by Noemi Plaza-Sánchez
Every time I think I have nothing left to gain from Calle General Sucre, I am proven wrong. This is the third time I have come to the same street, in the same barrio, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, yet the learning is more intense than ever.
In the summer of 2014, I was part of the first cohort of the Cornell Global Health Program in the Dominican Republic. The experience had me hooked. Dr. Angel Pichardo Almonte’s contagious energy and unending knowledge of natural and Chinese medicine, the love I felt from the whole neighborhood – it was all so exciting.
The following summer, I returned to the program in a leadership capacity, taking on the role of the student trip leader. Learning how to deliver a successful field experience to both the students and our Dominican partners tested my leadership style, and helped me to grow tremendously in understanding the dynamics of human relationships. In addition, Dr. Pichardo had started a center for gender studies, giving me a new arena to discover, one closely related to my interest in women’s health.
To continue my work with Dr. Pichardo, last fall I applied to and received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to work in his Centro de Masculinidad Solidaria on a project with teens and violence prevention.
Gender-based violence is of increasing importance in the Dominican Republic, with the region’s third highest femicide rate in 2013, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Femicide is the murder of a woman by her partner or ex-partner. Even more alarming, the numbers are rising. Amnesty International reports that in the last six months of 2014, gender-based killings increased by 53 percent. To put these percentages and rankings into perspective, in a population of 10 million people, a woman is killed every two days.
In a context in which machismo, or a perception of male superiority, has increasingly led to murder, Dr. Pichardo proposes an innovative approach to addressing gender violence: one that works with men to construct an identity of masculinity based on mutual respect. The center aims to establish a youth education program around gender equality, and my proposed research will be key in collecting baseline data for the project.
My research entails immersing myself in the Simón Bolívar neighborhood of Santo Domingo to get to know young people’s perceptions about gender relations. Do teenagers in the barrio have a consciousness of inequality in their gender relations? If so, what is their perception? What are their attitudes towards this perceived inequality? How do they act when confronted with, or even partake in their prescribed gender roles? And finally, what feelings do they have toward the unequal gender relations in their realities?
I aim to engage with young people around these questions through focus groups and participant observation. Being an effective researcher in Simón Bolívar means, in addition to formal interviews, playing street basketball, as well as talking in colmados, or neighborhood stores, and at social gatherings. Focus groups give me a chance to have more specific conversations with teenagers about their perceptions about the opposing gender. We discuss scenarios and pose questions, not only to obtain answers to the research questions, but also to entice conversations with teens as they consider taking action.
In the spring I will work directly with the youth to implement gender equality workshops and curriculum, using the research findings as a basis for the material. I hope that work with teenagers in the field of gender relations will bring a greater understanding of the roots of societal patterns that endanger women’s mental, physical, and reproductive health.
Through this research I am learning to understand the social aspects affecting and shaping women’s health, an issue in which I hope to specialize and dedicate my career.
Noemi Plaza-Sánchez is a 2015 graduate of Cornell University. She is currently a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in the Dominican Republic, and she has been accepted at Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University and the University of California San Francisco medical schools for the fall of 2017.