Marcelina González (Bélgica) and Martina Cabrera (Marta) consider themselves ‘sisters in unity’, because they have been ‘celebrating the good and fighting to change the bad’ for more than a decade in their local community; the Cuesta Linda neighbourhood of the Santo Domingo Norte municipality.  This spirit of cooperation and team work has lead them to the forefront of the Colectiva de Mujeres Organizadas (Organised Women's Collective), where they both serve as Secretary and Treasurer, and where women from seven of the municipality's neighbourhoods meet every Thursday to make themselves visible and participate in the city they long for.   

The local authority of Santo Domingo Norte, where both women live, is one of 40 pilot municipalities where the project 'Active Citizenship for Transparent and Inclusive Local Management' (PASCAL) is being undertaken. The project has been co-funded by the European Union's Dominican Republic Delegation. The project has been implemented by a consortium of ten national and international organisations, among them Ciudad Alternativa, Progressio's partner, to promote local governments that are more transparent and receptive to the social needs of residents through strengthening citizen participation in decision-making processes. 

To achieve this objective, the project plan includes three areas of intervention: 1) citizen training 2) social audit and 3) coordination between community networks. To achieve this, in June 2015, seamstress and sewing teacher Bélgica and health promoter Marta, attended training workshops to understand the responsibilities of the Governing Council, the importance of attending open council meetings to gain an understanding of how the municipality's affairs are managed, the duty of the local authority to implement policies with a focus on gender, and the possibility of influencing the destination of local funding through participatory budgeting, among others. After this, Bélgica and Marta put on workshops for their neighbours to share their learning and create a large network of citizens interested in understanding, auditing and participating in local affairs. 

And thatis what happened.

In 2008 there was only a small group of us who stuck our heads out, but now we want more to join us, because there isn't a culture of demanding and defending our rights here. Here people wait for others to sort things out for them”, comments Bélgica.  But it is different now. “Now we don't only go to the Council, we all go together because we know that together we achieve things. Now a neighbour's problem is a problem for us all”. One of their most recent achievements has been their participation in the reconfiguration of local infrastructure. In Cuesta Linda, where they live, the layout of the streets needed to be changed to improve traffic flows and this involved changing the unorganised location of some properties. In order to ensure that the purchasing transactions between private individuals and the Council were transparent, they invited the Colectiva de Mujeres Organizadas to conduct an audit and ensure the process was carried out according to legal protocols. “We felt important”, recounts Marta. “We feel that we have a voice in local government affairs.

These small achievements represent great advances for the Cuesta Linda neighbourhood and exemplify the challenges faced by local democracy in the Dominican Republic. These are: improved influence and effectiveness of citizen participation, transparency of public sector management and the strengthening of institutions. In 2014, the organisation Transparency International placed the country 115th out of 175 on the Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2010, the Dominican Republic was one of the countries with the highest levels of public sector corruption, and government efficiency and rule of law were ranked medium/low in the World Bank Governance Indicators. In relation to citizen participation, the country received only 23 points out of 100 in the Open Budget Index Rankings 2015. This shows how few opportunities there are for Dominicans to understand and participate in the budget process. 

To boost a culture of co-responsibility for the management of local affairs, the project promotes the bringing together of authorities and communities for dialogue, presenting the results of the social audit and generating proposals that have an impact on quality of life in the municipalities. On this particular point Bélgica proudly explains another of their achievements. The first of these meetings with the authorities of Santo Domingo Norte was held last October (2015), and in this meeting she said:

I waited for the Treasurer and the Secretary of the Council to stop speaking... and then I said this: Gender is not about giving women mosquito nets or gifts for their new-born babies. Gender is about education and women's rights. Gender is about women holding posts within the Council, earning the same salary as men. 

The allegations that Bélgica made towards the authorities expose two realities which are clearly present in the political culture of the Dominican Republic: the lack of equal relations between men and women, and the giving of certain goods in exchange for votes or clientelism. Both limit the capacity of democratic government and social cohesion in the country. According to the Americas Barometer (LAPOP), in 2012 citizens of the Democratic Republic held first place in the region’s ranking for thinking that men should take priority over women in the labour market and considering that men make better political leaders than women. In relation to the exchange of good or favours for votes, the country was ranked first in 2010 in the regional clientelism ranking (LAPOP 2010), as well as for the handing out of benefits by political candidates during election campaigns (PELA 2010). As members of the citizen oversight committee in their municipality, Bélgica and Marta will have the opportunity to audit the implementation of Santo Domingo Norte's local budget, and in particular, the part of the budget set out by law for gender education programmes, health and education. The aim of this is to ensure more social policies and reduce temporary handouts linked to corruption that they highlighted in their allegations.

Among the most urgent projects of the Colectiva de Mujeres Organizadas are the drawing up of their legal structure and signing up to the Council's register to allow them to participate in the management of gender education programmes and to bid for funding for community projects. In the meantime, they have started an intensive piece of joint working with other organisations in their municipality, because they know that it is important to get to know others with the same problems to generate collective action. “We want to build a chain. We want to be more who think the municipality needs more education programmes and more employment opportunities for women. So that no woman has to accept the 300 pesos offered by a politician, because that's humiliating”. And so their voices are heard, Bélgica and Marta now know that they have to be present in the consultation and participation spaces designed by law, although they are not always held by local authorities.“This is why we are now aware of the dates of the open council meetings… so we can, like we say here… fall on them with parachutes !”.

And this is how these two female heads of household contribute with their activism and enthusiasm to build a culture of transparency and community participation in local government in the Dominican Republic. “Thursdays are sacred in Cuesta Linda”. Thursday is the day that the Colectiva de Mujeres Organizadas meet. On this day, Bélgica and Marta, leave their sewing machines for the day to weave a network in Santo Domingo Norte, one that is much larger, more inclusive and supportive.