The Dominican Republic is one of six countries in Latin America that penalizes abortion under all circumstances. For decades now women and allies in the Dominican Republic have been fighting for decriminalizing abortion through a legislation known as “Las 3 Causales,” which would allow women and girls to terminate a pregnancy under three exceptional circumstances: 1) In case of rape or incest, 2) when the life of the mother is in danger; and 3) when the fetus is not viable.
During his presidential campaign President Luis Abinader pledged to support Las 3 Causales and to uphold the reproductive rights of women and girls. But eight months into his first term, the promise has not been fulfilled. Since March 11, 2021, women and girls all over the Dominican Republic have been “camping” outside of state buildings across the island and in the U.S. diaspora demanding the passing of Las 3 Causales legislation. The unprecedented feminist mobilization is a response to decades of state-sponsored misogyny and violence against women. The rate of femicide in the Dominican Republic is one of the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Likewise, rape, abduction, child marriages, and penalization of abortion continue to violate the lives of Dominicanas.
State-sanctioned violence against women and girls is entangled with global capitalism—often through sex tourism and exploitation. Women and girls in the Dominican Republic are saying BASTA and The Boycott Times is listening. To better understand what is at stake and how we can support Dominicanas in their struggle I spoke to Dr. Esther Hernández Medina, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Pomona College and an activist in the women’s rights movement in Santo Domingo.
Dr. Lorgia García-Peña, The Boycott Times
(interview conducted March 26, 2021 / edited for brevity)
Lorgia García-Peña: Esther Hernández Medina, I am so grateful to have you with us at The Boycott Times. We’ve been following what’s going on in the Dominican Republic with the lack of rights to abortion and we thought it would be a great opening to our new column: “Freedom School with LGP.”
Over the past few years, we’ve seen in the U.S., and in parts of Latin America and Europe, a kind of reversal of the protection of rights of women, and women’s rights in general. Rights that our mothers won in the 1970s and that we, my generation took for granted. I grew up going to Planned Parenthood and thinking that was something that was always going to be available to me and to other young women and girls. Yet over the past couple of years, the rights we thought we had are being lost. And in the DR, the situation is much more dire because it’s a country that has never had the right to abortion and where abortion is actually penalized. Even forced when young girls are made to carry out pregnancies against their will, even when they’re in a situation of rape and violence. So, I was wondering if you could give us more context for people who might not be as familiar with the situation in the Dominican Republic. What is it that women and girls are fighting for?
Esther Hernández-Medina: The situation we have in the Dominican Republic is part of something that has been happening for many years in the hemisphere and across the globe. I was privileged enough to go to the U.N. Fourth Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing. I was part of CIPAF at the time, the first feminist NGO in the Dominican Republic. There was a huge Dominican delegation, both to the conference itself and the NGO Forum. Women were incredibly successful at that conference. For the first time on record, the Vatican and the conservative actors present at the conference were caught off guard. This was the first U.N. conference where most of the texts, typically negotiated months in advance, were still being discussed at the conference. What has happened since – and several people have studied this, and I think that we need to study it much more – is that conservatives everywhere have re-articulated their messaging and their forces. For instance, their invention of “gender ideology.” It doesn’t exist but is a concept that they have created to rally around in order to disqualify feminists and the LGBTQ movement in their talking points and policies.
In that international context, as you mention, the Dominican Republic is unique, unfortunately, in a very negative way because we’ve never had legal abortion under any circumstance. We of course know, based on the research and based on the terrible experiences that women and girls have, that these laws do not eliminate abortion.
Sexual and reproductive rights are not happening in a vacuum.
Women in the Dominican Republic, as you’ve mentioned, even in very extreme situations such as the woman’s life being in danger, or the girl or woman being a victim of rape or incest, or even the situation when we know medically and scientifically that the fetus is not going to survive; even in those three very extreme situations, the Dominican Republic is among only six countries around the world that penalize abortion anyway. Our fight in the Dominican feminist movement – and I say we because I not only study the movement, I am also a part of it – is that for more than 20 years we’ve been fighting to decriminalize those three difficult circumstances that both women and girls can find themselves in.
EHM: Our penal code is incredibly old; it comes from the 19th century, which is surreal in itself, right? Over the last 23 years or so, every time there is an attempt to update, to reform the penal code (a very important need for the country), there is a fight between feminists and their allies and our adversaries. We are once again in one of those moments, where there is an attempt to reform the penal code and we are calling attention to the fact that if “las 3 causales” – we call them “causales” because these are “causes” for exception – are not included then we are continuing to put women and girls’ lives in danger.
And what we are seeing in the news has been this camp. A Feminist Camp – El Campamento de las Causales – formed on March 11th in front of the National Palace in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It’s been there for many, many days and right before that camp, on March 7th, the demonstration for International Women’s Day was also about las 3 causales. The camp has become this extremely diverse and extremely beautiful experience. It has become a focal point for people who want to know more about the situation, who want information about it: Why are you fighting for this? Can you explain that to me?
Families, young people, older people, they go to the camp and ask the activists who have been there what are our proposals are. And people have even been bringing food, and bringing sleeping bags, and asking: what do you need? In the Dominican Republic, we make this very famous dessert called “Habichuelas con Dulce” during Holy Week, and people have been bringing Habichuelas con Dulce. It’s like: we are here, we are with you. And every day the camp has a whole program of activities about las 3 causales and about women’s rights at large. Today, for example, they have a panel of female philosophers talking about las 3 causales from the perspective of philosophy as a discipline. This is the moment that we’re living in right now and it’s an incredibly important moment. If the legislative branch understands the importance [of this moment], it can become a turning point in the history of women’s rights in the Dominican Republic.
LGP: Amazing. And what a great demonstration of feminist praxis; the act of bringing Habichuelas con Dulce to the women that are protesting. They are showing solidarity, even for those who might not be there for multiple reasons, to come and show your support in the most tangible and sweet of ways. I love that story. Can you tell us more about what the government response has been to the protest, the camp, the organizing of women in particular over the last month or so as the number of women in the streets has increased?
EHM: Part of the reason why the demonstration took place, and the camp was set up, is that the current government, which started in August last year, has not come through for the people [regarding las 3 causales]. El PRM, Partido Revolucionario Moderno (Modern Revolutionary Party), a new version of the historically important political party PRD (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano), won the election last year in great part because it channeled many of the new demands that people had, especially younger people. Let’s remember the protests that took place in the Dominican Republic in February of last year, right?
Just a year and a few days ago, there were thousands protesting against the former political party: Partido de la Liberación Dominican (Dominican Liberation Party) that had been in power for a very long time. Those protests were about many things; it was about corruption, it was about the traffic of influence. And in that context, even before the protests, el PRM, the current political party in power, pledged to support las 3 causales. They had aligned with the progressive vision of this problem because the research shows that when abortion is legal, at least in some circumstances, it is actually easier to take great care of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, not the opposite. Of course, you have to combine it with sexual education; you have to combine that with giving access to young women to educational and job-related opportunities. It has to be a more holistic perspective.
Of course, feminist movements all over the world, and in this case in the Dominican Republic, have been fighting for these things. Part of the disenchantment, part of the problem, has been that even though the president specifically pledged along with his party the PRM, which in the context of the Dominican Republic, is a very progressive party, to las 3 causales and to protect women’s rights, they have not backed their words with actions. And when I talk about this, because I’ve been studying the Dominican feminist movement for many years, and this is part of my research, I usually mention the story of Esperancita.
EHM: Esperancita was a 16-year-old teenager who died because she was pregnant, and she was also sick with leukemia and was not treated on time because the doctors were afraid of being penalized. They were afraid of the legal and professional repercussions of treating her on time. Her mother has become an advocate for las 3 causales and reminds us that Esperancita was only pregnant for a month and the abortion could have saved her life. She is asking the authorities: “How can you put my daughter’s life below the life of an embryo, of a fetus?” That’s what the discussion is about.
So, even though so-called pro-life groups – and I know this is the case here in the United States, too – call themselves pro-life; that is not accurate because they are not protecting the lives of the full human beings who are pregnant, of these women and girls whose lives could be saved. And by the way, if because of your religious convictions or because of personal beliefs, you decide to continue the pregnancy, approving las 3 causales doesn’t imply that you cannot. All we’re saying is, what about the women and the girls who decide along with their families and their medical teams: “No, I’m not going to do that. I am not going to put my life in danger”? We’re saying it must be their decision. Let’s not impose this on them.
We are very concerned because that pledge has weakened, to put it mildly. Members of el PRM, members of el PLD, members of what would be the equivalent of the chamber of representatives in the Dominican Republic, the Cámara de Diputados y Diputadas, are right now discussing the project, once again. This has happened many times in the last two decades. And instead of representing the rights of the entire population, and what most of the Dominican population want (all public opinion polls show between 70 and 80 percent of the population agrees with decriminalizing abortion under las 3 causales, under those three incredibly difficult situations) and yet, whenever the issue comes back to congress, the senate, or the chamber of representatives, the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations increase their pressure and make legislators change their positions.
This has actually happened very recently with public figures like Héctor Acosta “El Torito.” He’s a merengue singer, very, very famous in the Dominican Republic. He’s a senator now. He said: “I support las 3 causales. Churches should be out of this debate,” and a couple days later he appears publicly signing “a pro-life” document.
What happened there, right? What kind of pressure was exercised?
The problem is we have to understand as a society in the Dominican Republic that you may have the right to uphold your beliefs, but you do not have the right to make everybody else follow your beliefs. You can’t use the state as a vehicle to do that. And that is the fight we are in right now, once again. And I say once again because this has happened many, many times. And the legislators who dare publicly support women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, or that say they are going to vote in favor of las 3 causales, are shamed publicly. It’s not sustainable.
LGP: I was listening to you say the word “again” multiple times because of the historical repetition, right? On the one hand, we have a history of a so-called democratic republic in which the voice of the people is continuously ignored by the state because they are serving other powers that be, whether they be corporations or the powerful Catholic church. And on the other hand, there is this history in the Dominican Republic of women and girl’s lives, particularly women and girls who are not super-rich, being disposed, being lives that count less. The DR has one of the highest femicide rates in the Western Hemisphere paired with the question of not having the right to an abortion and trying to survive a dangerous pregnancy that might kill you. What are some of the other circumstances that are shaping women’s lives in the Dominican Republic? And then walk us through what the feminist movement has been doing to address the systemic violence against women that is condoned by the Dominican State?
EHM: You’re totally right. These two incredibly profound problems are completely interconnected. And they’re interconnected in the sense that women and girls are still considered second-class citizens, if they are considered citizens at all. Whenever you hear people defending a life that hasn’t even been born, being more important than the lives of women and girls who are in these very desperate situations, you know this is about more than the “sanctity” of life. We’re not talking about the right to choose. We’re nowhere near that discussion. We are just saying in these three exceptional circumstances, let’s not penalize women and girls even more. Let’s respect their lives. Let’s respect their dignity.
Of course, since abortion is illegal in the Dominican Republic, we don’t have the exact numbers, but there’s a relatively recent Human Rights Watch report that states that every year around 25,000 women and girls are treated by a doctor because of complications related to abortions. Another study by PROFAMILIA from a couple of years ago also found that two-thirds of female college-aged students knew someone who had gone through an abortion. Two-thirds of college-age students!
And also rape and incest, unfortunately, as is the case in many other countries, is incredibly common in the DR. The most important anthropologist in the country, Tahira Vargas, has said for a very long time, that based on her studies on women’s rights, but also in the rural areas and what we call barrios, the poor neighborhoods in the main cities in the country, incest is way more prevalent than we think. And unfortunately, it is very normalized, and it’s almost considered normal – maybe not normal but it is minimized – and people don’t really understand how pervasive it is in our society. (For those who might be interested, Tahira has an amazing weekly column in Spanish talking about these issues.)
EHM: Part of what she says is that Dominican society, in general, is a very violent society, which again, is counterintuitive because what is one of the most well-known characteristics of Dominicans? We are welcoming. We are happy people. We always celebrate everything. We are very, very friendly. But at the same time, the relationships between women and men, within families, between parents and their kids, are also incredibly violent. And I know, it sounds counterintuitive but when you see the results of her work, when you see her studies and her articles, she explains why and how all of that happens.
And connecting that to the link you were making between violence against women and abortion, in fact, from a human rights perspective, and many institutions both in the Dominican Republic and internationally have said this: not having access to abortion is by itself a form of violence. In fact, they call it a form of torture. And that should not be the case, not only because that is unacceptable, but also because the DR has signed all those human rights treaties against torture. So, they should not be torturing their own citizens.
At the same time, there is this cultural matrix we have in the DR that considers women’s and girls’ lives less important than men’s lives. So, even though we’re the third country in the hemisphere in terms of the rates of femicide proportionally, violence against women is finally on the public agenda after many years of work. It is finally considered a national problem. Just last week, FUNGLODE, founded by former president Leonel Fernández, was having a seminar on femicides. The Observatorio Politico Dominicano, the Dominican Political Observatory, they have femicide as one of the variables they monitor. Violence against women is so prevalent, so incredibly profound that we have at least been able to position it in a way that people no longer say, at least in public: “en pleito de marido y mujer nadie se debe meter” (in a conflict between a husband and a wife no one should intervene); which was the traditional way of justifying not intervening and not helping women who are in a situation of violence.
EHM: There is also this problem about how to monitor femicides because there are several different estimates. I just mentioned one that comes from civil society, but of course, the Procuraduría General de la República, the Attorney General’s Office, has a different set of statistics. Different actors have different sets of numbers. And part of what the experts have said, and here I mention Susi Pola, who is the most important expert on violence against women in the DR, is that one of the problems we have is what is called “feminicidios no íntimos.” Meaning, when a woman is killed because she is a woman, but the person who killed her, was not a relative, was not the husband, or the ex-husband, or anyone in their family, that is called “non-intimate femicide.”
Unfortunately, our authorities are not necessarily monitoring that part of the problem. So, estimates vary depending on which methodology people are using. Even with that, the general estimate is an average of 200 women killed every year, which is appalling. That is just something that shouldn’t be a problem that we’re still facing in the Dominican Republic (or anywhere else). But it’s a problem because — and of course, at the risk of oversimplifying what Tahira Vargas emphasizes in her work and Susi Pola as well — we’re a very violent society.
In the context of that violence, that includes not only violence against women, we also have this cultural matrix that we talked about, this narrative of women being less important. Women and girls lives being, as you mentioned, disposable. And that comes from the way we raise our kids. That comes from education. That comes from the media. That comes from publicity. And part of the problem is that people fail to see the connections.
Whenever you are advertising something using a woman’s body as if it was a commodity, you are sending the message to both boys and girls, to everyone, that women are objects. That is not the only factor, but that starts the seed of many men thinking [about] women as their property. And it’s so much the case that many of the killers actually say that to the women before they kill her: “If you’re not mine, you’re not going to be anyone’s.” They literally say that. That’s the logic of gender inequality to the most extreme expression. And that’s why all these different forms of violence are connected.
The Dominican feminist movement has been fighting for a very long time against all these forms of violence and it has done so through education, through campaigns, through alliances with people in the public sector (because a lot of people do want to do their part). I’ve worked in the state myself as a public policy expert. And it is not a problem of people being evil or people not wanting to help. The problem that we haven’t overcome yet, is for the authorities, for public officials, and also the public-at-large to see the connections.
A couple years ago the Dominican feminist movement was supporting the then minister of education in his work to continue implementing gender equality in education. And that received this huge conservative backlash. From their perspective it goes against their rigid views about traditional gender roles, but they fail to see the connection to femicide. Because many of those people, however, at the same time are against violence against women. But they don’t see the connections between that educational policy and the violence. If you don’t ground it in gender equality, if you don’t ground it in teaching everyone that every single person is valuable and that you don’t need traditional gender roles, that everyone can do whatever they want to do when they’re adults, then you are never getting to the root of the problem.
LGP: Wow, unbelievable, so much work to be done, and the way in which the girls, our girls, and our women, are facing and feeling the everyday consequences of that inequality, of the gender inequality, of the gender gap, in every single aspect of their everyday life, is hard for people to understand, right? It’s hard to really get how many of these women and girls are living in fear, in danger for their lives, and being denied the access to basic dignity, and to the ability to make a good life for themselves.
I wonder if we could expand the conversation and talk about LGBTQ rights within the context of thinking about women’s rights as well. And specifically, I am thinking about people who identify as women, as transgender, as non-binary or queer. How do they fit in the political struggles that we’ve been discussing? Within the political struggle of the Women’s Rights, and also the overall Human Rights Movement in the DR? I have been doing some work on the murders of transgender women in the Dominican Republic, which often go unreported and do not make national news. And they’re not accounted for when we think about femicide. So, how do you see these intersectional struggles? Are there alliances between the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement? Is there hope for legislation that would protect LGBTQ people, what are your thoughts on those connections?
EHM: That is a very important question because you’re completely right, when transgender women are killed it is completely ignored. Only a few activists raise their voices. We in the feminist movement are the natural ally of the LGBTQ movement. There has been a historical alliance between the two movements. But we need much more attention to that, you know? Again, going back to when we discussed earlier about women’s bodies, girls’ bodies seen as disposable, that is even more the case with transgender women. And that is a part, a terrible, a very perverse part of the violence that I was talking about earlier that is completely permeated by gender inequality and homophobia and transphobia that is present in Dominican society.
I’m dying to read Ana Lara’s new book about the LGBTQ movement in the Dominican Republic. The interesting thing, and this is something that both the feminist movement and the LGBTQ movement have in common in the DR, is that even in this extremely difficult context both movements have flourished. The LGBTQ movement has been able to put all of these issues on the public agenda, especially through, but not only, the yearly celebration of the gay parade. There is a concert and a celebration at close to sundown, but throughout the day, and it’s usually a Sunday in June, there is a mobile car parade. And part of what they do, and I think it’s incredibly powerful (and I know Ana Lara talks about this in the book), is that they go through all parts of the city; from the poorest neighborhoods to the wealthiest like El Malecon, the flagship part of the city right next to the Caribbean Sea.
When they go through the poorest neighborhoods, what happens is that you can see – and I have been part of the parade, so I’m actually remembering some of these instances – you can see people from those neighborhoods giving their support. Especially, and this is really, really beautiful, especially the older women. They are screaming at the top of their lungs: “Yes, you go! Yes, you’re beautiful! Yes, we’re with you!” and it’s such a beautiful thing to see.
People do understand much more than many of our authorities; that we do want to be a democracy. And that a democracy is not only being able to go vote every four years or every two years. Being a democracy means that we understand that diversity is part of being a democracy, and that diversity needs to be celebrated. It’s a positive thing, it’s not a negative thing, and it opens so many possibilities for everyone in terms of discussion about gender identity and in terms of discussions about how we can be more complete as human beings. If you think of yourself as someone who’s liberal or someone who’s democratic, but then you say: “If my son ends up being gay, I am going to kick them out of my house.” Well maybe you’re not really that democratic, are you?
I interviewed some of the activists of the movement, and going back to your question about alliance building and the relationship between the two movements, all of them said – and unfortunately I have not been able to finish that work – all of them said that they see the feminist movement not only as their natural allies, but also the movement that they started learning from when they started their activism. And of course, needless to say, many activists belong to both movements, right? Particularly lesbian feminists and transgender feminists belong to both.
That doesn’t mean the relationship is completely conflict-free because that is not the case; that is not really the case within any social movements. But historically, we have tried to support each other as much as we can. In terms of legislative changes, there is a proposed law that the LGBTQ movement has been fighting for that would address some of these issues. It’s still in congress and it’s about equality and non-discrimination, but again, unfortunately, many are still either afraid of being the target of a conservative backlash or don’t understand that it is also part of being a real democracy.
LGP: I have learned so much from you today. I am such a big fan of your work, Doctora Hernández, and I can’t wait to read your interviews. No pressure. But I guess I wanted to conclude with your hopes and dreams for Dominican women. What is it that you would like to see? Particularly in the case of state and legal actions, because as you beautifully told us today, we know the movement is already doing a lot, the people are doing the work. Now, we need the legislators and the state to do their part. So, what is your hope, what is the dream for Dominican women for you?
EHM: Now, we didn’t have time to talk about all the things the feminist movement has done in the Dominican Republic because it’s so much. But whenever I think about this, I think of a quote by Abigail Mejía, who was one of the feminists of the early 20th century–although feminism in the DR started even earlier than that. It started in the 19th century with the women who were educated by Salomé Ureña de Henríquez, the poet and educator extraordinaire. But it was Abigail Mejía who said that the idea is for women to be able to access a complete life. Una vida completa. Whenever I think about that, I also think about Angela Davis and her definition of feminism. That feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings.
That is what we aspire to, in all these years, in the very long history of the Dominican feminist movement, even though we don’t have the numbers that the Mexican feminist movement might have, or the Brazilian, or the Chilean or the Argentinian movements. One of the fascinating things for me is that the movement is incredibly resilient, incredibly creative, and also, and maybe precisely because it’s relatively small compared to other feminist movements in the region, it is also very international. And I don’t want us to end without emphasizing that all the things that we’ve talked about have been achieved because of this resilience, because of this creativity, because of the very strategic ways in which the Dominican feminist movement has connected to other feminist movements, and to allies within the country and outside of the country.
To give you an example, Quehaceres, the flagship publication of CIPAF, would be sent to feminist movements all over the region. Or to give you another example, the very famous International Day to Eradicate Violence Against Women that we commemorate every November 25th. That started based on a proposal by the Dominican delegation to the very first Latin American Feminist Encounter in Colombia in 1981. Feminist movements in the region started to commemorate it and years later the U.N. picked it up and now it’s this huge and very important commemoration honoring the Mirabal Sisters who were assassinated on November 25th by the dictator Trujillo in 1960.
The Dominican feminist movement has always been very international, has always had the aspirations articulated by Angela Davis’s idea and Abigail Mejia’s take on this. And by the way, the earliest feminists in the twentieth century DR always called themselves feminists. They didn’t call themselves suffragettes, which was the normal thing to do at the time. Petronila Gómez, who was also part of this early feminist movement in the DR, who was a Black woman and suffered a lot of discrimination, she was part of all these networks at the beginning of the 20th century. There is a feminist publication, República Fémina named after Fémina, the magazine that those early feminists had [and Petronila Gómez edited]. And we have this current feminist journalist, she’s amazing, Elvira Lora, who rescues a lot of that history and connects it to where we are now.
EHM: I mention all of this because it’s easy to feel despair because the challenges are so big, but there is this renaissance in the Dominican feminist movement, and we see it at the Camp. We see all these young women showing up over the last two years. We’ve had all of these feminist groups and feminist tertulias – and I’m actually the co-founder along with a friend and colleague, Yildalina Taten Brache, of one them, Tertulia Feminista Magaly Pineda, we named it after Magaly Pineda, the founder of CIPAF – that have helped a lot of young women get involved. And many of those young women are at the Camp addressing and calling our attention to all these challenges that we still have in front of us. We’re talking about Coloquio Mujeres RD, we’re talking about Tertulia Feminista del Sur in the Southern part of the country, Tertulia Feminista Petronila Gómez in Santiago, the second city in the country. There are many groups and many different initiatives taking place right now, and again the Camp is such a beautiful, magical experience precisely because it is serving as a focal point for all of them to come together.
EHM: I would invite those of you who can read Spanish to read the National Gender Equality Plan that mentions many of the challenges with specific ideas and policies to address them. We need to continue working to eliminate, not only to reduce, but to eliminate violence against women and girls, and when I say women and girls I am including transgender women. There is a lot to learn from Dominican feminist activists, and there is a lot that those of us who are in the States can do regardless of whether or not we’re Dominican to support this fight. So, for instance look up on social media #LasCausalesVan. Sign petitions. Write to the president of the Dominican Republic and the legislators through the Dominican Embassy that is closest to you.
There are many ways to be involved.
LGP: I am incredibly grateful for your time today. We’ve learned so much from you. It has been a wonderful conversation and I look forward to more in the future.
EHM: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.