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Belize is a beautiful coastal country in Central America, located just south of Mexico and to the west of the Caribbean Sea.  Once known as British Honduras, Belize gained independence from the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1981 and now boasts a very diverse society, both ethnically and linguistically.  The total land area of Belize is just less than 9,000 square miles, and with a population of only 333,000 (as of the last census) it possesses the lowest population density in Central America.  However, according to experts that may change in the coming years, as Belize also has one of the highest growth rates (2.2%) in the entire western hemisphere.
 
A combination of slavery, immigration and colonization has played a significant role in the ethnic makeup of the Belizean population.  In the latter half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, a mass wave of Europeans came to the Americas in search of opportunity and a better way of life.  Many settled in the area that is now Belize, particularly those of Italian and Spanish heritage.  As a result, the country is home to numerous ethnic groups, cultures, languages and traditions.  As of the last census, 34 percent of the population self-identify as Mestizo, a term used to describe a mixed European and native tribal heritage, with the European component being largely Spanish.  Belizean Creoles, locally known as Kriols, account for 25% of the population.   Kriols are descendants of English and Scottish (log cutters, once known as the Baymen), along with Black African slaves that were brought to Belize to work.  The rest of the population consists of people of Spanish (15%), Mayan (11%) and Garinagu (6%) heritage, along with small minorities of people from India, Asia and the Middle East.
 
English is the official language of Belize and is used in most important matters of the state, including communications, government and education.  However, locally and informally, Kriol and Spanish are the most commonly heard language in the country.  Religious freedom is guaranteed in Belize, and like most countries in Central America, the majority of the population (80%) is Christian.  Of that 80 percent, nearly half of all Belizeans self-identify as Roman Catholics, 30 percent practice one of the Protestant faiths, followed by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.  Non-Christian religions include Hinduism, adhered to by most Indian immigrants, and Islam, practiced by the small minority of Middle Eastern settlers.
 
Belize is very culturally unique, and the only country among its Central American neighbors with a British colonial heritage.  As such, many elements of the British culture still remain in the country, and can be seen in the local sports, traditions and cuisine.  Collectively, these elements seem to blend effortlessly with the native culture.  This “melting pot” combination of various cultures, customs and languages makes Belize one of the most interesting countries in the world to visit, as well as one of the most scenic.
 
Education in Belize
 
Education in Belize is free and compulsory for all students between the ages of 6 and 14—the years that comprise primary education in the country.  However, school-related expenses, such as books and uniforms, must be supplied by parents.  This creates a bit of a hardship for families living at or below the poverty line, and despite the passage of laws that threaten to fine parents up to $100 when children are truant, the country continues to have a higher than average dropout rate, particularly in the poorer areas of the country.
 
Public education is funded and overseen by the federal government, and consists of eight years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education, and two years of post-secondary education.  This educational structure is modeled after that of the British, and the two years of free “post-secondary education,” originally intended to prepare students for the Cambridge “A-Level” examination, now allows students to earn Associates Degree—a program of general education sanctioned by the United States Association of Junior Colleges that, for some, can lead to university admission.
 
Higher education in Belize is provided by several private and public institutions, some of which are comprehensive universities leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees in a variety of academic fields.  There are also a number of technical schools in Belize, as well as several specialty colleges where students can train for careers in nursing, management, agriculture and education.  Most colleges and universities are located in Belize’s urban areas, and while the total percentage of people who take advantage of higher education is much lower than it is in more developed countries in North America and Europe, the Belizean Ministry of Education is constantly striving to provide greater educational access by offering financial aid to those who qualify and improving distance education programs at colleges and universities.

Map of Belize

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