GW Serves: Innovative Senior Fights against Gender-Based Discrimination in Puerto Rico

Criminal justice major Helena Betancourt champions project reducing period poverty on her home island.

October 25, 2023

Helena Betancourt

Helena Betancourt is passionate about using her platform and means to help women and girls in Puerto Rico. (William Atkins/GW Today)

During her final year of high school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, current George Washington University senior criminal justice major Helena Betancourt noticed a change to her social media algorithms. There appeared to be an uptick in campaigns and posts speaking out against gender-based discrimination and violence on the island.  

As it happened, that time was a tipping point for a longstanding social issue in Puerto Rico. The island has some of the highest gender-based violence rates in the world. In 2020 alone, there were 60 reported femicides—intentional killings with gender-related motivation. In fact, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, J.D. '84, declared a state of emergency due to gender-based violence on the island in early 2021.

Women protested and shared their stories on social media, posts that kept making their way to Betancourt, who became more in-tune with the systemic problem with every click. She had long been aware that, especially in certain areas of the island, there were drastic differences between views and treatment of gender on the island. But not in this much detail, and this movement prompted her to act.

Betancourt herself has nothing but good things to say about growing up in Puerto Rico, going to what she says was a great school that put her on the path to GW. And while she didn't have experiences like those described in what she was reading, she felt she had a means and platform to communicate with and for people who didn’t necessarily have a voice.

“Everybody has a voice, but not everyone necessarily has the right audience for their voices,” Betancourt said. “I felt like it was my duty, especially being someone who left the island, to do whatever I can to help.”

Inspired by another girl from the island who started a non-profit organization created to fight gender-based violence, Betancourt and her friend Patricia Sánchez (now a senior at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras) got to work creating their own way to help girls and women on the island.

During their research and thinking back to their own experiences, they noted how period poverty—defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management and education—affected women and girls in Puerto Rico. Period poverty, Betancourt said, is a consequence of discrimination.

And thus, along with peer Carolina Crespo (also a senior at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras), they started a project now called Re-Cycle, which aims to reduce and alleviate period poverty by distributing reusable fabric menstrual pads to marginalized and low-income communities throughout the island, in addition to providing them with menstrual education and resources.

“We saw menstrual education was just not a thing across Puerto Rico, and it’s even sort of taboo to even speak about,” said Betancourt, thinking back to her own experiences. “But the thing is, it’s a basic biological need.”

In 2021, Betancourt and Re-Cycle received the Clinton Global Initiative University grant, which awards funds to commitment-makers in the spheres of education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation and public health. She was also awarded the Projects for Peace grant for the project this past summer, and she also been involved in student innovation work with the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service throughout her time at GW.

In addition to the public health and accessibility components of Re-Cycle, Betancourt and her team have made a conscious effort to make the products environmentally friendly. Puerto Rico is still not far removed from the devastating Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, in addition to Hurricane Fiona last year.

Therefore, the Re-Cycle team has made sustainability a core focus to reducing waste, as Betancourt found through OrganiCup that menstruation products generate more than 200,000 tons of plastic waste per year, thus the desire to create a reusable product to limit the negative environmental impact of affordable and accessible period care.

Re-Cycle held a drive last October in Salinas, Puerto Rico. It was both encouraging and enlightening to see the need being met, as the Re-Cycle team feels they are providing a care that the government and people in power are not meeting.

This work surrounding period poverty in Puerto Rico, a cause she has channeled into research projects for classes at GW, continues to reaffirm her commitment to shining light on gender-based violence and discrimination on her home island of which she is a proud citizen.

It has also inspired a career in criminal justice, which she is building at GW. She is currently an investigative intern for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and aspires to one day returning to Puerto Rico to use her education and experiences to fight against gender-based violence and discrimination and advocate for women affected by crime.

Betancourt is passionate about women’s rights, especially in Puerto Rico, and civic engagement and believes those areas of interest strongly intersect with criminal justice. The campaigns and protests leading up to Puerto Rico’s declared state of emergency in 2021 fueled the fire.  

“That really prompted me to look at criminal justice in a different way, and it gave me more of a sense of purpose,” Betancourt said.

She has followed that sense throughout her time at GW as she builds a career centered on advocating for others.  

GW Serves is a monthly series featuring students who are living out the university’s mission to build up public service leaders and active citizens to create a better world for all.