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Leading by Example: An Interview With First Lady Kim Simplis Barrow of Belize

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Mrs. Kim Simplis Barrow, First Lady of Belize, has been described as the Michelle Obama of Central America and is on a mission to improve the welfare of women and young people in Belize.

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Kim is the wife of Prime Minister Dean Barrow and is also the founder and director of one of Belize's most acclaimed NGOs, Lifeline Foundation, which focuses on improving the quality of life for the children of Belize. I met with her to talk about her latest work and her role as First Lady, and here is how our conversation went:

LIFELINE FOUNDATION

Please tell me more about Lifeline Foundation.

Lifeline Foundation started in 2006 and is a registered charitable foundation and NGO in Belize. Its objectives are to assist generally with the welfare of children in Belize, looking out especially for their social, health and educational needs, and being concerned particularly with those that are economically disadvantaged or suffering from any kind of disability. The foundation is run by a board of directors comprised of 10 women, with a mix of professional and business interests and backgrounds.

I have always been concerned with the interests of children, recognizing that there is a huge disconnect between what society says and what it does in terms of the oft-repeated mantra that children are the future. It struck me that the way to go was not simply to wait on government to do everything necessary for children. I considered it imperative to sensitize and involve especially the private sector and ordinary people, and to try to mobilize action on behalf of children.

Lifeline has had enormous success. But there is still ways to go in convincing the general populace that, without stopping to think twice about it, they should embrace the work of Lifeline and help to realize its goals. I look forward to the day when it will no longer be a matter of any difficulty for Lifeline to rally the entire population to the cause of children.

Since its inception in March 2006, Lifeline Foundation has been successful in making a difference in the lives of thousands of our Belizean children. The following are some of our accomplishments:

  • Implemented feeding programs
  • Built cafeterias at schools
  • Provided educational material for students and teaching material for teachers
  • Built classrooms at several schools
  • Built proper toilet facilities
  • Donated furniture and fixtures for classrooms
  • Donated medication for persons living with HIV/AIDS
  • Donated money to organizations who are directly working with cancer victims
  • Donated to orphanages

What inspired you to start this foundation?

Growing up we didn't have much in terms of material wealth; however, we grew up very lucky to have great support and love from our parents and extended family. This reality isn't the same for many families, not only in Belize. After I gave birth to my daughter Salima, I realize how tough it is as a mom. I knew then that if it was tough for me, then can you imagine how much worse it must be for those struggling families? I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of these children. I wanted to empower these children by building an environment where they can be all they can possibly be.

What is your vision for the future for Lifeline Foundation?

My vision for the future of Lifeline remains our commitment to helping disadvantaged children, especially in our rural communities. To focus on ensuring that these children get an education and attention to proper health care will be of utmost importance.

SPECIAL ENVOY FOR WOMEN & CHILDREN IN BELIZE

What are the major issues facing women and children in Belize today?

The major issues facing children have to do with social and economic constraints confronting especially those coming from poor households, or who are disadvantaged in any way. There is a scarcity of resources and a lack of institutional support for such children, and this needs urgent remedying.

Women do not suffer from any legal barriers in the workplace or social barriers in terms of upward mobility. But there is still a culture in which the horror of domestic and sexual abuse, though guarded against legally, does not sufficiently grip society. And politically, women are still not able to participate in and win elections at anything like the same rate as their male counterparts. There is only one woman in the legislature's elected chamber, and that certainly needs to change.

How important is children's health care for Belize's sustainable development?

Self-evidently, children's health care is a sine qua non of Belize's sustainable development. It is said that what a child experiences during the early years sets a critical foundation for the entire life course. This is because early child development, including not only health but the physical, social/emotional and language/cognitive domains, strongly influences basic learning, school success, economic participation, social citizenry and health.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that the nurturant qualities of the environments where children grow up, live and learn -- parents, caregivers, family and community -- will have the most significant impact on their development.

There must be concerted efforts to provide the best environment for our children, especially in the health care sector, if we want to have healthy future leaders in all industries.

What can Belizean children do to preserve Belize's historic heritage?

Education and sensitization from very early is a key in regards to heritage preservation. With the help of schools, media houses, the official culture arm of the Government and institutions in general, children can engage in activities that teach them about Belize's history and cultures and instill in them the pride to carry on and share this heritage. It is not sufficient that the spirit of patriotism be limited to the annual celebration of independence.

What do you think still needs to be done in regards to women welfare in Belize?

Advances have been made, but there is still a need for a more amply protective legal structure in relation to sexual exploitation and violence against women. Particular initiatives for the economic and social empowerment of women as single parents also are very necessary. And affirmative action at the political level is a critical requirement.

Who have your role models been?

I must admit that my mom has been my role model because of her hard work and dedication to seeing us get our education and never giving up on us. I've had others, though, which have been, locally, Nurse Cleopatra White and outstanding educator Sister Caritas; and, internationally, Hilary Clinton and Presidents Michelle Bachelet and Dilma Rousseff.

FIRST LADY OF BELIZE

What is a myth about you or as First Lady that you would like to dispel?

I would like to dispel any notion that my work with women and children is just something I do as a kind of pastime. In fact it has become my life's mission and something I feel deeply about and my greatest everyday motivation.

I want people to recognize that my fight for women and children is a real, not a romantic one. There are all sorts of difficulties and it is an absolutely tough row to hoe. But my commitment is just as real and my dedication to the continuing struggle should never be in doubt.

As First Lady of Belize, you obviously try your best to improve the welfare and well-being of children and women across the country. So I was just wondering how you hope people will remember you.

I want to be remembered as someone who made an impact on the welfare of Belizean women and children.

Leading by Example: First Lady Kim Simplis Barrow of Belize
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