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Machismo, Femicide, and Sex Tourism: An Overview of Women’s Rights in the Dominican Republic

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By: Olivia Marple, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

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Since the 1990s, neoliberal reforms and globalization have transformed the situation of women in Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, these changes have brought about some positive modifications to the way gender is perceived. Nevertheless, women’s standing in Dominican society ultimately has not improved and, in fact, has worsened in some cases. This is illustrated by the issues of female employment, gender violence, and sex tourism on the island.

Women in the Labor Force

At the end of the 1990s, high inflation and the dropping value of the Dominican peso increased the cost of living, which in turn forced more women into the workforce.[1] In free trade zones, women make up the majority of the labor force due to the fact that many men view free trade zone jobs, such as producing trousers and coats, as “women’s work.” This increase of women in the labor force, with women making up 52 percent of the jobs in the free trade zone in 2004, has resulted in an increase in economic agency for women. However, since 1980 the number of men who have started working in these free trade zones has doubled, with 49 percent of men working in these areas in 2006. This is due to the growing rate of unemployment for men elsewhere.[2] The current unemployment rate is 14.6 percent.[3]

In this way, one can see how neoliberal reforms are initially modifying how gender is perceived in the Dominican Republic. Women are increasingly using their jobs to provide for their families, effectively taking over the role of breadwinner that is traditionally reserved for men. Also, the reduction in labor opportunities for men is redefining gender roles and gendered work, as men integrate into traditionally female forms of labor, such as making clothing.

However, this is far from an ideal situation, evident in the fact that many cultural biases still remain. Older men often resent the newfound independence of the women working in these areas and stereotype them as “spendthrifts” who make money to buy extravagances for themselves, even though women insist they are working to support their children. Additionally, although women are able to make a living, workers’ rights, such as minimum wage and the prohibition of forced labor, are reportedly being violated in these free trade zones due to the lack of collective bargaining agreements.[4] According to the U.S. Department of State, a law in the Dominican Republic protecting union organizers from being fired has been “enforced inconsistently,” and penalties do not successfully prevent employers from violating workers’ rights.[5]

The rise of women in the country’s labor force is deceiving in other ways, since, as anthropologist Helen Safa notes, men are still “preferred in technical and managerial positions and receive higher salaries.” Also, ultimately women are still very reliant on remittances from significant others abroad.[6] In fact, women in the Dominican Republic make 44 percent less than men, and, in the workforce overall, just 50.5 percent of women participate, compared to 79.8 percent of men.[7] This illustrates the wide gender gap that leaves many women without economic agency and in the hands of men, which oftentimes comes with violent consequences.

Violence Against Women

On Monday, March 24, 2014, petitioners at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came together to report on some disturbing trends regarding women’s rights in the Dominican Republic. In 2013, the country had the third highest rate of femicide, “a crime involving the violent and deliberate killing of a woman,” in the region, noted the group of petitioners, made up of groups like The Health Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women and The Committee of Latin America and the Caribbean in Defense of Women’s Rights.[8] The groups claimed that the Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, which was ratified by the Dominican Republic 20 years ago, has not done nearly enough to prevent gender discrimination and violence.[9]

In 2012, Aljazeera reported that in the nation’s population of 10 million, one woman is murdered every two days.[10] These staggering numbers highlight the consequences of women’s economic dependence on men, which forces some to stay in potentially dangerous situations, mixed with cultural norms regarding the treatment of women. Machismo is still very pervasive. According to “Lourdes,” quoted by Aljazeera, “it is common in our community to hit women. It is a tradition.”[11]

Amnesty International cautioned that the agencies designated to help women in these instances are often unequipped, underfunded, or even “do not take domestic violence seriously.”[12] In 2010, only 66 offenders were convicted of being violent towards women, a small fraction of the 476 cases that “received judgment” and that arose from the nearly 10,000 original complaints.[13] Police and judges oftentimes perpetuate prejudices regarding gender violence.[14] The absence of justice is not just a problem in cases of domestic violence; instances of workplace violence are also “significantly underreported out of fear of joblessness.”[15]

To make matters worse, Amnesty International also warned that changes to the Penal Code proposed by the government in 2013 “represented a backward step in combating violence against women and girls. For example, it did not include the crime of gender-based violence and reduced the penalties for certain forms of violence against women and girls.”[16] There is no indication that these violent trends will go away any time soon. On April 30, the Dominican newspaper Hoy reported that, during a period of just five days that month, seven women had been killed by a spouse or ex-spouse. As a group of civil society organizations observed, the crimes “once again focus our attention on the absolute lack of response from the authorities regarding the alarming levels of violence that Dominican women suffer.”[17]

The civil society organizations, which included the Institute of Investigation and Studies of Gender and the Family of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and The Center of Solidarity for the Development of the Women, have demanded that anti-female violence be declared “a national emergency” and that the authorities put together an immediate plan to prevent femicide. The groups are calling for an articulated response from various governmental agencies, including the ministry of education, since education plays such an important role in forming how new generations think about gender. The organizations are also calling for increased attention to machista violence in all of its manifestations and the immediate passing of the Ley Orgánica Integral de Violencia Contra las Mujeres, a law designed to address gender violence.[18]

Prostitution and Sex Trafficking

Husbands and boyfriends are not the only ones who can threaten women’s safety; there are also the clients of women who work in the sex industry. Prostitution is legal in the Dominican Republic, and, as a result of globalization, the country has become a sex tourism hotspot for foreigners.

In her 2004 ethnography of the sex industry in the northern city of Sosúa, anthropologist Denise Brennan detailed the dangers that both dependents (sex workers who rely on Dominican men for their business) and independents (sex workers who rely on foreigners) must deal with. Dependents generally rely on bar owners for housing, meals, clients, and their own physical safety. According to Brennan, some bar owners are more reliable than others when it comes to protecting prostitutes from violent offenders: “If the bar owner wants to avoid problems and to protect the women working for him, he can kick the offender out of the bar… However… some bar owners do not care what happens to the women working for them.”[19]

Independents, on the other hand, do not have that safety net. They often leave bars with their foreign customers, and once they head out the door, the women have no way of knowing whether the men will use a condom or treat them well. Many independents have to rely on their own intuitions about the men who become their clients, and this does not always end well. Brennan illustrated this gamble when detailing how one independent named Nanci left a bar with three German men who, “as she described, ‘did not look dangerous’… [But] she was abused as soon as she left the safety of the bar.”[20]

Another, perhaps even more troubling, aspect of the sex industry is the rise of child sexual exploitation and trafficking. The Dominican Republic has become an emerging destination for child sexual tourism, something that, up until the past few years, was not seen as an unlawful activity on the island and went mostly unpunished. The southern city of Boca Chica is the most infamous area on the island for the exploitation of minors. Marleny Guante, a district attorney for minors in that region, explains, “many Dominicans see it as normal for a minor to go with a foreigner,” and even some of the police do not see it as illicit activity.[21]

The result of this way of thinking can be easily seen in the utter impunity for both clients and exploiters. Between 2003 and 2011, there were only three prison sentences in the Dominican Republic related to child sexual exploitation.[22] Only in the past year has this started to change due to new laws, a shift in attitudes towards victims, and the action of some beach resorts that attempt to prevent these exchanges between foreigners and traffickers.[23] In fact, the positive results of these developments are exemplified in the four prison sentences relating to child sexual exploitation recorded in 2014 alone.[24]

Additionally, the United States and the Dominican Republic have joined forces in an attempt to combat this sex trafficking, and in March, U.S. law enforcement officials and Dominican state prosecutors carried out a sting operation, in which seven traffickers were arrested. Pablo Villeda, vice-president of the International Justice Mission, said he hopes this sort of intervention can help “break [the] cycle of impunity.” “The people working on the beach never thought they were doing anything illegal. The traffickers never in their wildest dreams thought they were going to get arrested,” he said.[25]

Villeda is working to make certain that the children who were released in this sting operation are taken care of properly, because otherwise they will often go right back to working in the sex tourism industry. Indeed, the girls who end up in this industry are often uneducated, live in poverty, and see no other way out of their situation.[26] Improvement in the economy will be key to advancing women’s standing, especially in regards to the sexual exploitation of young girls.

Moving Beyond Machismo

The future of women’s rights in the Dominican Republic remains ambiguous. In some instances there is hope, which can be witnessed in the new societal awareness of child trafficking; in other areas there is disappointment, such as in the scarcity of laws protecting women’s bodies. While some progress has been made in rethinking repressive gender norms and attempting to combat the patriarchal ideals that keep women in their traditionally subordinate position, ultimately the Dominican Republic’s role in the sex tourism industry and women’s overall lack of employment illustrate that there is still much more to be done. Globalization has brought with it a much greater market for prostitution and therefore has not helped women’s situation in Dominican society. Neoliberal policies have also not brought much relief, as men are gradually claiming the jobs that have opened up for women. It is clear that in order for women to gain better standing, the Dominican Republic’s government has to improve social programs to help move people out of poverty. But for now, Dominican women will continue to be abused and subordinated. Machismo is the plague that is not yet retreating.

By: Olivia Marple, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured photo: Sosúa Beach. From: JoachimNRW, Wikimedia Commons,

[1] Helen Safa, “Female-Headed Households and Poverty in Latin America: A Comparison of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic,” in Women’s Activism in Latin America and the Caribbean: Engendering Social Justice, Democratizing Citizenship, ed. Elizabeth Maier and Nathalie Lebon (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 62-63, 68-69.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, May 15, 2015, accessed May 22, 2015,

[4] “2010 Human Rights Report: Dominican Republic,” U.S. Department of State, April 8, 2011, accessed May 22, 2015,; Safa, “Female-Headed Households.”

[5] “2010 Human Rights Report.”

[6] Safa, “Female-Headed Households.”

[7] Gizelle Lugo, “The Dominican Republic’s epidemic of domestic violence,” November 23, 2012, accessed May 19, 2015,

[8] Shereen Kajouee, “Human Rights of Women in the Dominican Republic,” Human Rights Brief, March 26, 2014, accessed May 19, 2015,; “Femicide in Latin America,” UN Women, April 4, 2013, accessed May 21, 2015,

[9] Kajouee, “Human Rights.”

[10] Davinder Kumar, “The cost of machismo on ‘honeymoon island,’” Aljazeera, July 16, 2012, accessed May 19, 2015,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lugo, “Epidemic of domestic violence.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kumar, “The cost of machismo.”

[15] Kajouee, “Human Rights.”

[16] “Gender Equality in Dominican Republic,” Social Institutions and Gender Index, accessed May 20, 2015,

[17] “Sociedad civil alarmada por cifra de siete feminicidios en abril,” Hoy, April 30, 2015, accessed May 19, 2015,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Denise Brennan, What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 156.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Pablo Linde, “El fin de la indiferencia ante la explotación sexual infantil,” February 6, 2015, accessed May 20, 2015,

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Busting Sex Tourists in Dominican Republic,” Newsweek, April 1, 2015, accessed May 20, 2015,

[24] Linde, “El fin de la indiferencia.”

[25] “Busting Sex Tourists.”

[26] Ibid.