Doctor-activist takes on Nicaraguan sex trafficking

Dr. Bello calls for volunteers to help women and girls of her hometown

Photos/David J. Weinstein

Dr. Rosa Elena Bello delivered her keynote on integrated development in Nicaragua in Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

After decades of often-successful combat with infant and maternal mortality, illiteracy, domestic violence and gender inequality, Dr. Rosa Elena Bello is taking on commercial sexual exploitation in her impoverished hometown of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Because of her accomplishments battling social ills, she was invited to Brandeis recently for a weeklong residency to talk and teach about her work as a "rebel activist and doctor."

The residency was the latest in a series sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life that brings respected practitioners to campus to examine ethical challenges and dilemmas in their fields.

Once a tiny fishing village, San Juan del Sur is now a major tourist destination, and was a beautiful backdrop for two seasons of the TV show Survivor. But the tropical paradise has become a resort for the rich, both as temporary visitors (tourists, surfers, and snowbirds) and as permanent residents (the retired), and the vast inequality between the new populations and the longtime residents has led many local families to see their daughters as the bridge between that world of money and their own impoverished circumstances.

In this cash-poor community,” Dr. Bello explained during her residency, “the temptation is strong to not only allow but to push daughters into that world” where foreigners legally “marry” girls as young as 13.

To combat the phenomenon, in August 2010 Dr. Bello opened a shelter for abused and abandoned women called Casa Solidaridad (Solidarity House). She previously founded, and continues to serve as director of Community Medical Services of San Juan del Sur.

"Families think [sex work] will change the economic situation of the family," says David Gullette, vice president of the Newton, Mass. -- San Juan del Sur Sister City Project, who translated for Dr. Bello at her keynote address. "They soon find out it doesn't, and real damage has been done to these girls, who have essentially been pimped out by their own families."

Dr. Bello told of a mother who spent only three months in jail after allegedly providing a 58-year-old Nicaraguan man with paid access to her 13-year-old daughter. After release, the woman was allowed to resume custody of that daughter.

At Solidarity House, girls and women can receive psychological counseling, legal assistance, and safe shelter if needed. In its first year, Solidarity House has already supported a dozen women, some of whom are now living safely on their own. It currently lodges five 13- to 15-year-old girls who were sexually exploited or abused, and provides psychological help to many more day visitors.

Dr. Bello has a long history of making a difference in the region.

In 1990, she co-founded a community medical clinic in San Juan del Sur. But after five years of intensive work, the doctors realized that health indices had not improved. Dr. Bello discovered that 60 percent of the women couldn’t read medicine labels, health education pamphlets or medical instructions; in response, she founded a literacy program, which eventually became the Free High School for Adults. Hundreds of adults have graduated from this weekend program. “Now parents can help their children with their homework, reducing the dropout rate among adolescents as well,” Dr. Bello said.

Her dedication to public health led to efforts to combat domestic violence, gender inequities, and commercial sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking. The establishment of Solidarity House has been a key part of those efforts.

“Just as Dr. Bello had an encompassing vision of ‘health’ that included education, she had an encompassing vision of public health that included violence prevention and the rescue of battered and abused women,” says Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center who was one of the hosts of the visit.

The youngest of five children of an illiterate father and a mother with a fifth-grade education, Dr. Bello managed to obtain a distance-learning high-school diploma and a practical nursing degree. While working full time as a nurse, she earned her medical degree and a master's in public health over seven years, during which she left her two children with relatives and spent weekends traveling to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.

Dr. Bello’s weeklong residency consisted of five public events and five class visits. All events were in Spanish with English translation, except her visit to Professor Elena Gonzalez Ros’ Spanish 106b class. Her keynote address, “Village by Village, Barrio por Barrio: Integrated Development in Nicaragua,” was attended by a packed crowd in Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

"Hearing about her personal experiences in the Nicaraguan Revolution was fascinating,” said Calliope Desenberg ’12, one of the student organizers of the visit. “The whole event made her more of a real person for me, instead of an intimidating superhuman world-changer."

Also in the audience for events throughout the weeklong residency were Newton community members, including many participants in the sister city project between Newton and San Juan del Sur that was begun more than 20 years ago.

At a private dinner with student leaders who co-sponsored Dr. Bello’s visit, Laura Aguirre ’13 asked how it felt coming to Brandeis as a celebrity. “I never thought I would be a celebrity,” Dr. Bello responded. “I still don’t feel that way, because we have so far to go.”

Dr. Bello called for volunteers of all ages and skill levels to support the work in Nicaragua by visiting to volunteer for any length of time. To explore possibilities, see the “Volunteer” section of the Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City Project.

Dr. Bello was in residence from September 19 to 22 as a Distinguished Visiting Practitioner. Her visit was hosted by Kelley Ready of the Heller School and Margaret Morganroth Gullette of theWomen's Studies Research Center, and cosponsored by AHORA, the Brandeis Labor Coalition, the English Language Learning Initiative, Girl Effect, the Heller Career Development Center, the Heller Gender Working Group, the Heller School, the Hiatt Career Center, Hispanic Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies, Positive Foundations, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, the Vagina Club and Women's Studies Research Center.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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