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Abortion in the Dominican Republic
Enter the Maternity Hospital of Los Minas in eastern Santo Domingo. This was one of the first hospitals Engenderhealth focused their attention on in the 1980s, and today the hospital sees one of the largest numbers of women seeking its post-abortion services in the country. With a little determination, DR1 managed to get inside one of these post-abortion rooms within the hospital. On this particular day, six women waited for medical attention inside a small room with three beds and no fan. The women were animated when they spoke about the hospital’s service. One claimed there were too many patients for the doctors to handle along with a lack of supplies. Another woman, the mother of one of the patients, complained that her daughter was hungry since they had been waiting for some three hours without attention. Unfortunately, on the subject of abortion, no one was as forthcoming. The women denied any knowledge of the practice, and no one would discuss their experience before arriving at the hospital. Whether the truth was being told or not is impossible to prove, but one aspect remains persistent. People who perform abortions in the Dominican Republic are considered criminals, who if caught would face a stiff prison sentence, or at the very least, would be ostracized by their family and friends.

Surprisingly, the Dominican Republic has one of the highest rates of contraceptive use in Latin America as well as the world, at 70%. This high percentage is misleading, due to the lack of sexual education, which means that many people use contraceptives incorrectly, ultimately leading to many unwanted teenage pregnancies. Take for example Santo Domingo’s La Altagracia Maternity Hospital. More babies are born here than at any other hospital in the country. 30% of the women who give birth at La Altagracia are minors between the ages of 13 and 17. Dr. Cordero comments that many Dominican women do not know how to use contraceptives properly. He says that they do not understand that if contraceptives are not used each and every time when engaging in sex, getting pregnant is a strong possibility.

“If the youth of our country had information on sex and reproduction in school, those young girls would know that if they have sexual relations with that boy from the neighborhood they’ll get pregnant,” he says. “But since no one wants to talk about contraceptive methods, our women unfortunately become pregnant… a high risk pregnancy that could kill her.”

Sex education is not a brand new topic in the Dominican Republic’s public schools. According to Cristina Molina, Department Director of Counseling and Psychology at the Ministry of Education, the ministry produced the first sex education manual in 1979. It was used by psychologists who then offered the subject at their respective schools. The problem was a shortage of psychologists, which prevented sex education from reaching each school. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Ministry of Education truly began to implement a structured sex education project. In that year, the “Effective Sex Education in the Dominican Republic” program was launched. This program trained teachers instead of psychologists in order to reach more schools. Mrs. Molina says that despite progressing at a slow rate, the program has been implemented at all Dominican high schools (grades 9-12) but it will take another two years to cover the elementary level (grades 1-8).

“We’re moving forward, but it’s a process… working with the subject of sexual education is taboo, a subject that generates a lot of prejudice,” says Mrs. Molina. “There’s a cultural factor, a religious factor, and a factor of family upbringing that’s being transferred from one generation to the next…it’s a big job.”

The Dominican Republic’s First Lady, Margarita Cedeño de Fernandez has implemented her own sex education project, called “Bebé, Piénsalo Bien”. The First Lady’s Office launched the program last May (2006) as a pilot at the Community for Learning school in Santo Domingo. The project lends electronic babies to students for a weekend so they can experience the reality of caring for a newborn. The program has now been extended to Colegio Socorro Sanchez, which unlike the Community for Learning is a public school in one of the capital’s poorer neighborhoods, Villa Duarte. According to Carolina Gordillo, Head of Children’s Projects at the First Lady’s Office, the program will be launched in both private and public schools, as all students deal with the issue of pregnancy, an issue where education should begin at home.

“We don’t speak about sex with teenagers. It’s embarrassing for a parent to speak about sex with their child so they don’t want to deal with the topic,” says Mrs. Gordillo.” Before each program begins, we hold a meeting to explain that this is an important opportunity for them to speak with their children about sex. We ask that (the parents) speak about their own experiences of pregnancy with their son or daughter because it brings unity to the family.”

Educational programs such as the ones mentioned are still in their infancy. Whether or not they help create awareness about sex and teenage pregnancy in the country still remains to be seen. The fact of the matter is that thousands of unsafe backstreet abortions are performed each year in the Dominican Republic. The laws are in place, but young Dominican woman continue to have abortions. With some 90,000 abortions being performed each year, the restrictions don’t seem to be stopping women from aborting; but instead force them to visit ill-equipped facilities where their lives are put at risk.

“What’s a woman who’s got pregnant four times going to do with four children, alone? Who’s going to take care of them?” Asks Dr. Cordero. “But since the country doesn’t have legalized abortion and qualified services, the woman has to go to some witchdoctor where they are subjected to all sorts of procedures. In places where abortion is illegal, it’s the woman that suffers.
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