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Surfer not bride: how Naomi waved goodbye to early marriage

“There are girls that get pregnant. They quit school and they give up their future,” Naomi explains.

Naomi [right] and her sister Mabreidy outside their home. Photo: Girls Not Brides/Fran Afonso

We’re speaking to Naomi and her older sister Mabreidy in Cabarete, a resort town on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast. They’ve lived here for their whole lives. Both of their eyes light up as they describe what they love most about their home: the beach and the atmosphere.

One of the beaches surrounding Cabarete. Photo: Girls Not Brides/Fran Afonso

But Mabreidy highlights a darker side to life for girls and women in the Dominican Republic.

“There are very chauvinistic people here and girls are treated differently. Boys are given more freedom and men don’t care if something bad happens to a girl.”

Child marriage and early motherhood in the Dominican Republic

In Dominican Republic, 36% of girls are married or form informal unions before their 18th birthday. A quarter of girls will have given birth before that age.

“I left school at 17, because I got pregnant,” Mabreidy tells us.

“I think that a lot changed for me because some things I wanted to do, I can’t do because I have to raise my kids.

“It’s not that having a child is a bad thing – it’s a blessing and I love my sons. But I had other things ahead of me.

“You should study before having a baby. I give this advice to Naomi so what happened to me doesn’t happen to her.”

Mabreidy and her youngest son. Photo: Girls Not Brides/Fran Afonso

Girls are the most powerful force for change

“I like social studies because you learn your history. If you don’t know history, you’ll end up repeating it,” Naomi remarks. It’s poignant given the advice that Mabreidy gives her.

“Education is important because you learn how to express yourself.”

Naomi taking part in an up-cycling lesson as part of Mariposa DR Foundation’s environmental activism programme. Photo: Girls Not Brides/Fran Afonso

Naomi is also known as a ‘Mariposa’, the Spanish word for butterfly. She’s been going to the Mariposa Centre since she was 8-years-old. The centre was set up by Girls Not Brides member Mariposa DR Foundation.

Their name comes from the story of the Mirabal sisters, who called themselves ‘Las Mariposas’. They were assassinated by the Trujillo regime in the 1960s and have since become national heroines and international symbols of social justice and freedom.

The Foundation’s goal is to empower girls to create solutions to end generational poverty. They do this through a holistic programme of education, empowerment and health and wellness activities to unlock each girl’s potential. On any given day, the ‘Mariposas’ could be in school, an environmental activism workshop, an acrobatics class or even learning to surf.

Surfer and circus champion, not bride

“I like acrobatics a lot. It’s a fantastic thrill!” Naomi says with a big smile.

“I love it so much, it makes you feel free.”

Naomi practising her aerial silk routine in circus class. Photo: Girls Not Brides/Fran Afonso

But it’s not just a hobby for Naomi. The skills she’s learned have inspired a new pathway. She has goals for a future where early marriage or motherhood won’t stand in her way.

“My goal is to be in Cirque du Soleil or become a professional surfer,” she says with conviction.

“When I’m surfing, it’s something wonderful. And if I go for the future I want, I’m going to feel even better.”

Naomi about to start a surf session. Photo: Girls Not Brides/Fran Afonso

Two sisters with a bright future

Naomi has big dreams for herself but also for Mabreidy. Her love and admiration for her sister is obvious.

“Mabreidy is a good mother. But she’s also good at kite-surfing and an amazing swimmer,” Naomi says.

“She’ll be a great instructor at both.”

Mabreidy was a ‘Mariposa’ before she had her baby. She was also able to teach swimming classes for the organisation as a young mother.

“I have done a lot in my life because of my experiences with Mariposa. I know how to teach swimming classes to children and I can kite-surf,” Mabreidy tells us.

“I was able to teach the girls about my experience at the same time as teaching classes. It’s an opportunity for me to help other girls.”

These experiences have fuelled Mabreidy’s ambition. Her early pregnancy set her off track but she’s determined not to let it stop her from achieving her dreams.

“I don’t want to give my children the same life I’ve lived. I want to get ahead and I want to study so that I can give them a good upbringing. So that they can see I’m a strong woman.”

Hear from Naomi and Mabreidy and watch their story