The Dominican Republic is a popular destination for many international travelers for its calm sandy beaches and trendy resorts. What many do not know, however, is that the nation is one of many in Latin America where violence against women runs rampant and is on the rise.

The problem is exacerbated by the belief that machismo – that peculiarly Latin American brand of misogyny – and the subjugation of women is just part of the culture. "[W]e need to acknowledge that these forms of violence come from social differences in power and from male ideologies that sustain these differences … and subordinate women," according to sociologist Denise Paiewonsky.

Women in the Dominican Republic are vulnerable to violence and abuse thanks, in part, to their status in society. In employment, participation in the workforce is 50.5%, compared to 79.8% of men (pdf), and the unemployment rates of women are double that of men, 23%, compared to 10% (pdf). Additionally, women make 44% less than what men earn for equal work, and regardless of whatever rule is on the books, employers are known to mandate pregnancy tests as part of a pre-hire medical examination and decline women whose tests are positive.

This economic disparity puts women in a vulnerable position because it renders them powerless and, in an abusive situation, complicates the process of leaving. Add to that, decades of uncriminalized domestic violence, and the belief that this is simply how things are becomes ingrained.

"It is common in our community to hit women. It is a tradition," said Lourdes, a 60-year-old housewife who was abused by her husband for over two decades. That tradition became well-established, since the island – which declared its independence from Spain in 1865 – did not pass its first law concerning domestic abuse until 1997. Even so, what's on the statutes does not necessarily translate to what gets enforced.

With a population of about 10 million, gender-based violence is the fourth leading cause of death among women in the Dominican Republic. In the span of six years, 1,383 women and girls were killed – 783 at the hands of a current or former partner. But, according to the NGO Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights (Cladem), of 10,000 complaints in 2010, just "476 cases of violence against women received judgment, with only 66 convicted offenders." What's more, 80% of those killed had not previously filed a complaint with law enforcement – suggesting women's lack of trust in the system, or knowledge about the availability of resources to get help.

It's really no surprise when, as reported by Amnesty International (pdf), the agencies meant to help these women are either ill-equipped, strained, or simply do not take domestic abuse seriously. The Office of the Prosecutor General is in charge of units meant to provide assistance to victims of domestic violence, but at present, there are only 15 in the country's 31 provinces (and they are primarily stationed in urban areas).

While these centers have received a high level of calls for help – in 2011 alone, they logged over 60,000 complaints – they are hardly prepared to respond to that kind of volume, given the inadequacy of their methods of evaluation and programming (hardly shocking, considering they receive little financial help from government). There's also the matter of whether those who work at the centers are properly trained to handle victims of abuse. Deputy Attorney General Roxana Reyes admits that police and others in the criminal justice system are ignorant about the severity of domestic abuse, harboring cultural prejudices that lead to blaming the victim.

On top of all this, Dominican lawmakers are considering a proposal that would ease punishments for violence against women. The proposed billwould eliminate certain provisions from the law enacted in 1997, in particular, the actual offense of "gender violence".

There is also the Akin-Ryan-style "forcible rape" provision that only considers domestic violence a serious offense – punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 years – when it has resulted in death or injury lasting more than 90 days. As the law stands, it determines the severity of the crime pertaining to the circumstances, such as whether it took place in the presence of children, or whether the aggressor was armed. Essentially, the punishment for the crime is determined by an assessment of the actions taken by the aggressor – not by the physical harm caused to the victim.

Fifty-two years ago, on 25 November, three sisters were brutally killed for standing up to the Dominican Republic's ruthless dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The Mirabal sisters, las mariposas inolvidables ("the unforgettable butterflies"), have the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women dedicated in their honor. Yet, the region in which their murders took place continues to see women killed and subjugated. While recent years have seen a rise in women's groups' efforts, and thoughthere has been public outcry over the aforementioned proposed law, there is still much work to be done on the island. The first step being a change of attitude:

"[F]or many years I thought that her murder was her own fault because she was stupid for choosing him," said Rosmary, whose mother was murdered by her father. "I was asked about what had happened, 'why did he kill her?' But there is no why. The question itself is wrongly constructed."


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