This post was originally published on Kenya Downs’ blog LiveFromKenya.
When it comes to journalism, Ann-Marie Williams has done it all: print reporter and editor, radio announcer, TV news anchor and media studies professor. But after a 20-year career, the Belize City native was ready to give it all up.
“The only thing left for me was to take over the station. And I knew I had no intention of doing that,” she laughs. “So I asked myself ‘What do I really like to do?'”
Instead, she opted to pursue a new career path, one that speaks to her true passion: advocating for women.
Among her many professional achievements, Williams earned a highly selective scholarship to study gender and development at the University of Sussex and later won the prestigious Hubert Humphrey Fellowship (through the Fulbright program) to study human trafficking at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Now, she’s the executive director of Belize’s National Women’s Commission, advising the government on policy issues of gender equality, equity and empowerment. From workforce discrimination to street harassment, Williams is committed to ushering in change for the lives of women all throughout Belize and the entire Caribbean region, particularly of black and indigenous girls.
As part of a larger project through my fellowship with the International Reporting Project, I chatted with Ms. Williams about women’s rights in Belize and the world.
-What are some of the most pressing issues for women in Belize right now?
It’s hundreds of years of engrained culture we’re trying to break. We’re still fighting traditionalist cultures that see a woman’s place as in the household, seen and not heard. That creates a labor force issue when twice as many Belizean men work than women. Women can’t exercise economic empowerment and social equity when in these communities when they are dependent on men, whether their husbands or fathers, for their entire livelihood. That leaves women vulnerable and Belizean women have a disproportionate access to justice in terms of gender-based violence, especially in rural, indigenous populations.
Women are also not enough at the table when it comes to the policies and decision-making that shapes their lives. Women no where in the world are socialized for politics and if we wait until they’re older, then we don’t get the same results that we really need. That’s where we in the Women’s National Commission come in. We develop a national gender policy to pinpoint the most pressing policy initiatives that affect women and foster programs that allow for these policies to thrive.
-What can we do to as a society to foster more women like you, especially for young women of color?
We have to invest in our girls early in terms of education to social development. But also our boys. Too often men think that women’s empowerment is their disempowerment. But if we teach them from young that my autonomy as a woman is no threat to your manhood, we create better environments for future generations.
And for black girls especially, we must teach them they are good enough. When you are bombarded with images and messages that you are inferior, you internalize it. And if you don’t like you it’s hard for you to like what looks like you. So we hold each other back. We have to teach black women and girls that their blackness is what makes them resilient, dynamic and powerful.
It takes a willingness to know that they have it within them and to support it here and now.
-How has your background shaped your dedication to women’s advocacy?
My mother was a teacher and librarian, but also a single mother of six. While we grew up not having what we wanted, but we always had what we needed. And she instilled in us the value of humanity, why it’s so important to give back and volunteer.
She was also was one of the smartest women I know and taught me that women shouldn’t be ashamed of being educated and showing it. She made a point to surround herself and me with other women who were highly knowledgable. Without realizing it, from her I learned that my gender should never limit my progress. I can’t imagine the person I’d be now if she hadn’t provided those values.
-What do you want young Belizean women to learn from you?
That they can be just like me. I never lived in mansion; I came from limited means. So you can live in a shack, farm or wherever. It doesn’t matter where you come from or your current obstacles, you can be exactly what you envision of yourself. You just have to have the will to do it and dare to envision greatness.
But along the way, find somebody who will always keep you in check and hold you accountable. That peer mentorship is important for our growth and betterment of women overall. Never be afraid to surround yourself with people who know more than you, because you can’t learn and grow from those who know less.
-What’s something people may not know about you.
And I love smart people. I see the change that smart people can make and that motivates me to learn from those smarter than me. And I don’t necessarily mean more educated, sometimes people are smart from their exposure and experience. And if they’re women, even better. Why? Because women will change the world.
A more in depth conversation with Ann-Marie Williams will be featured in my upcoming coverage of women’s rights in the Caribbean, so stay tuned. The end of August also marks the Belize Women’s Commission’s national policy conference to build on their Women in Politics project, aimed training women to pursue political careers for the Belizean government to better reflect the gender demographics that make up the country’s population. For more information, visit the commission’s website.