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Bello describes health programs

By Tate Herbert
On September 27, 2011

Dr. Rosa Elena Bello, a distinguished visiting practitioner with the The International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life spoke last Wednesday in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on her experiences promoting "lifelong empowerment for men and women" through improved health and education services in the community of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Bello's weeklong residency at Brandeis apexed in this keynote address titled "Village by Village, Barrio por Barrio: Integrated Development in Nicaragua." Ready and Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a scholar in the Women's Studies Research Center, hosted the residency.

Bello conducted the entire event in Spanish with the aid of translator David Gullette, Gullette's husband.

She began by describing San Juan del Sur, a village on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua whose tourism industry has grown significantly in recent years. This growth has created some jobs, said Bello, but it has also contributed to social problems. For example, high-end resorts still exist side-by-side with what she called "typical rural dwellings" with dirt floors and tin roofs.

Community Medical Services, founded by Bello in San Juan del Sur in 1990, was her response to the need of many poor families for basic health care.

Bello described the Services' methods of health education and preventive health, particularly for women. However, Bello said, it was soon discovered that the Medical Services' efforts were being obstructed by widespread illiteracy—60 percent among women.

Bello went on to detail the highly successful literacy and education programs that she played a key role in implementing in San Juan del Sur and over 30 surrounding villages. Literacy for Women, Bello's pilot educational program for all ages, graduated 242 students with the equivalent of a sixth-grade education within 3 years. In response to a demand for higher education, Bello helped to found the High School for Adults, a public high school which now instructs over 600 students from the greater San Juan del Sur area in a wide range of subjects, including accounting, chemistry, history, folklore, English and ecotourism. It is certified by Nicaragua's National Ministry of Education.

The last organization of which Bello gave an account of was Solidarity House, a center that was opened last year to provide shelter, counseling and, in some cases, education to victims of domestic violence. It is intended to be "a safe place to be" for women and children while the authorities handle their cases, said Bello.

Many of the residents of Solidarity House are teenagers as young as 13. According to Bello, this is because of the prevalence of "adolescents … being sexually exploited by their families and by people in their community." This practice has become relatively common, said Bello, in part because the tourism boom created a demand for sexual exploitation and made it profitable.

After the lecture, Bello took questions from the audience. In response to a question concerning students' role in activism, Bello invited students to become "world citizens."

"When you go out and volunteer in a poor country, you're also doing yourself a favor. There's a great deal to be learned and to be gained in terms of your own growth," she said.

Marci McPhee, associate director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, said in an interview with the Justice that she thought the week of events with Bello "had enormous value because of [Bello's] career path and because of what she's been able to accomplish as an indigenous woman."

"She has done it by her bootstraps, certainly not without help from lots of people, but she's put San Juan del Sur and Nicaragua on a level of this concept of integrated development that makes it a model for Nicaragua and for many nations in Latin America to address a variety of social problems in an integrated way," added McPhee.

The event was also sponsored 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, the Women's Studies Research Center and the Ethics Center.

—Allyson Cartter contributed reporting.  

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