When you Google ‘Dominican Woman’, most if not all the pages that come up are representative of the fetishization of Dominican women. I discovered this a couple of years ago when La Galería Magazine rolled out our annual #DominicanHerstory project. Gender violence and sexual exploitation in the Dominican Republic is a serious problem, with femicide along with domestic violence being a major concern for contemporary women. Even more troubling is the occurrence of child prostitution. The statistics are outdated (UNICEF has some), but there is a crisis of Haitian children being trafficked as sex workers and slaves into the Dominican Republic, and Dominican children are being trafficked into Haiti for the same reasons.
There are groups and organizations raising awareness of all these issues on the island and abroad. Every year, for example, there is a gathering at the border titled “Annual Gathering of Cross-Border Networks of Protection for Boys, Girls and Adolescents” (Encuentro Interfronterizo de Redes de Protección de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes) which seeks to address this issue. I was also fortunate to come across Kafayat Juanita Alli-Balogun, founder and executive director of the Bel Esprit Cultural Institute, who recently returned from a trip to San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
While many nonprofit organizations have a top-bottom approach, and often don’t relate to the locals they claim to work with, the Bel Esprit Cultural Institute is hands on. Alli-Balogun shared some thoughts about her reason for beginning her work.
“Growing up we are oftentimes reminded of the things that we could NOT do. ‘Your dreams are wayyyy too big!’ ‘Where will you get that kind of money?’ ‘Who do you think you are!?’” she says, “As a result of consistent negative feedback, we have imposed limitations on ourselves and muted our personal power.”
Alli-Balogun says that we need to push past those thoughts. “It is high time to peel away those limitations and reclaim our purpose.” she says, “It is most important that the children we raise and teach know that they can do and be who they wish to be regardless of what their circumstances may have them believe.” Alli-Balogun says that as a woman of Honduran and Nigerian descent, it is important for her to do this work, from a personal level. “It is imperative that the remainder of my life be spent helping others reclaim this personal power. Our experiences mold and shape who we will become, but do not define who we are.”
While in conversation with her, she shared that she connected with the executive director of the Journey Center in the Dominican Republic via social media. The Journey Center is a transitional home created for girls between the tender ages of seven and 15 who were rescued from forced prostitution. Kafayat shared the work that her team has done in Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and she shared details about her work in DR. She made an exploratory visit to the Center in February to assess the needs of the Center. While there, she was taken to Batey Esperanza to see the community and to meet the pastor of the local church.
Kafayat is currently fundraising for her trip to the Dominican Republic. The Bel Esprit Cultural Institute traveled to Dominican Republic recently to make donations to several centers serving children, including the COGIC Journey Center, the girls are referred to the Center by el Consejo Nacional para la Niñez y la Adolescencia (CONANI)
While material gifts are but a small part of the solution, as policy proposals need to be enacted and radical changes need to occur in order for children to be protected, giving children who are experiencing difficult circumstances in the Dominican Republic inspiration and support, the leaders of the Institute believes that one can wage their privilege to help ensure that they are placed in a path become healthier adults poised and prepared to lead our country. If you are interested in more information, here is how you can support Bel Esprit’s work. Bel Esprit will return to the Dominican Republic this summer to surprise children in Samaná and San Pedro de Macoris.
From The Bel Esprit Cultural Institute:
San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic – On Tuesday, April 3, 2018, the Bel Esprit Cultural Institute surprised a community of children in Batey Esperanza with an experience that they will never forget. 275 boys and girls started off their day with a luxurious brunch of hot chocolate and toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. On a normal day, the kids would only receive buñuelos or oats with milk. This was treat! Unbeknownst to them, the Institute had much more in store.
The Bel Esprit Cultural Institute arrived in the early afternoon with backpacks filled with everything from school supplies and toys, to pampers and baby bottles. No one left the site empty-handed. The Institute later conducted a workshop with the children discussing the importance of focusing on their goals and dreams, despite what their circumstances may have them believe.
The Institute continued on to the COGIC Journey Center, a transitional home created for girls between the tender ages of seven and 15 who were rescued from forced prostitution. The girls are referred to the Center by el Consejo Nacional para la Niñez y la Adolescencia (CONANI). At the Center, the Institute presented its founder & executive director, Felecia Foster, with 16 backpacks to welcome the girls to this new chapter in their young lives. In each bag were items such as pajamas, underwear, art therapy kits, hair brushes/combs, journals and so much more. Along with the first eight bags is a handwritten note reminding the girls that they can achieve ANYTHING that they put their minds to.
The Bel Esprit Cultural Institute will return to the Dominican Republic this summer with sporting equipment for the community of Batey Esperanza, to replenish what the girls have at the Journey Center and to surprise more children in Samaná and San Francisco de Macoris. The Institute will also travel to Brazil, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal and St. Lucia to complete similar projects including health screenings.
Donations are needed and are welcomed: https://www.belespritci.com/donations
Here is more information about the institute as shared on their website:
ABOUT THE BEL ESPRIT CULTURAL INSTITUTE
The Bel Esprit Cultural Institute is a 501(c)(3) created to provide individuals, families and organizations with travel experiences that delve into the depths of the soul—combining the thrill and adventure of travel with sustainable local projects.
Bel Esprit provides meaningful service opportunities that engage with communities on THEIR terms. Programs include Operation HOPE, which provides children with the tools and skills needed to see past their circumstances and hold fast to their dreams. From August 2017 to December 2017, 900 children received backpacks filled with school supplies in Haiti and Jamaica. 400 children were surprised with Christmas gifts in hurricane-ravaged Loiza, Puerto Rico. The children were reminded to never allow their current circumstances to determine what the future holds.
This year, Bel Esprit introduced the Sol Goddess Retreat. The Sol Goddess Retreat invites women from all walks of life to destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean for the opportunity to reflect, recharge and emerge renewed. Each woman will have daily sessions of yoga/meditation, and workshops that focus on everything from spiritual nutrition and herbal medicine, to restorative justice and the art of mindfulness. All proceeds from the Retreat will go to the Operation HOPE program.
For more information, visit www.belespritci.com.