A couple of weeks ago I got to Skype with the women who founded Project Girl, the Dominican Republic-based, student-led initiative that aims to foster a safe sense of community and educational support for young girls and teenage girls living in the batey Lechería, an impoverished community resting on the south side of the Caribbean island. I chose the term “women” because, despite the fact that Sara, Jahaan, Luisa and Andrea are only just about to finish up their last year of high school, they have already, in a very sincere way, grown up to be impacting and contagiously confident women.
I spoke with them in the midst of their objectively busy schedules: all of them are finishing up their last year of high school, applying for colleges in the United States and the Dominican Republic, partaking in music leadership programs and volunteerism, leading robotics teams, all the while interviewing upcoming high school seniors to take their place in the directors roles for Project Girl. But beyond their extracurricular activities, they all agree that what brings them together is their shared passion for feminism, social justice, and creating sustainable programs that work towards equity. These principled forces, combined with what seems like their indefatigable ability to be giggling vessels of energy, are what drive Project Girl.
Sara, the director and lead-founder, says that Project Girl was an idea she’d been mulling over since she was in 8th grade. “In 2005,” Sara says, “there was a huge tropical storm [Tropical Storm Alpha] that hit near batey Lechería. My mother, who is a social worker, went there after the storm to donate milk and other items that the people there needed.” In the aftermath of the storm, which caused 17 deaths, Sara says is when she was first visited the batey Lechería. “And then in July 2014,” Sara says, “I spent the summer working with my mom on projects for women in the batey, and that’s when I realized I wanted to start a relief project for girls my age, for girls who were going through the same phases as me.”
Project Girl organizes self-esteem boosting workshops, sexual education classes, team-building exercises, and a summer camp for young girls who live in batey Lechería, and the goal of the campaign is to create a sustainable girls empowerment program within the batey, helping to lift young girls out of poverty through education and self-affirmation.
Bateys are small, densely populated communities of low-income families, many of whom are descendants of Haitian immigrants who have lived there since their relatives immigrated in generations past. Originally, bateys were communities of families who worked on the sugarcane fields. Since the 90s, however, many of the sugarcane fields have shut down, putting hundreds of families out of work and further marginalizing them. Luisa, Project Girls’ secretary and a native of the Dominican Republic, says it’s important to note that the residents in bateys largely identify with a Dominican upbringing.
Sara spent the fall of 2014 visiting the batey every weekend, meeting girls and putting together the numbers that motivated the project’s beginning. Sara found that out of the 1,360 residents in batey Lechería, 47 of them were women between the ages of 19 and 24 who had dropped out of school due to pregnancy. Sara also found that of the 105 girls who were aged 12-18, 13 of them were pregnant or mothers.
What’s striking about these figures is not necessarily that young women are becoming mothers at an earlier age than women in other countries, but that young women who are pregnant often have to replace education with motherhood. From my understanding of Project Girl, it isn’t necessarily that being pregnant is bad, but more the issue that earlier pregnancies change the direction of young women’s lives, altering future opportunities for education and fair placement in the workforce.
Project Girl is fighting gender norms in a big way in the Dominican Republic, a country in which machismo is normalized and often praised. The girls said that one of the most difficult workshops to lead was their “gender norms” workshop specifically for boys and young men in the batey. Sara said the workshop was “chaotic, initially.” “We brought one of our male classmates to the workshop to help relate to the boys,” Sara said, and Luisa and Andrea explained that it was difficult to earn the boys’ respect and attention despite being the leaders of the workshop.
Luisa and Andrea, both of whom grew up near batey Lechería, said that the hardest thing to break through was the machismo attitude they’d been surrounded by their whole lives. When they asked their male audience if a women could be the president of the Dominican Republic, the boys answered with an affirmative no.
“It wasn’t that they didn’t think [a woman] could be president,” Luisa said, “ it’s that they think women would be eaten alive by male politicians. The boys don’t think that women are lesser than, but they believe that women shouldn’t be messing with gender roles because of this strong machismo attitude.” Andrea followed up by saying that the experience was eye opening for them, and that “having a workshop with the boys helped to eliminate the notions that Dominican boys have of Dominican girls.”
Given all the workshops Project Girl has led over the past year, this powerful quartet agreed that the summer camp has been the best part of their initiative so far. The camp is open registration, and set in a community education space. The camp focuses on fostering open communication about gender, women’s empowerment and self-image. They work on team-building through dodgeball and soccer activities, which help to create a trustworthy space for supportive discussions about sexual education. At the end of the camp, the girls receive a diploma for having participating in the camp and the summer-time activities.
Earlier this year, the quartet presented their project at the Global Issues Network Conference in Rio de Janiero to a room full of eager listeners and global student activists – a major accomplishment for a project that began a little more than one year ago. It’s clear that Sara, Jahaan, Andrea and Luisa hope to see Project Girl – now a club of their school – continue on for years to come, providing a strong safety net for girls growing up in low-income communities who have less access to educational and economic resources.
When I asked the founders of Project Girl what kinds of changes they’ve seen since they started Project Girl as a club at the school, Andrea said, “It’s common to make the changes more dramatic than they are. It’s a long, difficult process, that’s why we want it to start as a club – so it will keep going.” It’s true, changing engrained gender norms and perspectives takes centuries of re-education and social development, at both a small and large scale. It’s clear that Project Girl began with a far-sighted vision to make small transformations within their local community. Luisa added, “there is change. It’s small and its subtle, but it’s enough for some girls to recognize how important [gender norms, education and self-empowerment] is; all of these issues are so engrained in [our] lives; I believe it was a enough for some of them.”
If you’re interested in supporting Project Girl, you can get in touch via their website: http://projectgirldr.tumblr.com/ or check out their Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/projectgirldr/) for updates on their ongoing workshops and projects in batey Lechería!