Immigrant women are among the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society.

They plant, harvest and pack the fruits and vegetables we eat. They process our meat, poultry and seafood. They clean our houses and hotel rooms, cook our food, serve us in restaurants and perform many other jobs at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Yet, in addition to the many abuses faced by their male counterparts, they’re often the target of sexual violence and gender discrimination in the workplace.

Many of these women have traveled far and taken great risks to build a better life for their families. But all too often, they’re forced to sacrifice their dignity to obtain even a small measure of economic security.

These women are largely voiceless, isolated and afraid. They do not know their rights. They often fear that reporting abuses will lead to job loss and, in some cases, deportation and separation from their children. Some feel too much shame to report harassment or sexual violence, leaving them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by male co-workers or supervisors.

Because of the many obstacles arrayed against them – fear, poverty, shame, lack of access to legal resources, language barriers, immigration status and cultural pressures – few immigrant women ever come forward to speak out against the wrongs committed against them.

Though few studies have been done to measure the extent of the problem, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the mid-1990s found that among California farmworkers “hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors.” The farmworkers, in fact, referred to one company’s field as the “fil de calzon,” or “field of panties,” because so many women had been raped there by supervisors.

In 2008, the SPLC interviewed more than 200 low-wage Latinas working in five southern states. Roughly three-quarters of these women said sexual harassment was a major problem in the workplace, and seven in 10 said they believe women are the victims of discrimination at work.

Esperanza: The Immigration Women’s Legal Initiative of the SPLC
Through our Esperanza program, the SPLC is working to give these women a voice and to protect their rights. We’re filing civil lawsuits against employers and others who break the law; educating women about their rights; helping women pursue justice by supporting them through criminal investigations against perpetrators of sexual violence; and raising public awareness about this pervasive problem.   

The SPLC is working extensively with community advocates to broaden its impact. We are also working with local, state and federal agencies to improve worker protections and enforcement of the employment and civil rights laws protecting these women.

The SPLC is one of the leading organizations in the U.S. providing both direct legal representation and legal advocacy specifically to farmworker and low-wage immigrant women who have been subjected to workplace sexual violence. In 2006, we organized a national network of advocates to address this issue. We have also created sexual violence prevention materials and curricula for use by grassroots organizations, legal advocates, social service providers, law enforcement and other agencies, in addition to providing technical assistance to organizations across the country.

bandanaIn 2007, we launched the Bandana Project, bringing community groups, students and other organizations together to focus public attention on this problem by decorating and displaying bandanas. The bandana was adopted as a symbol of solidarity because many farmworker women use them to cover their faces in an attempt to ward off unwanted sexual attention.

Each year, bandanas are decorated and displayed across the country. To date, more than 3,000 bandanas have been decorated nationally and internationally. The program, now administered by the Dolores Huerta Foundation, has continued to grow as more people learn about the plight of immigrant women.