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FEATURE STORY

A Healthier Lifestyle for Indigenous Women and Children in Belize

January 24, 2013

A primary school in Toledo, Belize. Investments in healthcare are expected to significantly contribute to the decrease in the rate of worm infestation and anemia in children.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A joint initiative enhances accessibility to healthcare and sanitation in Toledo.
  • The project will also develop and strengthen school feeding programs in the district.
  • Indigenous beliefs and practices will be embraced in all of the project’s activities.

Giving birth and growing up in Belize’s District of Toledo can be a struggle. While it boasts cultural diversity and green landscapes, Toledo also features the highest rates of poverty and nutritional deficiencies among all districts in the country.

Data collected by the Ministry of Health in 2011 indicates that 24% of women of childbearing age are anemic. In addition, 60% of primary school-aged children in Toledo’s rural communities face anemia and worm infestation. Worm infestation and anemia, particularly in malnourished children, can affect physical and mental development, thus decreasing learning.

These problems affect mostly the Mopan and Qechi Mayas – who are the largest indigenous communities in the District of Toledo, but whose precise population size remains unknown. An initiative supported by UNICEF in 2011, identified 7,000 children as not been registered.

Together with the Belize Ministry of Health, specialists from the World Bank and the Japanese Social Development Fund (JSDF) are working on a joint initiative to dramatically change these figures over the next two and a half years. 

Growth monitoring

Belize’s Ministry of Health secured a grant to enhance accessibility to healthcare services, particularly for indigenous women and children in rural communities. The US$3 million JSDF grant is being implemented in partnership with the World Bank.

“This project will support prenatal care for pregnant women to ensure the health of the mom and well-being of the baby, continuing with nutrition and growth monitoring, while promoting a healthy lifestyle among primary school children,” says Carmen Carpio, World Bank task team leader for the grant.

The first effort is to carry a baseline survey in the first half of 2013, which will provide the Ministry of Health with current data regarding worm infestation, anemia, and prenatal care seeking behaviors, community participation in child growth monitoring, school feeding programs, among other issues.

Open Quotes

One of our main goals is to make the community sense that this is their project. Close Quotes

Cupertina Teul
Project coordinator in Toledo, Belize

Hospitals and sanitation

“All community health posts will be assessed by an engineer. Based on this information, the project will support the necessary refurbishing or new construction works,” says project coordinator Cupertina Teul, who has been working with the indigenous Mayan women for the past 13 years.

“Most indigenous families do not have toilets. And even though primary schools do have toilets, some are in deplorable conditions. These are the issues that the grant activities will address in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and other partners like UNICEF,” she adds.

Such investments are expected to significantly contribute to the decrease in the rate of worm infestation and anemia in primary school-aged children.

Engaging parents

For many of these children, school meals are their only source of nutrition – even if it means an irregular one. Only 21 out of 50 primary local schools have school feeding programs, none of which is well-functioning. To tackle this issue, the grant will ensure existing school feeding programs are expanded and serve three healthy meals a day.

In addition, it will support the implementation of healthy lifestyle programs in primary schools. Some of the goals are to promote physical activity, develop good hygiene habits, and include locally available fruits and vegetables in the daily menu – which are not always commonplace in the local diet today.  

Another important step is to increase the participation of parents involved in monitoring children’s growth. Educational sessions – that take indigenous beliefs and practices into consideration – will be conducted on the subject. “One of our main goals is to make the community sense that this is their project,” says Teul.