Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic—There’s a citywide blackout. No street lights, no shop lights—just headlights from passing cars. “This is just your typical Friday night,” Alicia Mendez Medina says, and a bodega worker nods from behind her. Alicia bids her goodbye and we head to Parque Duarte, the place many have described as “the it spot” for nightlife in Santo Domingo. She orders some wine.
“This country is a mess,” she laughs, and pours herself a glass. I can only see her cheekbones and her eyes, her back illuminated by phone flashlights from passersby. We restart our conversation, this time in almost complete darkness.
We’re located just under two miles away from the National Palace, where hundreds of women and reproductive rights advocates gathered in March of 2021—rallying for policy-makers to keep the promises they made while campaigning in 2020: to revise the country’s archaic penal code, and more specifically, amend the country’s total abortion ban.
The protests became a three-month sit-in, demanding for three exceptions to the ban, which would legally allow women and birth-givers access to an abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when their health is at risk. Quickly, a movement emerged and spread internationally as Dominican activist Gina Goico organized solidarity protests in New York City for Las Tres Causales—meaning “the three causes” or “the three grounds/circumstances.”
Almost two years since the protest camps, Las Tres Causales have not been passed, and penal code proceedings have taken a turn for the worse. On February 14 of 2023, the Dominican Senate approved a new code (which now must be approved by the Chamber of Deputies and President Luis Abinader) that does not contain the three grounds for allowing abortion, and also decrees that women who consent to an abortion will be punished with one to two years in prison and provides no protection against sex-based discrimination. Senate spokesperson Franklin Romero said that the most advisable thing would be to remove the issue of abortion from the penal code altogether in order to allow for its final approval—which has been a 23-year debate—as proposed by the Catholic Church.
Feminists and advocates across the country are angry and in mourning, especially with the ongoing case of 16-year-old Esmeralda Richiez, who was found dead after she was sexually abused and then given five abortion pills by professor John Kelley Martinez. Kelley Martinez, who is 19 years her senior, has turned himself in and is under investigation. Cases like these are common in the Dominican Republic, as 65 percent of Dominican teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 have experienced sexual violence at some time in their life.
Mendez Medina, who belongs to the Afro-feminist group Junta de Prietas, says there’s a lot more work to be done. “Even if the laws were to pass eventually, it still won’t be as simple and clear-cut for poor women; for poor Black women in the periphery and in the popular sectors. Women who don’t have access to health care, to education, who are isolated by their own families when they come forward about being raped, and whose cases are barely reported; and who aren’t protected or taken seriously when they’re raped by their own fathers. We have to look at this from an intersectional lens, because every situation is vastly different.”
The need for intersectional, comprehensive reproductive health reform for birth-givers in the Dominican Republic is dire. The country is one of six in Latin America and the Caribbean with a total abortion ban, leaving pregnant people to navigate a fraught reproductive climate, including a maternal mortality rate of 104 deaths per 100,000 births—almost twice higher than the region’s rate—according to a 2019 UNICEF report. Per the report, bacterial sepsis is the cause of 16 percent of those deaths, which could be prevented by access to basic health care, comprehensive sex education, and improving the quality of public hospitals, where 60 percent of births take place.
“It’s a deep, structural issue—a question of access, freedom, and autonomy,” Mendez Medina says. “Dominican women have been aborting on their own for centuries; it’s just a matter of being able to do it safely, of knowing about the resources available to us. We must work toward the construction of the idea that women are in charge of their own destinies.”
Antiracist Activism Is Vital to the Movement
A 2019 UNFPA report shows that, on average, about 39 percent of Dominicans self-identify as Indigenous or mestizo, 23 percent as of mixed Black and white lineage, 17 percent as Black, and 14 percent as white. But in the context of the country’s complex history and social dynamics, it’s difficult to statistically determine how many Black people there actually are in the country. At the national level, racial and ethnic discourse is nuanced, with several factors contributing to how Dominicans perceive themselves and their racial identities.
“Recent surveys have shown that Dominicans are about 82 percent Afro-descendant, but most Dominicans won’t identify as Black,” says Ruth Pion, social researcher and member of Junta de Prietas. “That’s an inheritance of colonialism. We have been taught to not subscribe to our Blackness and to see it as a threat, or a hindrance.”
This countrywide Black erasure—and Black self-erasure—is largely what prompted the launch of many Afro-feminist movements throughout the country. “The people on the receiving end of the worst parts of these laws—the punishments, the persecution, and the judgment—are disenfranchised women,” Pion says. “I think the fact that mainstream feminism doesn’t consider that means that it does not represent all women; just a specific type of woman.”
Aside from Junta de Prietas, collectives like Mujeres Sociopolíticas Mama Tingo, Acción Afro-Dominicana, CONAMUCA, Barrioalante, and Aquelarre RD are some of several grassroots, anti-racist groups in the country—all working toward the safety, education, protection, and liberation of Black and queer women and young girls.
Esther Girón, who cofounded Aquelarre RD with Brenda Christopher, never felt that her needs, and those of rural communities—which account for 16 percent—of the country’s population—were represented in the country’s mainstream feminist movement. She’d return from a protest, a sit-in at the capital, back to her home in Bonao starving, with nothing to eat in her fridge. “I’d think, ‘Wow, my fight right now is for existence, for survival,’” Girón says. “We do not have health insurance,” she adds. “If one of us gets sick, we’re going to have to crowdfund to access medical services.”
Aquelarre RD consists of 13 members throughout the Monseñor Nouel province in the central city of Bonao, and focuses on empowering their communities through “popular education” (or education in the language of the people), community workshops, and political activism and protest.
“We see many women taking the mic, talking about how they’re leading the fight for poor women,” Girón says. “But where are the poor women? What place do rural, working-class women have in the construction of this strategy? They say, ‘We’re here to speak for those who do not have a voice,’ but perhaps it’s not that they don’t have a voice, it’s that the feminist movement isn’t listening to them.”
A Dangerous Lack of Sex Education
“So, which one of you has received comprehensive sex education?” is always the first question Aquelarre RD poses when hosting a workshop, or visiting an educational center for women and girls, and the room falls silent. No one raises their hand. Some haven’t even heard of it, or know what it would constitute.
This is the reality for most women and birth-givers in the Dominican Republic, as it ranks among the highest for teen pregnancy in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is largely a result of lack of information and limited access to contraceptive methods, according to an UNFPA report. The country’s most recent attempt towards implementing sex education was in 2015, when the Dominican Ministry of Education announced plans to incorporate comprehensive sex education into the national curriculum and developed materials for educators and counselors.
However, not much has been done to carry this out nationwide, and students remain at the mercy of their teachers. As a result, barely 7 percent of students enrolled in public schools receive sex education. Even then, “it’s an education that’s rooted in fear of sin, and of punishment,” says Dr. Lilliam Fondeur, a gynecologist and sex therapist. This results in cases like that of Nicole Pichardo, who had to see a gynecologist to finally access the education she needed.
“I grew up with little to no sex education,” Pichardo says. “I basically had to walk myself through it. I’ve suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome for a long time, so when I was 15 years old, my mother took me to the gynecologist.” It was only then, Pichardo says, she was properly educated about her body. “Talking about sex, our bodies, and our autonomy is such a taboo here that I had to get sick in order to access the education I had the right to have.”
To help combat this lack of information access, Aquelarre RD sponsored the creation of a 50-page sex education manual to guide people on birth control options, period cycles, STIs, consent, how to identify abuse, and how to make assertive decisions when it comes to their sexual health and safety. So far, they’ve visited more than 10 educational centers in the province, and distributed the book to more than 1,500 young women and teen girls. This is only a small part of their multipronged cultural reform plan—a years-long strategy to organize, mobilize, and equip their communities.
Fondeur often works with the most vulnerable young women, and says that almost every single one of them has been raped. Perhaps by their stepfather, or by their own brother or father.
“A representative of an organization asked me once if I’d not been raped by my father, and I said, ‘That’s impossible,’ because almost all Dominican women have been raped,” Fondeur recounted. “If you step into this world, you’ll see that there are many of us. This is our daily experience.”
Fondeur says that resistance against sex education is an attempt to keep women disempowered.
“We’re taught that our bodies exist for the service of others—especially of men,” she says. “So we need education, because these are bodies, and these are our lives.”