This post is part of the HERvotes Blog Carnival, “Fighting Sexual Harassment.” To read other posts, please visit www.hervotes.us.
Sexual harassment against women transcends boundaries of culture and ethnicity. I know this far too well because one of my former clients, an older woman who was sexually harassed by her co-worker, shared her personal story with me. Like many unpleasant and fearful encounters, this caused deep suffering and psychological scars for the 24 year-old woman, mother of two young girls. At the core of her wounding, my client, a young victim in a state of vulnerability, found unbearable fear and shame.
In the face of injustice, however, Latina women continue to stand up and fight for their right to work in safe environments. By sharing their stories, like my client did with me, Latinas create greater awareness among themselves and their allies. Latinas work to ensure that others will not have to face the same indignities: in the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et.al. v. Williamette Tree Wholesale, Inc., two Latina women sought justice in their case against their employer, who is now required to conduct extensive sexual harassment training for all supervisors. Advocacy groups on the ground, such as Arte Sana, seek to promote healing for Latinas through the arts, public education and professional training. This and other groups also see an expanded role of promotoras, or community health leaders, to link Latinas to the information and services they need to address and prevent sexual harassment and assault.
Even though Latinas are fighting for their rights, it is also important to recognize that when a system fails to appreciate the ethnic/racial dimensions of the issue, women of color suffer disproportionately. Therefore, it is critically important for local law enforcement and allied health professionals to further examine the connections between theory and practical work aimed at transforming the way we respond to the unique needs of Latinas who suffer from higher rates of sexual harassment than white women.
The disparity in sexual harassment for Latinas may be attributed to several factors, including low wages and hostile working conditions, especially for undocumented Latinas. According to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 77% of Latinas say sexual harassment is a major problem on the job. In a survey conducted among farm workers, 80% of Mexican females reported some sort of sexual harassment. This unwarranted behavior is so widespread that farms are often called “green motels” or “panty fields.”
Existe Ayuda reports that immigrant Latinas are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they are largely dependent on their employers, constantly live in fear of being deported, suffer social isolation, and are vulnerable to their employer’s demands. From this perspective, it is easy to understand the sobering statistics about Latinas’ underreporting of sexual harassment in schools and in their jobs.
There are several reasons for not reporting sexual harassment. First, someone may not want to share their experiences due to embarrassment or fear of repercussions. Second, some women lack a recollection of the incident. For Latinas, reporting often triggers retaliation and fear of deportation, discrimination, separation from family and losing their job.
This is disappointing, unjust and unacceptable.
Even more disturbing is the lack of services for immigrant women. Undocumented Latinas are shut out from reporting, even when the reporting comes in the face of their own rescue. Coming forward and the complications of doing are emotionally painful. This is extremely difficult for the victims, and when there is a fragmented support system, Latinas are left to internalize their pain and remain quiet. As grim as these findings appear, many women continue to live in the shadows of indignation, and their state of utter trepidation and immense fear are long-lived. As a result, this creates a culture where women do not feel encouraged or supported to come forward when there is an allegation.
At the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, we believe that women have the right to health, dignity and justice in all facets of their lives. Therefore, through community mobilization, public education and policy advocacy, we aim to support Latinas in their fight for justice. We call for better implementation and enforcement of workplace sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policies, and for these policies to take into account differences in their employees’ language abilities and education. We urge not only greater civil rights protections of immigrant Latinas, but also greater education of employers on the rights of their immigrant workers. We call on health care providers and law enforcement officials to do their part to recognize the complexities of the Latina experience with sexual harassment and assault and create a culture where indignities against Latinas are no longer tolerated.