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  • The Mirabal sisters made the ultimate sacrifice to topple Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo, triggering the advent of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

    The Mirabal sisters made the ultimate sacrifice to topple Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo, triggering the advent of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Mirabal sisters made the ultimate sacrifice to topple Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo, triggering the advent of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women every November 25.

"The butterflies (Las Mariposas)," they called themselves: a phrase that belied their fortitude. Three sisters of exceptional beauty, the Mirabals were born into an affluent farming family in the Dominican Republic as it was descending into a totalitarian nightmare under dictator Rafael Trujillo.

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Known for his brute savagery, Trujillo – who dominated the island nation's politics for three deadly decades between 1930 and 1961 – was not a man to be trifled with. Bribery, murder and rape? De rigueur. That's to say nothing of the 'secret' 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians on Dominican soil.

But Minerva, Patria and María Teresa were not to be trifled with, either. Inspired by the political activism of an uncle and after witnessing a massacre by Trujillo's men during a religious retreat, one by one the sisters marched into the political fray.

"We cannot allow our children to grow up in this corrupt and tyrannical regime," Patricia is quoted as saying. "We have to fight against it, and I am willing to give up everything, even my life if necessary."

As "The Movement of the 14th of June," so named after the religious massacre, the sisters first distributed pamphlets detailing the many murders ordered by El Jefe ("the boss"). Then they gathered firecrackers to make bombs, which they assembled by hand on the kitchen table.

Their motives were deeply personal. In an interview with the BBC World Service last year, Minerva's daughter, Minou Tavarez – deputy for the National District in the lower house of the Dominican Congress since 2002 and deputy foreign minister from 1996 to 2000 – recalled how her mother was first targeted by Trujillo.

"He saw her for the first time in 1949 in a party he organised. He was very much impressed, so he organised a second party and they were invited. To be invited to a party offered by the dictator was an order, not an invitation.

"He danced with her and they had this conversation. He asked her: 'Do you like me?' And she said: 'No.' He said: 'Do you like my government?' And she said: 'No, I don’t like it.'

"He said: 'If I send you my people to convince you of the goodness of my government, do you think they are going to be able to convince you?' And she said: 'What if I convince them?'

"And then she left him in the middle of the dance hall. Furious, he ordered – the day after – the military to go to my house and take my grandfather and my grandmother and Minerva to prison for two months."

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Trujillo's insidious behaviour didn’t end there. At law school, Minerva found she was barred from classes until she gave a public speech extolling his virtues. When she graduated years later — summa cum laude, no less — the government denied her a license to practice law.

Later, while Minerva and her mother were visiting the capital Santo Domingo, they were held as prisoners in their hotel. Minerva learned that if she slept with Trujillo, they would be released. She refused, and mother and daughter eventually made their escape.

In the period that followed, under the auspices of The Movement of the 14th of June, the Mirabal sisters rose swiftly to prominence in the anti-Trujillo resistance, despite being relentlessly stalked by the despot's dreaded secret police and jailed – more than once – for plotting to blow him up at a cattle fair.

But Patricia's words were to prove devastatingly prescient: in 1960, at Trujillo's behest, all three sisters were bludgeoned to death by his henchmen in an ambush, their bodies stuffed into a jeep and forced over the edge of a cliff to simulate an accident.

It was a ruse that fooled no one. Less than six months later, Trujillo had been assassinated by his own military leaders and the Mirabal sisters were immediately elevated to the status of feminist icons.

As Dominican-American poet and playwright Julia Alvarez, who immortalized the sisters in her 1994 novel ''In the Time of the Butterflies,'' once put it: ''We have our revolutionary heroines, our Che Guevaras, too.''

On 17 December 1999, the United Nations General Assembly finally designated 25 November – the date on which Minerva, Patria and María Teresa were assassinated in 1960 – as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In making the ultimate sacrifice to restore democracy and civil liberties to their island nation, these bold young women stand enshrined as international symbols of feminist resistance: symbols that, tragically, remain as relevant today as ever.

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With cultures around the world finally responding to widespread allegations of sexual harassment, from the sleazy hotel rooms of Hollywood to the hallowed halls of the European Parliament, one thing is beyond dispute: the insidious nature of gender-based violence remains a clear and present threat.

Here, the facts speak for themselves: today, according to U.N. estimates, 35% of women in the world have experienced physical or sexual violence; 700 million women were married as children, and more than 133 million girls and women have experienced female genital mutilation, the majority as young as five.

More than half of murdered women are killed by partners or family members; 120 million girls worldwide have been raped and, despite the passage of laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment in at least 140 countries, 37 nations still exempt rapists from prosecution if they were married to – or subsequently marry – their victim.

Today, as the developed world undergoes a seismic cultural shift in response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse, it is worth remembering the three sisters whose motif still adorns homes across the Dominican Republic.

As Minou notes: "The loss of your parents: it's never going to be compensated, but at least I have the healing of receiving this recognition. You go through this country and you see the houses and they have three butterflies on their front. It's very special, this symbol.

"My mother loved butterflies and, when she was asked, she would say: 'They are free.' Butterflies were for her a symbol of freedom, and this is why she chose that nickname."


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