Kim Simplis Barrow on sharing her passion and authentic interest to make change for children in Belize
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Kim Simplis-Barrow was appointed as Belize’s Special Envoy for Women and Children in 2008. In that year she was also designated a Global Ambassador by Special Olympics International. She is a passionate advocate for child protection and gender equality and has translated that passion into practical action, significantly improving services for all children in Belize. Working in partnership with government, civil society and the private sector, she spearheaded the establishment of The Inspiration Center, a national referral center where children living with disabilities access services and therapy.
She is undoubtedly glamourous as the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Interiors magazine well captured. With her approachability, curiosity and intent on contributing to her country and the Caribbean region, she is a role model for young people.
The following is an interview with Kim Simplis Barrow, lightly edited for readability.
Your work suggests an obvious passion for securing children’s rights, children’s welfare. What have been the motivating factors for you?
I grew up in very humble circumstances. We did not have material things. It is this understanding of how difficult it was for my parents and how hard they had to work which motivated me in this direction. I know it is difficult for parents in different circumstances to stay focused on children’s rights. They may not know enough about what is proper nutrition, proper health care or even of the importance of making sure children go to and stay in school. All of this motivated me to advocate for children’s welfare. In Belize considering that the children’s population is approximately 52% of the total population, I really believed that I needed to be the voice for that sector of the population, to ensure that rights are upheld, and to ensure that no child is left behind.
Do you recall if you had anxieties as a child? What is your sense of how the world is different for children now?
I do not recall having major anxieties as a child. I think things are very different now with the advent of technology and many children expecting immediate satisfaction for everything. There is so much is at their fingertips, but instead of things getting easier, things are getting harder. It has become harder for children to relate because they are behind computers or phones instead of playing outside and interacting with each other. It is a different world than the one I grew up in. Of course the availability and impact of technology is not the same for all children but generally, children are more easily distracted, they want instant gratification because that is the world in which we are living.
What are the main issues for children and young people in Belize?
For girls, we have the issue of teenage pregnancies and for boys, gang affiliations. For both boys and girls, cyber-bullying, indeed, bullying in general, at school is a big problem. In my opinion, we also pay insufficient attention to education on sexual and reproductive health for young people. We have a major problem in our schools. Either the teachers are not comfortable talking about sexuality and reproductive health or they do not want to teach it because of conservative values. Whatever the case may be, this is a problem across the Caribbean. This reluctance results in lack of education and lack of empowering our girls to make the right decisions.
We speak to boys about condoms but we do not give girls the same attention so that they understand that they too have the equal right to make decisions, not just the boys. And beyond sexual and reproductive rights, we need to give families more support. Yes education is free, but for many families, books, transportation, extra lessons, all of these have costs attached to them.
In addition to this, we are finding that some boys are being recruited by gangs. This needs to be addressed. These boys affiliate with gangs as part of their exploration of manhood. Gangs also give them a sense of belonging and sometimes quick money to acquire material things. Furthermore, this access to quick money reinforces the idea that schooling is not important.
You have done quite a lot of work on child sexual assault. Why? What do you think are the gaps in the response in Belize which policy makers and communities need to address?
Here in Belize we have seen an increase in child sexual abuse, or at least an increase in the reporting. The more investigation we do, the better we understand that sexual assaults of children are not a new phenomenon. Parents often do not want to go to the police and abused children, understandably, do not want to or know how to speak out.
Understanding how difficult this issue is for children, as Special Envoy, I launched an education campaign targeting young children. One of the components was a book on ‘good touch, bad touch’. It is a book that seeks to help teachers and parents to raise these issues, to make conversations easier.
Child sexual assaults persist because of cultural factors. We need to change that culture. We need zero tolerance. Victims must not be blamed. It is appalling when a young child is brave enough to come forward and that child is blamed for the abuse suffered. We need to continue to train police, the people who work on the court system and social workers on the dynamics, causes and consequences of child sexual abuse. In general, children need more support.
Here in Belize, we have amended the laws to make them gender neutral, recognizing that boys also are victims of sexual violence and abuse. We have also increased the penalties for perpetrators and developed child friendly court processes.
In our work, we also had a specific focus on adolescents, those 13-17. Our country-wide campaign “My Body is Precious” is intended to build self-esteem, self-valuing, and to get young people to think carefully about sexual behavior so that they make wise choices and not have their development derailed. This campaign is about creating awareness and providing information on the help and services available to adolescents.
In your work, you seem to have been quite deliberate in understanding the diversity of experiences of children in Belize. Can you tell us about Inspiration Center?
When I was appointed Special Envoy, I wanted to set my own agenda. We had no budget from government. How could I make a difference? One of the first things I did was a country-wide tour- visiting schools, children’s homes, communities. I went with an NGO, CARE Belize. It was such an eye opener for me to realize that there were no services or programmes for children living with disabilities. There was no way, seeing what I saw, that I could sleep well if I did not do my best to change that situation.
The Inspiration Center was established to provide therapy to children with disabilities. Up to four years ago, there was no place to take children with disabilities for therapy. To get it built and functioning required a huge movement of support in Belize. I did fund raisers everywhere- in the USA with the Belizean Embassy, and with the High Commission in London. Here in Belize we targeted and raised 1 million Belizean dollars in a telethon in one day. Everybody thought I was crazy but we did it. Once people saw these successes, others became committed to the vison of the Inspiration Center.
It has been a wonderful, beautiful journey.
How do you understand leadership?
Inspire people through my own actions. I seek to use my passion and authentic interest to rally others for the accomplishment of common missions. All of the goals I have, I cannot and do not achieve them alone. Because people believe in the mission to improve the lives of children and women, they want to be a part of the process; and in encouraging participation, I believe that I create spaces for others to be become better versions of themselves.
My entire focus is on all women and all children. As previously mentioned, I never wanted the government determine my agenda. Being independent is important to my role as Special Envoy. I have to stay above the noise. I get the criticism because of political reasons. My answer to that is to look at what we have done for all children of Belize- including the establishment of the Neo-natal and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to make a difference?
From a young age I saw my mother volunteering for the Red Cross. Moreover, I saw her do many unconventional jobs. These experiences really influenced me. From a young age, giving back was part of our life. We did not appreciate the importance then, but we were in Girl Guides, Red Cross, volunteering at Help Aid etc., and those experiences have positively influenced my life.
My advice to parents is to get your children involved in volunteering. Get then to do things that they are passionate about. To children, I would say, everyone can do a little every day to help others. If you help even one person, you may have made a difference for life.
I understand that your mantra is “my life is what I make it”. What does this mean for you?
In life we go through so many journeys, travel so many roads. I strongly believe when you fail at something, it is an opportunity to learn. It is up to us to choose to stay down or to pick ourselves up and use that experience as a stepping stone. It is easy to do nothing or say nothing, but life is really what you make of it. We all have the power within to believe in who we are; to know what we are about, to do things for the right reasons.
What message/advice would you give CCRON as it seeks to support the work on children’s rights in the region?
CCRON needs to ensure through its work that no child is left behind and it must have truly regional focus. Through all its efforts, children’s rights must be upheld. CCRON needs to seek champions for change. It needs different voices carrying a clear message so as to build a united front. The idea of children participating in CCRON’s work as their own advocates is important. We need our children to be more involved. We are finding the adolescent population is really left behind, in high school they go through so many changes; bodily and emotional. They may not understand these changes and not have anyone with whom they can talk. Overall, we need a stronger focus on teenagers.
Tell us 3 things that we may be surprised to learn about you…
I went through my cancer journey in 2011. I did six rounds of chemotherapy and then I was supposed to do 20 rounds of radiation. After 15, rounds, I had heart failure. It was the only time in my life I felt like “Oh my, this might be it!” I made a list of things I wanted to accomplish and one of those things was to play a sport. This is how I started playing tennis. I can tick that off my list now. I’ve accomplished that!
The second thing is that I speak Spanish fluently. I did all my tertiary education in Spanish. The third thing? I was very shy as a teenager and never enjoyed being at the forefront. Still shy to a certain extent, but I have been able to work around that and also make it work for me.