Marcia Gonzalez, a church activities coordinator was playing hookey from the visit of a bishop to confirm children and was instead teaching sex education at a local school, something she saw as even more important.
“I coordinate activities at the church, and my husband is a deacon,” González said. “The bishop comes once a year, and children are being confirmed, but I am here because this is important for my community.”
For 40 years, Gonzalez and her husband have pushed for broader sex education in the Dominican Republic, one of four Latin American nations that criminalizes abortion without exceptions. Women face up to two years in prison for having an abortion; penalties for doctors or midwives range from five to 20 years.
With a Bible on its flag, the Caribbean country has a powerful lobby of Catholics and evangelicals who are united against decriminalizing abortion.
President Luis Abinader committed to the decriminalization of abortion as a candidate in 2020, but his government hasn’t acted on that pledge. For now, it depends on whether he is reelected in May.
To help girls prevent unplanned pregnancies in this context, Gonzalez and other activists have developed “teenage clubs,” where adolescents learn about sexual and reproductive rights, self-esteem, gender violence, finances and other topics. The goal is to empower future generations of Dominican women.
Outside the clubs, sex education is often insufficient, according to activists. Close to 30% of adolescents don’t have access to contraception. High poverty levels increase the risk of facing an unwanted pregnancy.
For the teenagers she mentors, Gonzalez’s concerns also go beyond the impossibility of terminating a pregnancy.
According to activists, poverty forces some Dominican mothers to marry their 14- or 15-year-old daughters to men up to 50 years older. Nearly 7 out of 10 women suffer from gender violence such as incest, and families often remain silent regarding sexual abuse.
For every 1,000 adolescents between 15 and 19, 42 became mothers in 2023, according to the United Nations Population Fund. And until 2019, when UNICEF published its latest report on child marriage, more than a third of Dominican women married or entered a free union before turning 18.
Dominican laws have prohibited child marriage since 2021, but community leaders say that such unions are still common because the practice has been normalized and few people are aware of the new law.
“In my 14-year-old granddaughter’s class, two of her younger friends are already married,” Gonzalez said. “Many mothers give the responsibility of their younger children to their older daughters so, instead of taking care of little boys, they run away with a husband.”
Activists hope education can help prevent girls from facing this situation.
“There are myths that people tell you when you have your period,” said Gabriela Díaz, 16, during a recent encounter organized by the Women’s Equality Center. “They say that we are dirty or we have dirty blood, but that is false. We are helping our body to clean itself and improve its functions.”
Díaz calls Gonzalez “godmother,” a term applied by Plan International to community leaders who implement the programs of this U.K.-based organization, which promotes children’s rights.
According to its own data, San Cristóbal and Azua, where González lives, are the Dominican cities with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and child marriage.
To address this, its clubs accept girls between 13 and 17. Each group meets two hours per week, welcomes up to 25 participants and is led by volunteers like González.
In San Cristobal, also in southern Dominican Republic, the National Confederation of Rural Women, or CONAMUCA, sponsors teenage clubs of its own.
“CONAMUCA was born to fight for land ownership, but the landscape has changed, and we have integrated new issues, such as food sovereignty, agrarian reform, and sexual and reproductive rights,” said Lidia Ferrer, one of its leaders.
Its clubs gather 1,600 girls in 60 communities, Ferrer said. The topics they study vary from region to region, but among the recurring ones are adolescent pregnancy, early unions and feminicide.
“The starting point is our own reality,” said Kathy Cabrera, who joined CONAMUCA clubs at age 9 and two decades later takes new generations under her wing. “It’s how we live and suffer.”
Migration is increasingly noticeable in rural areas, Cabrera said. Women are forced to walk for miles to attend school or find water, and health services fail in guaranteeing their sexual and reproductive rights.
“We have a government that tells you ‘Don’t have an abortion’ but does not provide the necessary contraception to avoid it.”
She has witnessed how 13-year-old girls bear the children of 65-year-old men while neither families nor authorities seem to be concerned. On other occasions, she said, parents “give away” their daughters because they cannot support them or because they discover that they are no longer virgins.
“It’s not regarded as sexual abuse because, if my grandmother got pregnant and married at an early age, and my great-grandmother too and my mother too, then it means I should too,” Cabrera said.
In southern Dominican communities, most girls can relate to this, or know someone who does.
“My sister got pregnant at 16, and that was very disturbing,” said 14-year-old Laura Perez. “She got together with a person much older than her, and they have a baby. I don’t think that was right.”
The clubs’ dynamics change as needed to create safe and loving environments for girls to share what they feel. Some sessions kick off with relaxation exercises and others with games.
Some girls speak proudly of what they have learned. One of them mentioned she confronted her father when he said she shouldn’t cut any lemons from a tree while menstruating. Another said that her friends always go to the bathroom in groups, to avoid safety risks. They all regard their godmothers as mentors who have their backs.
“They call me to confide everything,” Gonzalez said. “I am happy because, in my group, no girl has become pregnant.”
Many girls from teenage clubs have dreams they want to follow. Francesca Montero, 16, would like to become a pediatrician. Perla Infante, 15, a psychologist. Lomeli Arias, 18, a nurse.
“I want to be a soldier!” shouted Laura Perez, the 14-year-old who wants to be careful not to following her sister’s footsteps.
“I was undecided, but when I entered CONAMUCA, I knew I wanted to become a soldier. In here we see all these women who give you strength, who are like you, but as a guide,” Perez said. “It’s like a child seeing an older person and thinking: ‘When I grow up, I want to be like that.'”