Dangriga looks like the cover of a travel magazine. A tropical paradise in southern Belize. What onlookers may not know is that it is also the district with the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the country, HIV prevalence higher than anywhere else in Central America, and a place where violence and poverty are an ever-present reality.
"Being a woman in this community is not the easiest task," India, 19, shares. "We are the main targets here and you will often see older men prey on younger and vulnerable girls".
Sitting next to her in a POWA session, Kenima, is only 15 years old but has already been a target. "The men approach us with little suggestions at first. A beer, a lunch for letting them hold our hands or maybe even touch a breast… Then they offer to pay your school fees, pay your mother’s rent, take care of the house bills... It’s really not easy to say no when you are in our situation."
Young girls in Dangriga find themselves lost in a system where they aren’t expected to have ambitions to ever provide for themselves, and where their own mothers feel that they have no other choice than to encourage them to accept these offers. The high HIV prevalence in Belize confirms this reality, as rates are highest among young girls and old men. Teenage pregnancies are the main reason for school dropouts, and sexual abuse is one of those things everybody knows about but too few dare to report.
Michele Irving, the coordinator for POWA, explains, "We work on the self-esteem of girls, on keeping them in school, teaching them about safety and trying to keep them away from dangers. We target girls at risk and we try to support them with school stipends and giving them practical skills that they can use to secure their own income and become economically independent. All of this to keep them away from falling victims to this horrendous abuse of power."
Under the leadership of Michele Irving, POWA runs after-school programmes for vulnerable children, literacy and school completion programmes for women, an HIV prevention and stigma and discrimination reduction programme, and conducts extensive work on empowerment of women and girls.
In fact, Michele and the POWA programme break the law of silence, change the power dynamics and create role models for other girls to follow, allowing them to grow to be concerned, protective and empowered women.