Know, Act, Demand: An Interview with Myrna Flores Chang

As the Program Manager for Gender and Rights at Profamilia, Myrna Flores Chang coordinates the organization’s advocacy efforts promoting sexual and reproductive rights in the Dominican Republic. Profamilia has been in the news quite a bit these days thanks to its nationwide campaign – Know, Act, Demand – supporting youth sexual rights by ensuring the government fulfills its promises to adequately respond to young people’s sexual and reproductive health needs. Two of the campaign videos draw the connection between gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health by linking unwanted pregnancies resulting from incest to young women’s need for safe and legal abortion and by defining sexual assault as a violation of sexual rights.

As the leading NGO providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in the Dominican Republic, Profamilia has pioneered important efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and Myrna works to ensure public policy reflects the organization’s stance on gender equality and human rights.

What motivated you to get involved in the work to end gender-based violence?

Working on issues like sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights is a heavy commitment to make. There is no way to dissociate from the work you do, and you are constantly revising attitudes and behaviors that could potentially contribute to the reinforcement of cultural myths and stereotypes that justify gender-based violence. This job is a part of me. I am a feminist, and for more than 13 years I’ve felt that working to end gender-based violence is the most feminist thing I can do.

When did you join the staff of Profamilia?

I started working with Profamilia in 1999 as a consultant on gender issues, and my role was to ensure gender inclusivity in every aspect of the organization’s work, including the detection of gender-based violence within sexual and reproductive health service provision. During this project, Profamilia changed many things and benefitted greatly from integrating gender-based violence screening into health services, providing sensitivity training to all staff, and promoting women’s right to confidentiality and privacy. It really strengthened our efforts and the attention we were providing to survivors of violence.

Many of the changes to the original gender-based violence protocols were brought about through people who understand the issue and go beyond the call of duty. For example, one of our doctors suggested the addition of suspected violence to a client’s health record. An HIV counselor at one of our clinics was the first person to make the connection between women experiencing gender-based violence and being HIV-positive. Women come to health centers more often than men, and they find about their HIV status first, even though their husbands or partners are the ones who infected them. So, we decided to change the way we handle these cases.

What advocacy work does Profamilia do to contribute to a solution?

A project we’re working on now is to establish a law against gender-based violence that includes the decriminalization of abortion if a woman’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and if the fetus has a malformation. This would be a landmark moment for sexual and reproductive rights in the Dominican Republic.

Outside of the scope of health services, we are training educators from the National Police School, so they can integrate information about gender-based violence into the curriculum for new cadets. We have also conducted case studies on gender-based violence, participated in three studies on femicide, and contributed to formulating protocols on violence at the national level with the Ministry of Public Affairs.

How is gender-based violence understood in the Dominican Republic?

There are no reliable statistics on violence in the Dominican Republic, and it would be great if we could conduct a comparative study, so that we can extrapolate gender-based violence risk factors in the Dominican Republic. According to the 2007 national demographic and health survey, 20% of women reported experiencing some type of violence in their lives, and 60% said the violence was inflicted by their partners or former partners. The main place where femicide occurs is in the home, but now we are seeing it on the streets, public places, and workplaces.

It is necessary to get a part of the national budget allocated to the attention of gender-based violence. The Dominican Republic has only fifteen response units for women who experience violence, but fifteen is not enough for 100 municipalities. There are also only two women’s shelters in the entire country, and in order for a woman to have access to the shelter, she needs to have filed a formal complaint. This is a huge bureaucratic barrier to a service that should be easily accessible.

If you could tell your government to change one thing to help end gender-based violence in your country, what would it be?

Without a doubt, it would be to allocate a public budget with transparency and accountability. I would ask for a clear public policy with an adequate budget and a high degree of commitment by the government to implement the policy. There is a lot of work to be done, and even though we do have committed individuals within the government that are fighting tooth and nail, we are not there yet.


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