Gender, Education and the Drive for Well-Being in Belize

Society for Medical Anthropology

Eileen Anderson-Fye (Case Western Reserve U)

I was flooded with memories last January as I stepped into the rural high school on Ambergris Caye, Belize. Nearly two decades earlier, I had begun dissertation research here regarding the health and well-being of the first mass high school-educated cohort of young women in the tourism-centric region. On my first day of fieldwork, the principal announced that I hoped to speak to interested students during their study halls. As soon as the next bell rang, a line of young women formed, all eager to share their stories with an insider-outsider—someone deemed trustworthy and also not fully embedded in the history and lineage of the community. Now I had returned, this time to learn more about how those young women’s adolescent experiences had influenced their own development as adults—and also driven changes in their community.

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My initial work (1996-2001) had taught me that these young women were not blank slates upon which global narratives were written. Rather, they brought their own ways of seeing the world to bear upon transnational media, images, messages, people, and opportunities. More, their life stage as teenagers—attuned carefully to new technologies and media—mattered enormously in how they marshaled community changes to further their educations and improve their well-being.

I came back this year with the support of the National Science Foundation’s cultural anthropology program (BCS-1261814). Since graduation, these young women had transitioned from the courageous, sometimes harrowing choices made to secure improved futures to experiencing them. They had jobs, children, and challenges that continued from adolescence—along with new concerns and opportunities. They had seen remarkable success in educational achievement, scored well on global mental health indicators, and dramatically reshaped gendered power dynamics within their families and the community itself. Largely driven by concerns toward enhancing their well-being and reducing actual or potential gender-based violence, they had made the most of the process and products of their education.

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