A girl named Lainy

By Lucia Vitale
Oct. 11, 2018

I live in a rural mountain community on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Every morning I wake up around 6:00 a.m. to the neighbor’s roosters or the neighbor’s speakers blasting merengue. I go on a run and wave to each passerby, making a game of remembering their names. It is an excellent distraction from the hilly and rocky four-mile run. After my run and a bucket bath, I sit on my front porch, sip coffee and watch the chickens cluck around the jungle before my walk to school. I came to my site to promote primary literacy but spend much of my time working on health projects. 

After Christmas break, many of my 8th grade girls began to marry men 10 years their senior and drop out of school. I would come to school and the teachers would be outside discussing who was next. Going to school became harder and harder because the girls weren’t there. I had countless conversations with concerned mothers who wanted their daughters to keep studying—not to get married and have kids at age 14 like they had done. I started retreating into my own gloom when a Peace Corps Volunteer friend snapped me out of it: “That’s why you’re here, Lucia—do something!”

She was right. I started talking with Dominican doctors from the next town over and with a health non-governmental organization (NGO) in the area. We started giving a weekly course on sex education to talk about things like safe sex and communication in relationships. The course was taught in partnership with a nearby clinica rural and with doctors from a hospital 20 kilometers from my community. It served as a delivery system not only for sexual health topics, but also for my own personal style of “comunicación entre pareja,” “feminism lite,” and “long-term life planning.”

During the course, students who received a 70 percent or better on the post-test and who missed fewer than three classes could volunteer on different health initiatives. This was particularly exciting because it meant that the students could leave our community to travel to neighboring communities, a luxury for many adolescents. The president of the NGO offered to teach the students about taking blood pressures, weights and health histories of patients that pass through their clinic in the town over. A much bigger draw to the adolescents, however, was the opportunity to help teach the same course to a different group of students in a campo about an hour away. There was a lot at stake for passing the class. It was key to mobility and to meeting new and exciting youth in far away places.

We held a graduation ceremony to celebrate the culmination of the students’ hard work and, in classic Dominican fashion, spent the entire day preparing decorations. Special attention was paid to the backdrop of the main stage, where all the photos would be taken.  There were plenty of snacks and juice to pass around, and the guest table was decorated to perfection. 

The small community center began to fill up with curious passersby, teachers, a few parents and students who could have participated but didn’t. I remember hoping that the pomp and circumstance of the graduation would inspire those students to join in on the next activity I planned. 

I had seen Lainy (not her real name), a former health class participant, sitting in the back of the community center observing. When it was time to hand-out brindis, I made a special bee-line to her, passing the entitled doñas and dons who called me out for giving snacks to a young girl before them. When I had finished gushing over the students who graduated and after we had taken enough photos to fill up all the storage on my phone, I got a few quick ‘congrats’ from the teachers and we began to pack-up. 

As I was tearing down the last of the meticulously placed decorations, Lainy came up to me to explain why she had dropped out of the course half-way through. She was hesitant. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she kicked her left shoe with her right. Her eyes darted to and from different points on the floor and her voice quivered.

She explained how she had gotten married after Christmas: this, I knew. She explained how much responsibility it was to maintain a household: this, I knew. But then she started talking about how she must have lunch ready for her husband promptly at 1:00 p.m. and how she has to wash his work clothes so that he can go to work each day. She said that cleaning the house takes a lot of time and that she has her schoolwork on top of all that.  

Then she said she became pregnant in March. This part I didn’t know. 

My initial reaction was anger. I was so angry at the grown man who had taken Lainy away from school and health class. I had seen him show up daily at school to pull her out of class. They would whizz away on his motor, sometimes during the middle of a lesson or an exam. I was angry with the family that she was living with for allowing her to marry at such a young age. I was angry that she didn’t go to the rural clinic to get birth control like we talked about in class. And while I was so busy being angry at all these other forces, I forgot about Lainy, about how scary this all must be for a teen girl.

Lainy asked if she could study and take the final test. I told her that she had missed too much class to take the final test. Peace Corps service can rub you raw some days, leaving you with thin armor, exposed. It can make you feel lost in the fight for things you will never be able to change. And that day I felt lost. 

That night I felt miserable for how I had handled the situation.

The next morning I found Lainy at school and invited her to take the final test. She now goes to school in the town over, where she lives with her husband. Her baby is due in November and I know she is going to be the best mom. 

Lucia Vitale bio

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