When one approaches a society with the intention of providing aid, a desire to understand it's complexities, and the motivation to invoke change and yet the necessity to accept their cultural practices which differ from ones own; one has to appreciate that other cultures are indeed extremely diverse. As much as we wish it were the case at times, spiritual, cultural, social, and ethical beliefs are not always shared through out worldwide. This quality of diversity then adds to the difficulty of applying fairness and consistent standards throughout the world. There are and always will be unique and specific forces of evil and corruption to deal with depending on where on earth you find yourself living.
In my particular case while working with The Batey Rehab Project (BRP), the phrase "having culture shock" could not have been more relevant.
The hardships that come with the culture and beliefs of most people found within the bateyes (villages) of The Dominican Republic, have resounded so harshly, so undoubtedly urgent and devastating, that I instantly decided that this mission I was on deserved my full hearted dedication. The desperation, utter abject poverty and human trafficking that is rampant throughout the bateyes must be revealed to the entire world so that the voices of the innocents who are basically prisoners there will be heard loud and clear.
In addition to these bateyes being blatantly devoured by poverty, poverty being the dire and complete lack of all fundamental necessities of life, food, water, shelter; these communities also struggle desperately with domineering social, financial, and ethical, ‘imperfections.’
During BRPs initial surveying of the four bateyes that we would be working in for the next ten (10) days, one undeniable imperfection resonated with me more so than others. The women of these bateyes all seemed completely destitute and resigned to their level of misfortune and pain. These women were living extremely difficult and limited lives; with limitations yielding any chance of independent survival, or chance to be and do anything other than a young, and I mean young, mother and wife.
My series ‘Babies Having Babies’ is a storybook and documentation of a selected 30+ women ranging from the age of 10-19 who allowed me into their lives to interview and photograph them for the sake of gaining an accurate understanding of the gender roles and cultural expectations of women in such communities, and to promote awareness and gain further relief and aid from those who wish to help.
The severity of the situation goes far beyond the issue of teen pregnancy and gender inequality. These women are seen as property by men. They are slaves. Their future if often decided by or forced on them by others; whether it be by their parents who plan on making money off of their misfortunate sale, or by the 60 year old men kidnapping them in the middle of the night. The element of cultural brainwashing that these people have endured, generation after generation, leaves me both devastated yet not surprised. You can not blame a ten year old little girl whose main mission in life is to find and marry an older, and I mean older, man and to have 1-6 children with before she is my age, (23); when that is all she has ever known and all she ever will know. When the fear of starving to death or being forced into prostituting yourself for clean water and food, exists, and when little hope of surviving by oneself, without a man, exists, I can empathize with these women for going through and putting up with what they do everyday. It is difficult to fathom a life without options or opportunities to make something of oneself, being the modern American woman that I am. The idea of not having any say in or chance to be the woman you end up being, is heartbreaking enough; especially so when your destiny is so grim.
Along with being sexual objects and their husbands property, they are constantly impregnated and responsible for taking care of a home and cluster of kids. These women and their children also commonly endure physical and mental abuse from their ‘loving husbands.’ I gained knowledge and sympathy with the women as a whole after interviewing basically every noticeably young mother I could find in all four bateyes. My interviews were not systematic or impersonal, but revolved heavily on asking questions lending to find out whether they are truly forced into this lifestyle, do they chose it, what all they endure, and why. Also investigated are the notions of birth control, contraceptives and abortion.
At first with each woman, I felt an insincerity in their answers, like it was just words being regurgitated with sort of a self conscious and cautious reservation in their answers. I often worried they thought I was exploiting or judging them, so I made an honest effort to keep the tone of the conversations light, cracking jokes and sharing personal comments and stories. I realized I needed to share and express my true intentions of my interviewing, and that their honest answers wouldn’t be used to make them out to be the 'bad guy'; and also that I would keep them anonymous if desired. I often felt like I needed to ask every question two or three times, and in two or three different ways, to get them to open up. Fortunately some of the women I met with did truly seem to be happy, or as happy as one could be given the circumstances. Unfortunately, some desperately pretended to be happy when I know I saw pure exhaustion, pain, and fear in their eyes. Some were numbed to the point of no return with blank expressionless faces. Some seemed anxious and scared, uncooperative. Some, wanted to tell me everything..
After many days of sort of circling around the subject, the unanimous response was that they were taught to believe that life is easier/better when married with children versus single and working. They were told that women are meant to serve their men and produce children and remain home until old and grey. That even when ‘times are tough,’ (which is always) having a family, meaning many children, is still normal, desirable, and demanded. The idea of having children, many children, that you simply cannot supply fundamental needs for, simply blows my mind, and breaks my heart.
When asked if they felt if the high number of pregnancies had more to do with men simply not being okay with wearing condoms, or with women using contraceptives, and yet still wanting to have sex, they said yes to both scenarios. I asked if this had a lot to do with most Dominicans being Christian in religion, and they said yes again. When asked whether they felt that their husbands were bothered by the fact that their wives and children were clearly starving, filthy, terrified and helpless, they said no.
I frequently asked questions regarding the accessibility and level of sexual education and ‘aid’ that is made available to them. I asked them questions such as, have you ever been on or wanted to be on birth control? Do you ever use condoms during sex? Have you ever been tested for STDS or HIV? Have you ever had an abortion? How do men view women that are using birth control? Are you able to get a supply of birth control or contraceptives if desired?
The responses were often that yes, they have gained sexual education by the age of say, 12-15, that other non-profit organizations have come and have taught lessons and workshops on the subject. That yes, they have known about birth control, condoms, STDS/HIV, and that yes they have access to gaining such supplies if desired. When asked why they have then chosen to not use any of these preventatives to pregnancy and STDS/HIV, they have responded with a range of responses such as, because I was told that it was bad for me, my husband won’t wear a condom, my family believes it’s a sin and against our religion, my husband won’t allow me to be on birth control, my family wants me to get married and have kids anyways, my husband wants to have kids, I’ll be considered a whore or unfaithful if I use birth control, having children is what I ‘should’ be doing, my husband doesn’t feel as close to me when using a condom, or thinks he shouldn’t have to, and my favorite, my husband has CUT OUT my birth control from inside my arm, beat me, punished me with starvation, and left me, when he found out I had been put on birth control behind his back…
Yes. One woman in particular, (image below) shared many of her nightmarish stories of what she and her two sons have gone through, and will continue to go through unless something is drastically changed.
She lives in batey Milton, which in my opinion was the batey in the worst condition out of the four we visited. She is sixteen and her husband is in his sixties. She has two sons and is currently pregnant (she thinks.) She shared with me, while interviewing secretly to avoid any men seeing me interacting with her, that her husband has a very bad temper, that when she ‘disobeys’ him he will lock her, without her kids, inside their home, (which is a rusted metal shack of a home,) without food or water, for two days. Her children are left to fend for themselves or are taken in by neighborhood friends, and that when he finally lets her out he will then beat her. This is the same woman who had the surgically implanted birth control that she had received behind his back, literally cut out of her arm by her enraged husband. This woman also has had one miscarriage where after being forced to become pregnant, he then beat her so badly that she lost the child.
Makes sense right? No. Not in a million years, or under any condition or circumstances. Funny how the young woman's mother also found herself in a similar situation, having had the woman when she was only fifteen, along with three other daughters.
Even more upsetting than a young woman being brainwashed into believing that this is the sort of life worth living; is when a child is forced and obligated to become someone’s possession, being sold or used as a source of financial gain. In the bateyes of the Dominican Republic it is common practice for parents to push the idea of early sex, marriage, and motherhood onto their young daughters. They see it as a passing off of the responsibility to take care of their daughter, and sometimes are even paid to sell them off, getting more for the ‘younger’ ones.. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl then I don’t know what will.
One family that I met in particular was exceptionally disturbing and heart-wrenching to B.R.P founder and leader Katie Godkin De Morales and me. The family has two young daughters in the age range of 10-14, both of whom ‘are up for grabs’ to an older man willing to pay a fair amount of money. The willing buyer is a man who is about sixty-five and very interested. So yes, they are legitimately selling their daughters, and sugar coating their actions in order to make it seem like the two girls are going to be better off or getting some sort of good deal. The man was most interested in buying the younger of the two daughters. The daughter agreed, given the pressure and obligation her family was putting on her, which then led to her having a mental breakdown, like any normal person would. Her older sister stepped in and offered to go with him instead, to save her little sister from enduring such hell. Following that arrangement, the older sister then too had a breakdown, which was brought to Katie's and my attention. Katie’s efforts and involvement in the lives of the batey residents is extremely passionate and extensive, and inevitably stopped this trade off from occurring. Although this is a wonderful accomplishment, this is only a minuscule victory that unfortunately, wont improve the majority of lives affected by such horrors. The only positive to this story is, "when at rock bottom, the only direction to move is up" ...
The following photos have been selected to give you visual images of the young women with whom I interviewed.
All photographs and journalism by Haley E. Varacallo,
All Rights Reserved by Haley E. Varacallo, and BRP.
If you are interested in joining the force of good, providing aid, taking part in the venture trips, or have any questions, please check out The Batey Rehab Project official website. http://www.thebateyrehabproject.org/