It’s International Women’s Day! In Spanish, Dia Internacional de la Mujer. Celebrations and women’s rights marches are taking place this week in the Dominican Republic — the largest of which will be held this Sunday March 11 at the entrance of the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.

I’ve always felt passionate about women’s rights. I remember a time when I was volunteering with Women for Women International, or took up pro bono immigration cases for women with HIV, bugged friends for contributions to sponsor women who suffered atrocious gang rapes in the Congo, or sponsored an Ethiopian girl’s education for years through an organization. The thing is, I’ve seen how people’s lives can change when you lend a hand, however small.

Across the DR, it’s been a terrible past year for women’s rights across the board. At the same time, it has raised a consciousness and advocacy that’s stronger than ever. Dominican women from all walks of life are stepping up, speaking out, and marching. Finding ways to shape their own future.

In today’s post, I will shed light on:

  1. Current women’s rights issues in the DR;
  2. How you can help support campaigns for women’s rights in the DR while visiting, or from abroad; and
  3. Profiles of 8 of my favorite Dominican heroines —past and present — whom you might not have heard about, most of which are Afro-Dominican. Some you could even meet while you’re here.

After all, amazing things happen when international women support each other.

Women’s rights in the DR: The current, grim picture

Women’s rights have been on the forefront in the DR and on everyone’s lips, particularly since last year. #MeToo and #Timesup in the United States, and in the DR: #NiUnaMas, #VoyAFavor, #Esonoesamor, and #Tenemosquehablar. The situation is grim. Advocates, including the government, are speaking out against the recent, alarming rise of domestic and gender violence against Dominican women.

The fight has further intensified on another front: abortion rights. The DR Supreme Court struck down proposed amendments to the Penal Code and made abortion entirely illegal —regardless of rape or incest, medical danger to the mother’s, or a sign of permanent baby disability. It’s a giant step back into the dark ages (read: this Penal Code dates back to 1884 — the 19th century). As you can imagine, this decision furthers inequalities between rich and poor, and only increases the number of deaths from back alley abortions and pregnancy complications.

But domestic violence against Dominican women, in particular have reached chilling levels. According to newspaper Diario Libre, there were over 170 reported femicides in 2017 (another outlet, CDN, reports a higher number in the 200s).

It took a high profile case to put the issue on the national agenda: the murder of Emely Peguero in August 2017 — a case that gripped the entire nation and gave the impetus for women to raise their voices and speak out.

The Emely Peguero Case: #TodasSomosEmily  

For those who don’t know, Emely Peguero was a 16 year-old girl from a humble Dominican family who had been dating—for several years, it seems—Marlon Martinez, the son of a prominent, high-ranked Dominican government employee called Marlin Martinez (who also once ran for local elections). The teenage girl got pregnant and according to news reports, the boyfriend—who has studied in the US—and the boyfriend’s mother reportedly wanted her to have an abortion. Emely had refused (she was five months pregnant), and under the pretext of taking her to the doctor that morning of her disappearance, her boyfriend had picked her up from home and returned without her. When it was clear she was missing, her small community became vocal about it while he and his mother denied any knowledge of her whereabouts.

The case took front and center stage in the headlines for days (because of the high ranking connection, no doubt) while authorities and family searched for her. It was like watching a Lifetime movie unfold in real life. A hashtag emerged: #TodosSomosEmely. We are all Emely.

Emely’s body was eventually found, dumped on a farm and stuffed inside a suitcase. Her body revealed signs of torture and blows (signs of forced abortion, according to medical examiners in the news reports). The alleged collusion between the “rich” mother protecting her son to hide the body after the fact, and the other conspirators showing up in the case, including footage from that fateful day, left the whole country in complete shock. We were glued to the news every day for updates. We still are. The investigation is ongoing while the two main accused, mother and son, wait it out in jail.

The prosecutor’s office announced more drastic measures, following this tragic case, to tighten protection for women who report any level or type of violence, but it hasn’t slowed down the aggression. Ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends continue to assault their partners because she wants a divorce, or refuses to get back together, or moved in with someone else. It’s absolutely mind boggling.

The truth is that like much Latin America (and Africa), the machismo culture remains strong in the DR, and it is irrespective of race and class

Women’s rights campaigns you can (and should) support

As you can imagine, the movement for Dominican women’s rights is more urgent than ever, and it can use your help. Great campaigns are for woke travelers, too. Advocates for both abortion rights and those against physical violence have created digital and grassroots campaigns across the DR to confront domestic violence, change the abortion laws, educate women, and appeal to legislators.

Here are four women’s organizations, campaigns and platforms you can support to start, either while here in the country or following along from abroad.  

1. Colectiva Mujer y Salud — “Voy a Favor”

A women’s rights organization against the DR’s strict abortion laws. You can sign their petition here. And on Sunday March 11, if you’re in Santo Domingo, you can attend the Women’s March, kicking off in Parque Independencia at 9:30am and concluding with a big concert with great artists (like Fefita La Grande) on Plaza Espana. It’s unclear whether the concert is in the daytime right after the march, or in the evening — just stick around and find out while at the march, that’s usually how it works in the DR. 😉

2. Tenemos que hablar

A new educational platform on women’s equality in the DR in all aspects, including relationships and the workforce. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for information on their upcoming events and plans. For starters, you can head to Libreria Mamey today, in the Colonial Zone, for their special event featuring guest speakers on women’s rights and live music in honor of this day, from 7pm-midnight.

3. Confederación Nacional de la Mujer del Campo (CONAMUCA)

An organization supporting and empowering rural Dominican women, seeking to unify them and fight for their rights, providing training, awareness, and advocating against domestic violence. Get in touch (in Spanish) to see how you can help on the ground.

4. Women’s Cooperatives in the DR

Last but not least, an excellent way to support Dominican women, particularly in the countryside, is to sign up for a visit with a womens’ cooperative. Every cent of your tourism dollars will go to the women, who share the funds and profits among themselves, allowing them to earn a decent wage. Some offer marmalade-making workshops, others have a chocolate factory, and still others offer homestays and outdoor hiking experiences in their respective areas. It is a win-win for you and for them. Plus, Dominican women make the best hosts! I’ve listed recommended cooperatives and experiences in Moon Dominican Republic, and I mention to of my favorites below.

Celebrating Dominican heroines: My favorites

Now let’s look at the positive side and highlight a few of my favorite Dominican women who have played a major role in history, and those who continue to inspire today. Not so much the often-mentioned — like the Mirabal Sisters who resisted Dominican dictator Trujillo, or the famed poet and founder of women’s higher education, Salome Ureña. But rather, Dominican women you might not have heard of but should have, including a handful of Afro-Dominican women leaders, and that I want to highlight.

This list is by NO means all inclusive — the post would be endless. But I hope you learn something new, and perhaps even meet a few of the contemporary ones — listed below, starting with Juana Ferrer — while visiting the DR.

María Trinidad Sánchez

Image courtesy of Conectate.com.do

She was one of the DR’s freedom fighters, an activist and a heroine of the DR’s Independence—often forgotten and not as touted as the three men who are recognized as the Fathers of Independence. A visionary female leader who was born in Santo Domingo in 1794, Maria Trinidad Sanchez fought alongside the DR’s three independence patriots–Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sanchez, and Matias Ramon Mella—in obtaining freedom for their nation on February 27, 1844. She was even one of four people who designed the Dominican Flag.

When General Pedro Santana’s plans to annex the DR to Spain became clear in 1845, she joined a grand conspiracy to overthrow him, and was one of the first arrested. She was interrogated and locked up in the Ozama Fortress (in the Colonial Zone). Offered pardon if she would give up her co-conspirators, she refused to do so and was sentenced to death by firing squad. She was shot on the first anniversary of the DR’s independence, in 1945. Her last words, as she made her way to the squad and crossed the Puerta del Conde are said to be: Dios Mio, cumplase en mi tu voluntad y salvese la República Dominicana — Dear God, may your will be done through me, and may the Dominican Republic be saved.”

Pretty fierce. She has a province named after her, among other institutions and schools, but by and large, many agree that she’s a forgotten heroine and should be equally lauded and displayed (like Duarte, who is literally, mentioned and commemorated everywhere in the DR).

1. Mamá Tingó

She’s an unparalleled heroine of many. Mamá Tingó — there’s a Metro station named after her in Villa Mella, Santo Domingo, her hometown, for starters — was an activist and defender of rural Dominicans’ land rights. Born in 1921, she fought against the unlawful dispossession of lands from rural workers in Hato Viejo, Yamasa, during the rule of Joaquin Balaguer. Mamá Tingó fought tirelessly against corrupt politicians and the military who claimed ownership despite the farmers having been on the land and worked it for more than half a century.  She was killed at 53 years of age in 1974 by a disgruntled landowner’s employee, after she’d returned from a court hearing on behalf of the farmers. Mamá Tingó became a symbol in the DR and across Latin America of the woman fighter for farmers’ rights to own and farm land. Her real name is Florinda Soriano Munoz.

2. Tina Bazuka (Augustina Rivas)

Tina Bazuka — Photo from Fundacion de solidaridad con los heroes de abril 1965.

Can you imagine making bombs and fighting American troops to free your country at just 28 years of age? That’s “Tina Bazuka,” a young and valient Black woman born in 1937 in Dajabón.

Two years after US marines overthrew the rightfully-elected liberal Juan Bosch and occupied the country, Tina joined a group of fellow Dominican soldiers in taking back the country, in what’s known as the 1965 Revolution. She fought the occupation from the barrio of Villa Consuelo in Santo Domingo, and is known to have taken down quite a few American troops. She was tough as nails. It was reported for a long time that she died in the late 1990s, but actually, after an investigative search by an online Facebook group honoring the heroes of the 1965 revolution, she was found  alive and well overseas with no desire to talk about the past (because of all the post-revolution interrogationadn torture she’d endured). A forgotten heroine of the DR who deserves much greater recognition, and whose silence must be honored.

3. Magaly Pineda

There’s a tribute concert coming up tonight for Magaly Pineda and for good reason. A renowned feminist leader who had been fighting for women’s rights since the 1970s, she founded the active Centro de Investigación para la Acción Femenina (CIPAF). She passed away from cancer in 2016, at the age of 73, after battling it for 12 years. She was known to be an infatigable and visible advocate for more women in government and leading institutions, and for women’s rights in issues of pregnancy and abortion. She was also a professor of sociology at the University of Santo Domingo (UASD) for almost 20 years.

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4. Juana Ferrer — CONAMUCA

A staunch activist who has stood up for rural women’s rights and equality for over three decades. In 1980, she founded the organization Confederación Nacional de la Mujer del Campo (CONAMUCA), listed earlier in this post. Born in San Cristobal, she became an activist at a young age after noticing how poorly men treated women in her community, and how they did all the difficult, manual chores.

She has changed the lives of thousands of rural women across the Dominican Republic and works in numerous provinces. From forming leadership schools, to literacy programs and FAO-backed projects for cassava production, and promoting amendments to the Agrarian Code so women can have access to land ownership: Juana Ferrer is one fearless leader.

So much so, BHD Leon recently documented her story as part of their campaign on women who change the world.

5. Xiomara Fortuna

Born in 1959 in Montecristi, Xiomara Fortuna is a Dominican singer, composer, and activist known for her fusion music of jazz, with afro-caribbean religious beats like congó zarandunga, as well as merengue, son, and samba, among others. She’s also renowned for her contributions to Dominican folkloric music. She performs regularly in Santo Domingo, and around the country including at past jazz festivals.

On International Women’s Day in 2017, she was awarded a Medal of Merit in the Arts from the President of the Dominican Republic. The ceremony took place in the palace and she created much buzz and talk in the media by posing for the official photograph barefooted, next to the President. Newspaper polls revealed that most saw it as her artistic expression of freedom, while a minority found it in poor taste (no surprise, there are always critics).  She actually reminded me of the great Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, who would perform at her concerts barefoot, even in big venues in the US and abroad. That was her personality and she was loved for it.

But that’s not all about Xiomara Fortuna. She also founded and runs a ranch and camp for children and adults in San Cristobal: Rancho Ecologico El Campeche, which she describes as a place to come out and enjoy nature and experience Dominican culture. Unique events are hosted there on occsaional weekends, including mini-folkloric concerts. There are also camping tents, small cabins and a pool to complete the nature experience. I’ll be making my way there when updating Moon Dominican Republic 2019 (more on that bit of news in the next post!).

6. COOPDECI: Women’s Cooperative in Barahona

When you’re headed to Barahona for a few days, make time to arrange for a day in La Cienaga with COOPDECI to make marmalade with the wonderful women of this cooperative. They gather fresh fruits from the Bahoruco hills that would otherwise just go to waste, and make it all from scratch. These are hardworking, rural Dominican women who have also learned to take their own future into their hands. Their marmelade “De Mi Siembra” sell in big supermarkets in the DR. More details here. Profits are shared within the cooperative, allowing all the women to earn a decent wage and be their own boss.

After my marmalade-making workshop with the women of COOPDECI, Barahona.

 

Another great option for a similar experience, supporting a women’s cooperative, is this chocolate factory in the Puerto Plata province. You can find additional women’s cooperatives and women-run businesses to support in my Moon Dominican Republic guidebook edition.

7. Chef María Marte

Photo courtesy of Chef Maria Marte.

In Madrid, Spain, everyone knows Chef María Marte. This Dominican female chef holds two Michelin stars, and worked as Head Chef at the Spanish capital’s prestigious Club Allard for 15 years. She has rubbed elbows with all sorts of celebrities. But aside from her Michelin accolades, her story is what blows me away.

Born in Jarabacoa in 1976, she left the DR for Spain, in search of a better life, at the age of 23. A mother of three, she had to leave two of her kids back in the DR with her parents, and joined the eldest who was already in Spain living with his dad. Her first job was as a dishwasher, thanks to a friend’s referral at a restaurant in Madrid. One day, her colleague asked her if she had other dreams. She did: to work in the kitchen. When he told her there happened to be a vacancy and she should ask about it, she did. It wasn’t immediate, but she opted to work and learn in the kitchen while continuing to do her dishwasher job, pulling 15 hour work days. Eventually was promoted to the kitchen, and began working alongside the Head Chef. And the rest is history. Word is that she worked such long hours, she would occasionally sleep in the stairway. She became Head Chef in 2013. She’s a true story of working hard to get to where you want.

But that’s not the only reason she’s a heroine in my eyes. It’s because just recently, Chef Marte resigned from her position in Madrid after 15 years, and after winning the Premio Eckart Witzigmann a la Innovación prize, to return to her homeland of Jarabacoa —in the mountainous area of the DR — and use the funds, as well as some of her savings, to launch a major project: set up a gastronomy school and train economically disadvantaged, rural Dominican women to give them a chance at a career in gastronomy. Plans include eventually sending a few select best students to Madrid for six months’ training, but also traveling around the DR to various towns and find women to take under her wing and teach directly  from her hands. All so they can have a better future.

I just don’t have enough words to say how incredibly inspiring and humble what she’s doing is. I hope to meet her while I’m on the road for Moon Dominican Republic again soon. Wouldn’t that me amazing?

8. Angela Tavarez and Ana de León —La Fábrica Contemporánea  

Angela and Ana, in center —Photo courtesy of La Fábrica Contemporánea.

How about two every day inspiring, socially conscious women who make a difference in their own way in a big city like Santo Domingo? That’s Ana de León and Angela Tavarez (center of photo), co-owners of La Fábrica Contemporánea in the Gazcue neighborhood, a short walk from the Malecon’s big hotels or from the Colonial City. Their small restaurant is more than a place to enjoy delicious, Dominican soul food, cocktails and vegan picks. La Fabrica host all sorts of artsy events: poetry readings, open mic, art workshops, or free movie screenings on amazing Dominican women, anyone? More importantly, they are very vocal about welcoming everyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race. They even held a fun drag night last month.

I stumbled on their cozy spot three years ago, at the suggestion of an AirBnB host and I’m eternally thankful because it’s one of those places that’s tucked away and one you’d likely never know about unless someone did share. And so I’m paying it forward and sharing. In fact, I’ve mentioned them in articles and in my Moon Dominican Republic guidebook as well (they have a copy at the restaurant!).  A truly welcoming and affordable spot for creatives, nomads, and women activists, unlike any other in the city.

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There are so many more Dominican women I could list — they’ve hosted me on my travels around the country, fed me, welcomed me into their family home, or worked with me in a professional capacity and gave me amazing projects.

Salud y bendiciones para las mujeres Dominicanas, y todas las mujeres del mundo!  Happy International Women’s Day!


Do you have your own list of favorite, fierce Dominican women? Share in the comments. 

Lebawit Lily Girma

A former corporate attorney, Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for US-publisher Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize and Moon Dominican Republic. Originally from Ethiopia, Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–fluent in four languages, she has lived in eight countries besides the U.S., including Belize, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. Her articles and photography focusing on culture, adventure, and sustainable travel in the Caribbean region have been published in AFAR Magazine, CNN, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, and others. She is the recipient of the 2016 Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

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