NEW YORK, New York — Women’s empowerment in the Dominican Republic is still a work in progress. Many NGOs and other organizations over the past few decades have worked to improve such conditions. As of February of 2021, U.N. Women reported that women held 27.9% of seats in parliament in the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, in 2014, 81.7% of women aged between 15 and 49 “had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.” These statistics about young girls in the Dominican Republic are why the story of the Mariposas is a legend and one that informs much of women’s empowerment in the Dominican Republic.
The Mariposas’ Story
Patria, Minerva and María Teresa Mirabel were just three sisters from a middle-class Dominican family. However, they stood for women’s empowerment in the Dominican Republic in ways that are still present to this day. The Mirabel sisters opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 up until seven members of the armed forces assassinated him in May 1961. Prior to his assassination, the Mirabel Sisters became revolutionaries as the three women were integral parts of an underground movement that challenged Trujillo’s harsh rule. They showed young women that they could have a voice and that they too could fight oppression.
In the underground movement, the Mirabel Sisters became known as the Mariposas or the “butterflies” after Minerva Mirabel’s underground code name. They worked until 1960 when the three sisters were reported as dying in a “car accident” where the car apparently plunged off a cliff. In reality, they were brutally murdered then thrown off a cliff to make it appear that their deaths were accidental. The government was silencing the Mariposas to serve as a reminder of a woman’s place in Dominican society. However, to this day, the sisters show how powerful women’s empowerment in the Dominican Republic can be.
The Mariposas Today
Today, the Mirabel Sisters represent symbols against gender stereotypes, discrimination, violence and prejudice. They are forever immortalized in the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is observed annually on November 25, the day on which the sisters were murdered.
As such, the story of the Mariposas has inspired many people with the hopes of bettering the conditions of young girls and women in the Dominican Republic and the world. One such person is Patricia Suriel, the founder and executive director of the Mariposa DR Foundation. Suriel explains that there is an expectation for young girls in the Dominican Republic “to maintain domestic responsibilities far more than young boys are and often at the expense of their own wellbeing and education.”
The Mariposa DR Foundation works to uplift young Dominican girls in the spirit of the Mariposas, thus aiding overall women’s empowerment in the Dominican Republic. Its vision includes education, empowerment and employment. The foundation works to support young girls so that they can escape the cycle of youth pregnancy, domestic responsibilities and all other issues that stem from the lack of resources afforded to young girls throughout the Dominican Republic. The program also assists young mothers, who Suriel observes don’t know how they are “going to get enough food to feed everybody” for the day.
Young Mothers in the Dominican Republic
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the condition of young mothers, specifically adolescents that become pregnant, stems from a lack of education associated with pregnancy and how one gets pregnant. Dominican Today reports that close to 50% of teenagers in the Dominican Republic do not know “how conception occurs,” nor do they understand their menstrual cycle. As such, most adolescent and young adult pregnancies are unintended.
In addition, the Dominican Republic has one of the highest teen pregnancy percentages in all of Latin America. The incidence of pregnancy in young people in the Dominican Republic is 25%. It is the third-highest percentage in all of Latin America, right behind 28% in Nicaragua and 26% in Honduras.
As such, education is a key component of the Mariposa DR Foundation’s mission. For example, the Rise Up Scholarship Program allows “Mariposas” to metaphorically fly into the real world by continuing to provide help and support to higher education and beyond. Inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerful lyrics in the song “My Shot,” the scholarship ultimately allows the “Mariposas” to “spread their wings” and fly. That way impoverished young girls can reach their full potential and be involved in their own global solutions in the future.
The Impact of the Mariposa DR Foundation
Living in the Dominican Republic and with first-hand exposure to the lives of the “Mariposas” who are involved in the Foundation’s programs for girls, Suriel sees how Dominican society and the norms it has established for girls impacts their daily lives. This is why she believes that the Foundation’s work for equity and security for girls is crucial, especially in preserving women’s empowerment in the Dominican Republic.
“To think that we could make this kind of a change on a little island in the Caribbean that nobody ever heard of,” said Suriel upon reflecting on the impact of the Mirabel Sisters and their recognition by the U.N. “It’s also growing… and it’s a source of empowerment to know that what [the Mariposa DR Foundation]does is important.”
– Rebecca Fontana