Southern Poverty Law Center Launches National Campaign to Raise Awareness of Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in Food Industry

Campaign Will Educate Immigrant Women of Their Rights and Inform Policymakers

MONTGOMERY, Ala., April 5, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) launched a national campaign today to raise awareness about the sexual violence and harassment routinely faced by immigrant women employed in the U.S. food industry. The campaign will also educate immigrant women about their workplace rights against sexual violence.

The effort was launched with a panel discussion at the University of California Washington Center. SPLC lawyers, joined by Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, also planned to brief key staff members from the departments of Agriculture and Labor as well as members of the U.S. House and Senate.

“These women are the backbone of the food industry but are exploited and abused in ways that most of us can’t imagine and that none of us should tolerate,” said Mary Bauer, SPLC legal director. “Virtually every American relies on their labor. But despite their contributions, this shameful exploitation continues. We need stronger protections and tougher enforcement at the federal level to stop it.”

Immigrant women who plant, harvest and pack much of the nation’s food are routinely targets of sexual violence in the workplace. Due to the many obstacles that confront them – including fear, shame, immigration status and lack of information about their rights – few ever come forward to seek justice.

During the panel discussion at the Washington Center, one immigrant woman described the sexual harassment that she suffered. Carina, a mother of three, recalled working at an onion warehouse where supervisors routinely touched female employees’ bodies and threatened them with retaliation if they resisted.

“I felt I could not go to the police,” she said. “I felt that there was nobody who could help me. I’m here because I want all of this to come to light so that other women do not have to suffer like I have suffered.”

The panel discussion also featured Dan Werner, the SPLC’s Deputy Legal Director, Monica Ramirez, an SPLC attorney who leads the immigrant women’s project and Patrick David Lopez, General Counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It was moderated by Mohamed Mattar, Executive Director of The Protection Project, which is dedicated to the elimination of human rights violations around the world.

In addition to the public awareness campaign, the SPLC will host “Know Your Rights” events for immigrant women, community forums for the general public and trainings for advocates throughout April. These events are planned for Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, California and New York.

In its 2010 study, Injustice on Our Plates, based on in-depth interviews with 150 immigrant women who have worked in the U.S. food industry, the SPLC found that sexual harassment and even brutal sexual assaults by male co-workers and supervisors are a constant threat for many. Some of these women, who had worked in various states across the country, saw it as a constant danger that they must endure for 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 they have experienced at least one incident.

Earlier investigations also found the problem to be widespread. In the mid-1990s, the EEOC investigated the sexual harassment of California farmworkers and found that “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.” A 1989 article investigating sexual harassment against farmworker women in Florida found harassment was so pervasive that women referred to the fields as the “green motel.”

“For many immigrant women, sexual violence and harassment is a threat they face every day,” said Ramirez. “Fear has kept them silent and made their suffering invisible for far too long. This problem must be brought into the light of day.”

The SPLC has worked extensively to give immigrant women a voice and to protect their rights. It has filed civil lawsuits against employers and others who break the law; sought tougher enforcement at the federal level; and educated women about their rights. These efforts are part of the SPLC’s larger immigrant justice initiative to stop the exploitation of immigrant workers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., is a nonprofit civil rights organization founded in 1971 to combat bigotry and discrimination through litigation, education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.

SOURCE Southern Poverty Law Center



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