This is the third post in my #EYD2015 series – a project during which I visited five countries on three different continents in ten days, three of which I spent in the air.
If you’d like a little more background, check out my post about how it all began and my first three posts from the trip in which I talk about empowering women in Addis Ababa, fighting climate change in Tanzania and promoting reproductive health in Manila’s slums.
Today I’m here to tell you a different story. It’s a story of domestic abuse, fearless policewomen and Profamilia, an organisation promoting sexual and reproductive health in the Dominican Republic.
The situation in Santo Domingo partly mirrors that in the Philippines which I covered in my last post. The Catholic Church is very powerful in the Dominican Republic and its government, which makes modern sex education problematic.
Combine that lack of reliable knowledge with poverty and sexual abuse and you’ve got yourself a major problem. Teen pregnancy rates in the Dominican Republic are twice the global average. The country has the third highest pregnancy rate among girls under 18 in Latin America, with 90 out of 1,000 pregnant.
Pregnant girls are often too scared to go to a health provider because they fear repercussions. Their families and community are not always supportive, blaming the pregnancy on these terrified teenagers. I was told a horrifying story of a young girl jumping off a bridge earlier that month, killing herself to hide her pregnancy.
That’s why Profamilia is so important. The organisation works on several levels, from lobbying for change to directly dealing with pregnant teenagers, but during my visit I focused on one particularly interesting programme.
You see, I firmly believe that regardless of which problem you’re dealing with it’s always important to address its underlying causes. Why cover it up with bandaids when you can search for a cure? And Profamilia agree…
That is why I spent one day driving around Santo Domingo and learning about how Profamilia are changing the city by educating local police forces in dealing with women’s abuse.
I spoke to generals, policewomen and children living in the slums, translators, politicians and security personnel. I spoke to them all and despite the discouraging statistics I just shared with you, I left feeling inspired and encouraged. Why? Let me illustrate with three short anecdotes.
My first stop was Escuela de Grado Academia para Cadetes 2 de Marzo. Thanks to Profamilia’s efforts this police cadet training academy has included classes on dealing with anti-female violence in its curriculum and I was there to learn all about them.
From role playing exercises to field visits to ministries and hands-on case work, soon-to-be graduates are taught how to mediate anti-women abuse and domestic violence.
Most of the information seemed basic to me – the kind of thing that wouldn’t have to be taught in many countries. Think charts about single parent families and mothers bringing up children on their own. But as General Dipre told me, the country has to spend a lot more to counter gender violence than most developing countries.
Although the Dominican Republic is economically developed, education about sexual health and even non-nuclear family structures is nonexistent because of the Catholic Church and its strong influence.
No, it wasn’t the information that fascinated me. It was scanning the room and seeing how many women were among the trainee cadets. Women have been allowed to become police cadets since 1993, but there is still a large gender imbalance with three hundred twenty-four men and sixty-four women in the academy today.
But that is still sixty-four more than two decades ago – sixty-four women who will patrol Santo Domingo, reminding all its citizens that men are not the only ones capable of protecting them. They will inspire young girls to be strong and in charge.
And, hopefully, they will protect women with even more fervour because they recognise all the hard work it has taken us to get to a point where we are beginning to have equal opportunities – and just how much we still have to accomplish to find the perfect balance.
My next stop was a meeting with Roxanna Reyes, Attorney General for Women in the Dominican Republic. She talked to me about a new law called Ley de Special Integral which will improve the situation in the country while adopting a multidimensional approach involving civil society.
But, once again, what fascinated me even more was Ms Reyes herself. She is clearly committed to building a country that respects the rights of the most vulnerable, a group which – for the time being – includes an entire gender. Her drive and dedication saturated her every move and were truly inspiring.
Our final stop were the slums of Los Praditos. This was the only time during the entire #EYD2015 trip when I was accompanied by security guards. Ironically, I found having them there and seeing their bulletproof vests in the trunk more worrying than reassuring.
Through the lens of apprehension the narrow streets, the street vendors and the children weaving around them seemed chaotic and unnavigable. When a woman in a yellow top approached our car, I was certain she was about to tell us off.
How wrong I was! She introduced herself as Carmen Leyba and offered to show us around her neighbourhood. And when I say her neighbourhood, I mean it. Carmen is the boss of the Los Praditos neighbourhood association and a green light from her means a warm welcome from the entire community.
Do you see what I’m getting at yet? It’s simple. Santo Domingo has found the perfect solution – putting women in charge of protecting women, or even simply putting women in charge.
Showing that women have rights – especially linked to their sexuality and reproduction – has proven controversial in this strongly Catholic country. But who better for the job than an army of empowered individuals who just so happen to be female?
What do you think of Profamilia in Santo Domingo and the work they’re doing? Do you think that empowered women – like you – can make a difference in the world?
PS: Here is the full video of my journey!