic Church is attempting to ascribe extraneous motives to this event that is intended simply to honor and uplift women,” Special Envoy for Women and Children Kim Simplis-Barrow said in a written statement yesterday.

“Obviously, the church was misguided; they were misinformed. It was unfortunate,” she told Amandala at today’s rally, just before her speech in which she called for a new revolution in which “bembe” women should show their power – not in an overbearing way, but with dignity.

Simplis-Barrow was introduced at today’s rally by Imani Fairweather-Morrison of the Oak Foundation in Belize. Morrison has highlighted the leading role of women within Belize’s conservation community.

Barrow told us that today’s rally had nothing to do with promoting the LGBT cause: “The rally has happened, and we have shown that it has nothing to do with what they are talking about,” she told us.

Simplis-Barrow told us that the statement issued by Bishop Wright caused several schools which had already confirmed their participation in the event, to back out.

Wright told us Wednesday that he wants to make one thing clear: “I never asked people not to attend [the march and rally]. That’s up to them,” he said.

Simplis-Barrow this morning led the 20,000 Strong march from the Memorial Park to the Marion Jones Sports Complex in Belize City, culminating in a spirited rally at which several leading women speakers championed the call for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“It was an inspiring day…” the Special Envoy told us, reflecting on how moved she felt to see so many women converge from around the nation to participate.

Women participated from all walks of life, among them high-ranking and junior officials of the Belize Defence Force – of which only 5% are women – who were asked by the Ministry of National Security to support the venture by Mrs. Barrow. The force’s highest-ranking female officer, Captain Lydia Guerra, was among the 30 women officers present, along with some of their male colleagues, dressed in their “20,000 Strong,” bright orange T-shirts.

When we asked the Special Envoy for an estimate of how many people participated, at the day’s peak, she told us that she could not say.
The police crew behind the field where the main events were unfolding told us that the estimate was about 3,000 during the height of the day. There were buses from all corners of the country, and some women had to get up early this morning to make the long trek to Belize City.

Not everyone who came in the bus convoys came for the event. We met a pair of teen girls from a southern village who just came for the ride to the City, but who planned on leaving the event to spend time with relatives here. Students from a Southside school in Belize told our newspaper that they were told they had to go to the march/rally. We were told that some school wardens were also told by an official in the Ministry of Education that they had to go.

Laurent Arnold, teacher at Gales Point Methodist School, came of her own volition. She told Amandala that she woke up about 4:00 a.m. to leave Mullins River so she could arrive in Dangriga in time. From there, she made her long journey to Belize City.

Belize can’t do without women, said Arnold, who was wearing the bright orange T-shirt printed especially for the day’s event, which said on the back: “Imagine a Belize without women!”

Arnold said that women should have more freedom to work in jobs that are still not being opened to them – and they also need to get more opportunities in politics.

She wants to see more investment in, and change for, women, especially more job opportunities. Currently, the Gales Point youth are getting help with entrepreneurial projects through the National Kriol Council and Arnold thinks that such programs should be done in her village as well.

As for this year’s theme for Women’s Month: “Investing in change: Honoring, Respecting and Celebrating Women and Girls!” Bishop Wright said, “I don’t have anything against that. I think women deserve to be respected and so on. Still, there are still cases in which women are not respected – but we have to be careful that those planning have more than that in mind…”

Bishop Wright told Amandala that his message to their wider membership is “to be careful about who is organizing” the event, because the church was trying to obtain an agenda of the event to find out what the organizers planned to do, to no avail.

Towards the end of today’s rally, Janelle Chanona, who recently took over from Audrey Matura-Shepherd as the new vice president of Oceana in Belize, unveiled the work plan for the Special Envoy’s office. Chanona said that the idea is to highlight and reignite the role of women in national development, and promote the involvement of more girls in sports, as well as an equalization of imbalances that still exist: some of them as basic as the disparity in prizes women receive when compared with their male counterparts. According to Chanona, the work also entails general capacity-building and legislative reform.

She announced that there will be high-level strategic planning sessions between Government and civil society partners, including churches and NGOs, to develop a national multi-year agenda for advancing the rights of women and improving family life in Belize.

Chanona also said that there will be a comprehensive assessment of laws for women’s rights, to advocate for necessary amendments such as support for survivors of domestic violence.

Belize Action, a local consortium of faith-based groups and supporters, issued a statement this week, saying that while they fully support efforts to curb “inequality between the sexes” and how that relates to “equal pay for equal work” and the eradication of domestic violence and discrimination against women, there is more on the agenda of those who sponsored today’s rally and march.

“They always try to twist it to say we’re not supporting these areas, which is simply not true! We must sound the trumpet on the fact that this 20K march is the implementation of the Gender Policy!! That is why the Catholic Church is not endorsing it! Neither is Belize Action and any others who discern through the smoke screen, the hidden agenda behind it. Enough on that…” Belize Action’s statement said.

In his Women’s Month message, Human Development and Social Transformation Minister “Boots” Martinez said that, “As Belizeans, it is the imperative that we ensure that women are respected, valued and enjoy their human rights and freedoms. This has not always been a smooth journey, and we acknowledge that the changing environments pose new challenges to the achievement of gender equality.”

Today the official definition of those human rights and freedoms has been expanded to include those who proclaim a sexual identity other than male and female – a point of major contention for the main faith-based groups in Belize.

Bishop Wright posed this question: “Why can’t they [the women activists] get things organized with men and women? Why it has to be only women? If we are having family, it’s men and women.”

One of today’s speakers expressed the view that women can act independently of men.

While Bishop Wright is promulgating the gender norms in the Hebrew/Messianic Scriptures, there are those who believe that the gender issue is not such a big deal.

In fact, some of the people we interviewed today told us that they really have no issue with a man who wanted to express himself as a woman, and who may show up at such a Woman’s Month event attired as a woman, claiming it to be his month, too.

“To each his own…” Kenneth Middleton, a BTL worker, told us on the sidelines of today’s march, when we sought his comments.

He said that he supports today’s initiative because there are many abused women, and he does not think the church has a valid concern.

“I think that we need to listen more to the women and I think we need as men, to respect women. It’s what you put in, you will get out. If you put in respect, you will get respect,” said Middleton, married for over two decades.

Inside today’s rally, several speakers had their time in the limelight. The emcee was popular comedian Lauren Burgess, who said, jokingly: “Woe unto men!” and who urged women to stop allowing men to use their bodies like they do a hotel. Several of the main speakers focused their talks on the socio-economic advancement of women.

“Think about the three C’s of life: choices, chances, changes,” said Sandra Bedran, general manager of Atlantic Bank.

“You must make a choice to take a chance, or your life will never change. We are all afraid of the unknown, and discussions about change make us anxious. Change usually requires sacrifice – the giving up of free time to study or attend training sessions, making new acquaintances and learning new skills. Change simply puts us outside of our comfort zone,” she said, emphasizing the need for decisions that will have a positive impact on self, family and community.

Yadira Diego, a self-employed mother of Dangriga who was at the rally with her siblings, said that what touched her most at the rally was the testimony by Jennifer Lopez, who spoke about her tragic past and not having the love of her mother. It has reminded her that she should cherish the love she has.

“If we are in a good family, with love, we cherish it and try to train our children the same way,” Diego said.

“Let us not continue coming together in wakes and funerals—no màs! No màs!” said Patty Arceo, a former PUP parliamentarian for Belize Rural South, who spoke of the need for more tangible involvement of women in the political decision-making – not just making the rice and beans for the political events.

“Our liberation, our equality will never be handed to us. We have to take it, because it is our fundamental right given to us by our Creator – let us therefore lift up each other instead of bringing each other down,” said Rosanna Briceño, career educator and wife of Orange Walk Central area representative for the Opposition People’s United Party, Johnny Briceño.

“Partnership and unity have always been core values of our approach and we will remain open to genuine dialogue and working with the church to empower women in our society,” yesterday’s statement from the Special Envoy said.

It is unclear whether the churches will take up the Special Envoy on that offer. From our conversation with Bishop Wright, it was clear, however, that the church remains resolute in its opposition to the 2013 Gender Policy – the advancement of which some still believe to be behind today’s event and the ensuing programs announced by Chanona. Bishop Wright told us that he does not consider it a lost cause, and he said that so long as that policy remains in place, they will continue to advocate for what is right.

There have been reports that the tab for today’s 20,000 Strong is as high as $271,000. We asked Kim Simplis-Barrow today what the budget was and she said she could not quote us a figure.

“I know a lot has been said about the budget. At this point, I don’t really know, because we got a lot of in-kind donations, but I know a lot of rumors have been going around about $271 [thousand]… that’s not true, and we will deal with that down the road,” Barrow told us.

She said that government funding was a small percentage, and most of the financing came from international organizations which support women’s causes, which she had rallied for funding.

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