MANOGUAYABO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. The scorching sun pulses through the veins of all people in Batey Lechería. It leaves their skin glowing under a layer of sweat. The streets are lined with trash. Broken glass bottles glitter in the sunlight and plastic bags dance in the wind. The earth muddies all the children who wallow in it. Colorful zinc and wooden houses shelter entire families of uncles, grandmas, mothers, sons, and cousins. One of them is home to Josefina, a laborious sixteen-year-old.
Josefina Ventura Pérez lives with her grandmother and her little sister, Maika. Her family owns a colmado¹, which she helps run when she isn’t in school. Her house is composed of a dirt floor and old green wood that looks like it’s fighting against falling apart.
Lechería, like other bateys, is characterized by a lack of infrastructure and dense population. “And the neighbors, you can say, are like my family,” says Josefina, “because when you live so close together, if you have a problem, the first to rescue you are your neighbors.” In Lechería, everyone knows each other.
A batey is a marginalized and densely populated village built around a sugar cane field where residents, mainly Haitian immigrants or their Dominican descendants, work.
Bateys’ origins trace back to the twentieth century, mostly during the American occupation of 1916. Haitian immigrants began to move to the DR to work in the fields expanded by the Americans to exploit the profitable sugar industry, working for inhumanely low wages.
Batey Lechería is part of the Manoguayabo sector and its origins date back to the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The exploitation of sugarcane in Lechería ended in the 90s, leaving residents unemployed and desperate, causing a subsequent increase in crime and violence.
According to the first census of Batey Lechería, conducted by Sara Torres, Elizabeth Raisbeck and Alexandra Shery in January 2015, around 1,360 people, making up some 360 families, live in the batey. Of these residents, 105 are adolescent girls (12–18 years old), of which 86 are studying and 13 are already mothers or are pregnant. 68 women between the ages of 19 and 24 reside in Lechería, of which 47 dropped out of school due to pregnancy and only 10 graduated from high school.
Josefina recognizes this pattern in her community. She recognizes that she and other teens are “too young in age” to marry and start families, so she states with certainty, “what I see ahead of me now are my studies.” She is proud as she says that trends are changing, there are many girls who “follow a good path” and “listen to their parents’ advice.” Josefina plans to work hard and never quit school, in order to have a good career and “be someone in the future.”
The narrative of a girl in Lechería is passed down generation to generation. It is one characterized by a state of marginalization that carries an emotional burden beyond physical poverty. Socio-economic marginalization along with strict gender barriers, violence and the prevalent practice of domestic abuse make many teenage girls feel like they have no voice, value, options or control. They feel stuck in the cycle of poverty and do not dare aspire to anything past it.
“I decided to make a change, not for me, but for the girls in my community”, says Alexandra Shery García, who at merely seventeen is already a vibrant leader in the community. She explains that growing up in Lechería “is tough.” Seeing girls her age get pregnant, abandon their homes and studies, she realized it was necessary to lead by example. She recalls how what she lived through with her sister was a deciding factor. Her sister would leave the house behind her grandma’s back to go out, which resulted in “very ugly” beatings on behalf of their grandma. After an incident, Alexandra’s sister decided to move out of the house, and soon after, she became pregnant. “When she was seventeen”, Alexandra explains, “my sister had her first baby and she didn’t even have a place to live.” For this reason she desperately married a man who turned out to be an addict who would spend most of their money on drugs, leaving them with barely anything to eat; all with a second baby already in the picture. “I have a desire to travel, explore and meet people; I wouldn’t be able to do any of that with a baby,” Alexandra confesses. “My sister could barely leave the house for an activity.”
But Alexandra already notices changes in process, she explains, “there are more opportunities to do with your life what you plan to do with it.” With a variety of workshops and classes available, it’s now easier to find a job. Alexandra notes, “Lately, there are fewer girls getting pregnant.” Some of the organizations collaborating with Lechería are Fé y Alegría, Café con Leche, USAID’s Alerta Joven and Project Girl DR.
It’s a typical summer day. Children run and play, their bare feet trotting on the damp earth. They rest on tires that serve as benches in the park. Babies walk around naked, dry boogers decorate their smiling faces. Under the shade of an old tree, girls weave their hair into elaborate, colorful braids. Alexandra and her cousin, Eliana Shery Ramírez, walk together down the street. Eliana tells her that she’s going to the movies with the girls’ soccer team that she’s a part of. The team creates union, passion, pride and motivation among the youth in Lechería. As she talks about soccer, Eliana’s eyes glow with excitement and hope.
Girls like Josefina, Alexandra and Eliana know they hold unparalleled value. This is not something common in Lechería, where until a few years ago it was normal to stay home washing, cleaning and cooking, getting pregnant at 15 and not aspiring for anything else. Alexandra claims that the difference between their generation and those of the past is that now girls have information and control. “My aunts couldn’t decide anything about their lives”, Alexandra proclaims, “Grandma would tell them, ‘you’re marrying this guy’ or ‘you have to stop studying to take care of your siblings.’” One of her aunts was married off at seventeen to a man who was fifteen years older. Alexandra says, “apart from the fact that she didn’t like him, she also had to endure his abusive behavior.” By living through these experiences and being exposed to her aunt’s sadness, Alexandra knew something had to change. Girls like Alexandra, Eliana and Josefina, who know their value, aspire to break the pattern; they’re agents of change for a village stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty.
The generational poverty that affects bateys such as Lechería cannot be solved with quick, material fixes such as money and donations. To believe that is to be ignorant of the human essence that characterizes this poverty. Social injustices will not be overcome without addressing their emotional and social causes. Girls like Josefina, Alexandra and Eliana must be empowered, so that they may understand and assert their value, thus giving them the strength to rise.
Project Girl DR was created based on that philosophy. Project Girl is an organization led by high-school students in the Carol Morgan School of Santo Domingo. Josefina, Alexandra and Eliana are all part of this program.
The project originated at the beginning of 2015, when after conducting the first census of Lechería, Sara Torres, an eighteen-year-old girl, noticed the prevalence of girls her age who get pregnant and drop out of school. She decided that, with the help of Alexandra, she’d lead an educational workshop for teenage girls between the ages of 12 and 18 at a community center in Lechería. This workshop marked the beginning of a movement.
In the next workshops, eighteen-year-olds Andrea Vega and Luisa Estrella, the other founders of Project Girl, joined to help lead them. Together, the three managed to cultivate friendships with the girls in Lechería and provide a wide range of educational opportunities throughout the school year.
Summer came and they decided to extend and intensify the program. Together they created a five-week camp with an original curriculum. It was composed of English lessons, sex education, teamwork activities, fun and cultural field trips, talks and workshops conducted by professionals, and conversations led by themselves on topics such as relationships and self-esteem.
Project Girl’s mission is to empower teenage girls in Batey Lecheria to break the cycle of poverty and begin a movement toward change in their community by providing educational and emotional opportunities, so that they may rise together.
Project Girl is now established as a community service club at the Carol Morgan School, with about 20 volunteers. They conduct workshops every two weeks throughout the school year, touching topics ranging from sex education to robotics to health and self-esteem. They recently finished up their second summer camp, which included a program for girls aged 8–12, and another for adolescents aged 13–18. Francesca Maglione, Camila Pozo, Teresa Mella and Mario Gamundi, four teenagers from the Carol Morgan School, will lead the project this incoming school year. This way sustainability is ensured.
It’s just another Wednesday, the girls in Lechería interrupt their morning of cleaning, washing, cooking and taking care of kids to dedicate a bit of time to themselves. Skipping over puddles they arrive to the community center and find themselves in a sea of braids, curls, tubis² and smiles. Today, the Project Girl workshop will be led by Elaine Féliz, guest speaker and sex educator, who came to give a talk about having a ‘life project’. At one point, Elaine asks the girls to repeat a phrase out loud. They proclaimed, full of emotion, “I was born to be happy. I was born to be prosperous.”
In short, Project Girl’s vision is to create a safe space, of trust and friendship, in which a teenage girl can grow, learn her value, continue her studies and then leave to break the pattern. With its values of collaboration, empowerment, equity and empathy, Project Girl and the girls in Lechería are breaking barriers.
Originally published in spanish at Diario Libre on July 31st, 2016.