Saturday, December 7, 2013

Ending the Silence: Domestic Violence in the Dominican Republic

By: Steve Uhlmann
Produced & edited by: Tim Tripp

The end of the workday is dreaded time for some women of the Dominican Republic.
They have done their job as caregivers, making sure the home and children are taken care of, but they still feel as if it was not enough.
Then their husbands arrive home.
They can smell the alcohol from across the room, the sign of another rough day. These women know they will be abused tonight, it’s just a question of how bad and whether or not the kids will see it happen.
Tomorrow they will do the same thing, perhaps run into some female friends. Everyone knows what is going on, but no one says a word about it.

Photo via

Violence against females in the Dominican Republic has been high over time, with 1-in-3 women regularly facing domestic abuse according to the U.N. The D.R. and the rest of Latin America have consistently seen higher domestic abuse rates compared to the rest of the world, and there is not an explanation as to why this happens.
Doctor Vilma Caban-Vazquez, an executive board member of the non-governmental organization Social Changes without Borders, Inc., asked herself the question of why it is happening so much in this region.
Her mother, a native of the region, was routinely abused, but it was not until she was on her death bed that she finally opened up to Vilma about the abuse she endured.
“I just felt like there were moments where we weren’t allowed to talk about it,” Caban-Vazquez said. “But in those final moments, my mom spoke freely, candidly about her struggles, and I just promised her that I would go on to use her story to be able to help other women break the silence early and break the cycle.”
After realizing there were may stories similar to her mother’s out there, Caban-Vazquez then put it upon herself to study the women of the Dominican Republic to better understand the issue of domestic violence.
In her travels around the country and talking victims, she found some theories about why domestic violence is much more common in the Dominican Republic than in other countries. It turns out that a combination of things provides conditions for this type of behavior to thrive.
“It’s the fear of disconnection and fear of being alone. That has actually so much power,” Caban-Vazquez said. “The woman feels unworthy. There’s this whole ‘I’m not enough’ contrast that is very powerful.”
Another issue she found was that the poor economic conditions found in the Dominican Republic put couples under pressure. This pressure leads to alcoholism, depression and abusive men taking out their frustrations on women.
“The primary breadwinner isn’t able to meet the demands of taking care of family, and so that sadly creates a whole other cycle,” she said. “Men are just trying to cope and numb the feelings of inadequacy.”
The biggest reason for all of this, according to Caban-Vazquez, is a cultural one. Domestic abuse is something that is passed down in many Dominican households, as children routinely witness it and learn to live with it.
“There are these mindsets that are passed down from generation to generation, and you get caught up in this cycle,” she said. “They see this aggressive behavior and the high rates around them and it really just feels like a normal part of life to many.”
One of the biggest challenges for Caban-Vazquez during her study was getting Dominican women to open up. Her first study that involved one-on-one interviews and focus groups drew just 80 women. She then knew what kind of obstacle she was going against.
“We were dealing with a vulnerable population,” she said. “The status-quo is to just ignore it, they are taught to hide their feelings on it. Once we made them comfortable enough, we got them to open up and made progress.”

International for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Photo via
Education is Key to Stopping Domestic Violence
One of the biggest battles for those wishing to help victims is the lack of domestic violence education in the country.
It was not until 1997 that a law preventing domestic violence was ratified, and even now there are many women who are unaware that being abused is illegal.
The Dominican government continues to make strides to make it easy for those who are being abused to report it. Records show that in the past year 7,114 complaints had been filed to the government-run Violence Prevention and Attention Unit. While that is a high number, but many women still fail to report cases to the organization.
Many non-governmental organizations have also stepped in to make sure that citizens know their rights and how to prevent domestic violence from happening. The biggest organization is PROFAMILIA, a reproductive and sexual health organization run by International Planned Parenthood, is a huge player in domestic violence education in the Dominican Republic. They run campaigns and education clinics throughout the country, and they are pleased with the progress they have made.
 The word is spreading, and Caban-Vazquez noticed during the second year of her study of victims in the Dominican Republic. Participation exploded from under 100 to over 800. This gives her hope that the culture may be changing.
“They are coming out, and in the audiences there were even men,” she said. “I think that when people feel that their situation is going to be handled with care, people will open up.”
The Dominican government has tried to do as much as possible to help combat violence against females, but their efforts are limited by many other factors.
“They are dealing with corruption, they are dealing with new administration,” Caban-Vazquez said. “There’s not a lot of support and funding for this cause and until we get everyone aboard, then there’s only so much progress that can be made.” 

1 comment:

Doctora Vazquez said...

It was an honor to read your article. The Institute for International Journalism is quite fortunate to have you on their team. I am grateful for change agents like you who are helping to break the silence and cycle of domestic violence for so many women in Latin America. I invite you to read my research blog to learn more about another research issue that I am working on in Morocco. I share this research journey with a fellow humanitarian and researcher.

You can also participate in a global media forum to learn how my recent trip to Morocco changed my life.