Sexual violence is about people using their power to sexually exploit, demean and harm someone. Immigrant women are especially vulnerable to such abuses of power, whether working in hotels, in agricultural fields, restaurants, factories, or in the private homes.
Words cannot describe how appalled and sad I was to learn of the alleged sexual assault of a New York hotel maid last weekend. After our month-long campaign to raise awareness about workplace sexual violence committed against immigrant women, the news came as a slap in the face. This immigrant woman’s accused attacker is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The woman, a widow from West Africa, has worked cleaning rooms for the past three years to support herself and her teenage daughter.
Sexual violence is about people using their power to sexually exploit, demean and harm someone. Immigrant women are especially vulnerable to such abuses of power, whether working in hotels, in agricultural fields, restaurants, factories, or in private homes. They are often preyed upon by perpetrators who believe they have no power, lack credibility, do not have access to information about their rights, may not speak English, and will not take action to hold the perpetrators accountable for their acts. Because of all these perceived vulnerabilities, perpetrators view them as “perfect victims.”
When we interviewed 150 immigrant women who have worked in the U.S. food industry for the 2010 report Injustice on Our Plates, virtually every one of them said that sexual violence – by employers, supervisors, co-workers or third-party customers or clients – was a major danger in the workplace. Sadly, some of these women, who had worked in several states since living in the U.S., saw it as a hazard they had to endure in silence to receive a day’s pay.
In April, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), we launched a national campaign in an effort to bring attention to this very issue. We trained advocates on the legal protections and resources available to victims. We participated in community events at universities, law schools and other venues to educate the public about the plight of immigrant women employed in the food industry. And we discussed with community members and allies the role they could play to help these women combat this epidemic. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, joined us for many of our presentations. We also met with members of Congress as well as staffers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Labor.
During these events, immigrant women shared their stories with us. The resounding theme was that they feel afraid, isolated and invisible in this country. Their message underscores for us the responsibility that we have as advocates, community leaders and consumers to raise our voices on their behalf. We must stand in solidarity with them.
The alleged attack on this New York maid is a poignant reminder that we must continue to fight for these women so that one day they will no longer have to labor with the threat of sexual violence looming over their heads.
No one should suffer from sexual violence – not in the workplace or any other place.
As part of the SPLC’s initiative, we have helped immigrant women raise their voices and have given them tools to help them enforce their rights. We have filed civil lawsuits on their behalf; supported survivors during the criminal investigations and prosecutions of their perpetrators; educated women about their rights; and raised awareness across this country about their plight.
The SPLC is committed to ensuring that immigrant community members understand that they are entitled to basic protections under the laws of our country – including the right to be free from sexual violence in the home, in the community and at work – and that they are not alone in their fight for justice.
We cannot erase the pain and suffering these women have endured, but we can end this human rights tragedy.