04/05/2011

Sexual Assault Against Immigrant Women is a Hidden Human Rights Tragedy

Olivia came to the U.S. from Mexico to escape an abusive relationship.

But what the 46-year-old meatpacking worker experienced in this country was a greater horror that haunts her still.

Early one morning after a 12-hour shift, she found her car buried beneath a heavy Iowa snowfall. As she waited with a co-worker, one of her supervisors came walking toward her. The women were both wary of the man. He frequently made unwanted sexual advances inside the plant where they worked and was growing more aggressive.

Olivia’s co-worker quickly slipped away. It was 3 a.m. and she was left alone with the man. He invited her to climb into his truck, assuring her that he would be a gentleman. She refused.

The supervisor punched her in the face. Olivia crumpled.

Dazed, she fought back, but the supervisor’s powerful arms kept her pinned. He grabbed and tore at her clothing. She couldn’t overcome him. He struck her in the head and dragged her to an area where he savagely raped her.

Olivia didn’t report the attack to the authorities. She was scared of the police. At work, she tried to report the rape to management, but was met with indifference. She was even told the vicious attack wasn’t so bad because he “left you in one piece.”

Olivia responded the way so many immigrant women believe they must respond in this situation: She stayed on the job.

“I had a lot of need, and if I didn’t go to work, what would I do?” she later told a Southern Poverty Law Center researcher. “I had to pay a lot of rent, many bills, my sick daughter, my sick parents who depend on me.”

She buried the pain and shame of the attack. She had responsibilities to fulfill.

Tragically, Olivia’s story is all too common among immigrant women working in the U.S. food industry. These women plant, harvest, pack and process much of the nation’s food, but are routinely targets of sexual violence in the workplace.

When 150 immigrant women who have worked in the U.S. food industry were interviewed by the SPLC for the 2010 report Injustice on Our Plates, we found that sexual harassment and even brutal sexual assaults by male co-workers and supervisors were a constant threat for many of the immigrant women employed in the U.S. food industry. Some of these women, who had worked in various states across the country, saw it as a danger that simply must be tolerated in order to receive a day’s pay.

A separate study published in 2010 found that among 150 women of Mexican descent working in the fields in California’s Central Valley, 80 percent said they had experienced sexual harassment. That compares to roughly half of all women in the U.S. workforce who say that they have experienced at least one incident.

Co-workers and supervisors preying on these women know they often face obstacles that keep them silent. Sometimes these women don’t know their legal rights. Other times, it’s their immigration status. And there’s always the power of fear and shame.

That’s why the SPLC is launching a national campaign this month to raise awareness of the brutality faced by these women.

Throughout April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, my colleagues and I will be meeting with policymakers to discuss this issue. We will also host “Know Your Rights” events across the country to inform immigrant women about their legal rights – giving them the tools to speak out and seek justice.

This effort kicks off today in Washington, D.C., where we will be meeting with members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Labor. We also will participate in a panel discussion at the University of California Washington Center.

It’s an important step for addressing a human rights tragedy that’s been hidden from the view of most Americans. As one immigrant woman told us: “No one sees the people in the field. We’re ignored.”

Yet, we benefit from their labor every time we sit down at the dinner table. It’s their hands that slice and package the chicken breasts for our meals. It’s their long, hot days in the fields that allow us to have fresh tomatoes on our plates. And it’s their backs that bend to pick the lettuce in our salads.

It’s our responsibility to stop the sexual violence and exploitation that they suffer.

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