By Mary Tiffin
“Women and girls should not be treated as victims,” reflects 2023 YLAI Fellow Domenica Cobo. “We need to honor the feminine energy within all women — our resilience and strength — and with this awareness, call upon society to understand that we deserve to have a voice that is listened to.”
Domenica, lawyer and founder of JuntasXEllas, has had a longstanding commitment to advocating for women in Ecuador. She has always felt compelled to give back to others and to her community. When the pandemic brought to light the mental health crisis in Ecuador, Domenica launched her social enterprise, with two partners, advocating for increased equity, inclusion and protection for women and girls.
Cultivating awareness and building connections
Being raised in a smaller city by a single mother gave Domenica a unique perspective when it came to inclusion and accessibility for women within the workplace, politics and decision-making spaces. When the global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns hit in 2020, Domenica started volunteering in a local humanitarian organization that provided food and donations for those in need.
This experience raised her awareness of the challenges women and girls faced during lockdowns, specifically for those in dangerous living situations. The rates of mental health issues due to domestic violence were extremely high and increasing every day. Within the year, Domenica started her women’s empowerment initiative with her partners, María Elisa and Barbara, JuntasXEllas, which cultivates “connections, friendships, networking, mentoring, and experiences through different platforms such as a website, social networks, podcasts, workshops, consultations, and legal and psychological assistance.”
According to Domenica, mental health can be considered “taboo” to talk about in Ecuador, in addition to mental health services being a luxury that only a few people can take advantage of and afford. Domenica herself has had positive experiences working with psychologists but has also seen firsthand the challenges associated with the high costs of services. Using her personal fundraising skills and network of colleagues, volunteers and mental health professionals, Domenica built her platform from the ground up to make mental health resources more accessible for women and girls.
Leading with gratitude and passion
While launching JuntasXEllas, Domenica applied to the YLAI Fellowship after her cousin, a fellow YLAI alum, encouraged her and helped her with the application process. Once accepted, she was placed at a large humanitarian organization in Detroit where she was “amazed by the kindness of the people and the rich diversity of the city.” Her host organization was founded by the daughter of Middle Eastern refugees, and Domenica was amazed by how much she learned about “culture and experiences from the strong community of Arab people in Detroit.” Here, she also learned more about organizational structure in a workplace as her host office was similarly built from the ground up and expanded.
Her experience as a YLAI Fellow has given her motivation to continue expanding her organization’s financial sustainability to help boost its growth and serve even more women throughout Ecuador. Domenica also gained valuable insight from connecting with the members of her YLAI cohort. The experience of working with people from different backgrounds with different career goals and priorities reaffirmed her commitment to always lead with gratitude and passion.
Helping your community starts by helping yourself
In order to change society, Domenica insists you need to build many connections with people from different backgrounds and abilities. “There needs to be diversity in the workplace, people old and young with different races and religions, at all levels of operation and decision-making,” she believes.
The impact of gender on experiences is also important, and Domenica says there is a need for increased awareness that women deserve to have choices, autonomy, respect and a voice within society. This is more achievable when individuals and communities take the necessary steps to protect mental health. “It is important to heal ourselves in order to help heal the world,” she says.
When asked how to best be an ally for women and girls, Domenica shared how we must “honor where women come from and give back to our communities,” whether it is getting involved with the local government, starting your own business, or even just promoting inclusive values within your personal network.
Learn more about inclusion and allyship, as well what you can do for your community with new #YLAI4All resources.
The YLAI Fellowship is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. government.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government.