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Navigating Identities in Belize

Peace Corps’ ICDEIA approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Volunteers with disabilities in Belize may face a special set of challenges. While there is very little of the infrastructure (ramps, railings, elevators, etc.) that is needed to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities compared to those in the United States, staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations to facilitate Volunteer success.

Gender role considerations

It will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in Belize. During pre-service training, Volunteers will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country and will take time to examine their own thinking about gender roles and their impact. Volunteers will then learn to analyze development projects to better understand gender roles in their host communities and how these gender roles can benefit or limit work and relationships in-country.

Women in Belize generally have traditional roles, although they are evolving. For example, women in Maya and Mestizo communities are primarily responsible for the maintenance of the household, and many are expected to be subservient and obedient. In larger towns, however, women’s roles are shifting. More women are attending a university than ever before and, as the entire country moves from being less dependent on farming and fishing to being more dependent on tourism and business, women are gaining new opportunities.

Women and Volunteers presenting as women have to take extra care that their actions are not misinterpreted. Behavior that one might consider perfectly friendly and innocent, such as going out for a drink with or accepting a ride home from a man, may be interpreted as a sexual advance or invitation. Many American television shows, which Belizeans watch, depict sexually promiscuous American women, and Belizean men may have had past experiences with American tourists that lead them to generalize about American women's sexual behavior. Women Volunteers should be diligent in maintaining professional relationships with co-workers who are men. One of the hardest things for Volunteers to accept is that Belize is a society that has been, and is likely to continue to be, male-dominated.

LGBTQI+ considerations

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects of service.

Despite recent decriminalization, Belize maintains conservative values towards the LGBTQI+ community. Volunteers must exercise discretion when addressing topics of sexual orientation and gender identity. Peace Corps Belize will equip volunteers with skills to navigate these and other intercultural challenges they may face. We encourage Volunteers to consider the following in preparation for service in Belize:

  • Given Belize’s traditional values, sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities might not be discussed openly or may not be clearly understood. Volunteers may find that Belize is a less open and inclusive environment than they may have previously experienced. In some cases, the LGBTQI+ community may be stigmatized. Volunteers may hear discriminatory comments directed towards the LGBTQI+ community that might make them feel uncomfortable.
  • The decision to serve openly is left to each individual Volunteer, but we encourage everyone to make this determination with safety and security as the number one priority. Many LGBTQI+ Volunteers have successfully served in Belize despite the conservative nature of the country. They chose to be discreet about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity within their host communities. However, some LGBTQI+ Volunteers chose to come out to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers, whom they trusted. The Peace Corps is a safe space for all Trainees and Volunteers.
  • It is common in Belize for people to ask Volunteers questions about boyfriends, girlfriends, marriage, and children. This may, at times, be stressful for LGBTQI+ Volunteers.
  • Peace Corps Belize staff are supportive of all Volunteers and readily available to help Volunteers navigate these challenges.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Despite some exposure to Americans, some Belizeans expect U.S. citizens to be White, and are unaware of the racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly.

Black/African American Volunteers in Belize often express frustration and disappointment with being asked where they are from instead of being recognized as Americans. They are often mistaken for being Kriol and, therefore, are presumed to know the language.

Latino/Hispanic Volunteers sometimes find that they are initially perceived as a Belizean Mestizo and are expected to speak Spanish fluently.

Similarly, Asian-American Volunteers may find that they are identified by their cultural or racial heritage instead of their American citizenship. The large presence of immigrants in Belize has, at times, created hostility among some Belizeans toward people of Asian descent.

White Volunteers will likely experience privilege in many ways. One such privilege may be not having your U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be American, while many of your fellow Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention more often because of this aspect of their identity. Navigating this and being an ally to Volunteers and locals who may not have the same experience will be important.

Despite these issues, most Belizeans will graciously welcome you into their homes and communities. All Volunteers should be mindful of the issues of racial and ethnic diversity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service and should be mindful of being an ally to fellow Volunteers.

Age considerations

It is important in Belizean society to show respect towards one’s elders. As a result, older Volunteers may find their age to be an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. Older Volunteers are also often seen as more credible than their more junior peers.

While older Volunteers may have some advantages in service, pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older Trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for years in a very structured job.

Religious considerations

About 40 percent of Belize’s population is Catholic. Other religious groups are also well represented. Churches play an important role in the education of Belize’s children and youth population; approximately 90 percent of schools are managed by various religious denominations. Given the role of religion in Belizean life, Volunteers are frequently asked about their religious affiliation and may be invited to attend a community church.

Some currently serving Volunteers attend church services/events with their host family even if they do not practice the faith. These experiences can sometimes serve as a pathway to community integration. Volunteers who do not attend church may be challenged to explain their reluctance, but it is possible to politely decline if the church or religious practice is not one of your choices. Most Volunteers find effective ways to cope with these situations and come to feel quite at home in Belize.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Volunteers who serve as couples in Belize may find that local beliefs and practices regarding relationship dynamics, gender roles, and expectations for having children differ from what they are accustomed to in the U.S.

Couples without children may be repeatedly questioned about why they do not have children.

Couples may also face pressure from host country nationals to better conform with traditional relationship roles in-country. Host country nationals may not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. In training and service, it can be helpful for couples to think about if and how their partner is being affected by host community attitudes towards gender roles and discussing what, if any, behaviors, or aspects could be modified to help reduce stress.

While staff will be here to help and coach you, we encourage couples to prepare themselves for these types of interactions before coming to Belize.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Volunteers will take part in ICDEIA trainings throughout service in Belize, which will include learning approaches and tools to build and hone their intercultural competence, and navigate challenges related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility issues. Peace Corps Belize staff strives to promote a culture of inclusion—one that connects staff and Volunteers to the organization; encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness; and leverages diversity throughout the organization so that all individuals are able to participate and contribute to their full potential—throughout the Volunteer and staff lifecycle. Staff and fellow Volunteers are here to serve as your allies as you navigate ICDEIA challenges and opportunities in service.