Karina Cuba, a Progressio food security specialist, reflects on how her work with women in a remote, rural community on the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti not only helped families to eat more healthily, but also supported women to tackle isolation, discrimination and domestic violence.

Life for women in the rural region is tough. Every woman I met in the Dajabón region, where I worked as a Progressio development worker alongside local NGO Solidaridad Fronteriza, has a personal story to tell, but Elena’s is definitely one that made a big impact on me. 

Elena Tusen, 42, arrived in the Dominican Republic as a migrant from Haiti when she was still a young girl. Being an illegal immigrant made Elena’s childhood very difficult. She was constantly running away and experienced abuse, marginalization and discrimination.

As she grew up, Elena faced even more difficult realities and got caught up in a series of violent and abusive relationships. When she met the man who is now her husband, a Dominican, with whom she has had seven children, she thought her life would get better. Sadly, the violence continued in her home and family life.  In his frustration at not being able to put bread on the table for his desperately hungry children, her husband sought refuge in alcohol, making things much worse.

Unable to support herself and her children alone, Elena had no option but to stay and endure a difficult relationship. Elena, in her anguish and desperation, looked for work, but found little.  When she did find work, it was in the fields where she was paid with the leftovers after crops had been harvested. It was enough to appease the family’s hunger, but she could not feed her children properly or support their nutrition on so little. Consequently, Elena has lost three of her seven children to illness.

When we started to work on the food security programme, we knew that Haitian migrants, like Elena, were among the most vulnerable people and needed to be included in the project. We started working with a big group of women, who have all stuck with the programme, but Elena really stands out as one of the most committed and active participants, passing on what she has learnt to others in the community.

Initially, the Dominican women would keep their distance from those of Haitian descent, but slowly we managed to breakdown this divide. I remember how shy, insecure and fearful Elena was when we first started working together. Nevertheless, she always had a vivacious look that seemed to say ‘I want to learn, I want my story to change’. As we progressed we saw that change happening and Elena started to smile her beautiful smile that you know comes straight from the heart.

After a while, Elena started to see the results of what she had learnt through her training. Elena and her family now have an easy-to-manage vegetable garden that they can rely on for a balanced diet. She is also keeping chickens, whose eggs provide the family with protein. Elena has become a ‘champion farmer’ in the community and teaches others the techniques that I taught her. Not only that, but having gained knowledge and feeling surer in herself, Elena now feels able to confront the other problems in her life as well.

During the time we worked with Elena, she fell pregnant with her eighth child. Two months into her pregnancy her husband struck her a serious blow. This time, Elena knew she had to find the courage to report him.

When we met, Elena told me: “This has happened to me many times before, but now I know it’s not right. I am a person and I have learnt that I can look after myself and count on my community. I have managed to report my husband because I know my community is looking out for me. Now, the Dominican women, who wouldn’t look at me before, always ask after me. We have formed a strong group. Everyone looks out for each other.”

Later, in another conversation with Elena, she explains: “My husband is a good man, it’s just that when he drinks, he turns bad.” As she says this, Elena’s husband, Osiri, comes and sits with us, introduces himself and says how pleased he is to meet us.  I take the opportunity to talk to him, sincerely, with understanding and without judgement.

Osiri breaks down in tears and tells us: “I want to be better, to give my family another life, but I can’t. This land isn’t mine. I don’t have the deeds to any property. I can’t get a loan to improve my output. I get hardly any work and when I go to the city, it costs me more than I can earn. I love my children and my wife, but life in the rural areas is very hard. Poor people stay poor because the big producers get everything: machinery, loans, seeds, everything. But we small-scale farmers get nothing.

“Now at least we have our vegetable garden, our chickens. I hope we can keep working with you, not so that you can give us things, but so that you can teach us. We made this vegetable garden ourselves. We look after it. We maintain it. Before, we didn’t even think it was possible.”

“I am Dominican, but ever since I married my wife, who is Haitian, the community set me apart,” he explains. “Since Progressio and Solidaridad Fronteriza started working in our community things have changed. Others in the community even offer me work now when it is time for harvest. I no longer have to chase after my wage packet,” says Osiri, smiling.

Together we spoke about how facing problems calmly, together as a family, is the first step to making sure that the situation improves. Osiri has promised Elena that he will not let what has happened in the past ever happen again. 

As a food security specialist, I didn’t expect to find myself supporting women to overcome domestic violence, but Elena’s story is by no means unique. I have learnt that when facilitating development work, we have to think of people as whole people. Our problems are often interrelated. Supporting women, like Elena, to solve their family’s food security problems is sometimes the first step to breaking a cycle of violence rooted in poverty and frustration. 

Elena has gone on to teach the sustainable farming techniques I taught her to many others. I believe that when people know and properly understand why and to what end they are carrying out development activities, as Elena does, the resulting change will be more sustainable and will influence the future not just for the families involved, but for the community as a whole.

To keep supporting our work with rural women, and to give us the power to help more women like Elena move forward from domestic violence, please donate £5 here.