Bandana Project protests sexual violence against women farmworkers

CHICAGO — Farmworker and women’s rights groups came together here April 8, to protest sexual violence against farmworker women and other low-wage female immigrant workers in the U.S.

Legendary farmworker leader Dolores Huerta and others spoke at a press conference promoting the Bandana Project, a national campaign to raise awareness and educate farmworker women about their rights. The gathering, held at the National Museum of Mexican Art here, was also part of a national day of action to end sexual violence. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“With the current economy in a recession, working women and especially immigrant farmworker women are becoming more and more vulnerable,” said Huerta, who led farmworkers in a successful strike and grape boycott during the 1960s with Cesar Chavez.

“Everyone is somehow connected to farmworkers because they’re the ones who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat at our kitchen tables,” she said.

Working in the fields is often not a safe environment for women, especially undocumented immigrant women, Huerta noted.

Undocumented women farmworkers tend to believe they have little to no rights or protections, she said. If they speak out against sexual exploitation they feel they may lose their job.

“Some women feel sexual harassment is their fault and the issue of violence and retaliation is very scary for them after they decide to speak out,” said Huerta.

Because women farmworkers wear bandanas in the fields to help protect themselves from sexual harassment, in the Bandana Project, bandanas are being painted and decorated across the country as a symbolic gesture of support for farmworker women. The decorated bandanas will be exhibited nationwide at schools, libraries, community centers and art galleries this month.

“Right now, somewhere, a woman is getting sexually exploited,” noted Huerta.

“The worst thing is to keep silent about this matter. Women need to know they have the inner strength and power to speak out. And as women grow stronger then so does their entire family.”

The Bandana Project is aimed to inspire and empower women farmworkers to speak out, Huerta said. “Women need to be able to go to work without feeling intimidated, and this applies to all workers.”

Workplace sexual violence experienced by farmworkers and other low-wage immigrant women ranges from verbal harrassment to rape.

An investigation in California by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that hundreds, if not thousands, of farmworker women have been forced to trade sex to get or keep jobs. Other forms of sexual harassment such as constant grabbing or inappropriate touching by supervisors were also highlighted.

Monica Ramirez, director of Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said supervisors, crew leaders and co-workers sexually frequently abuse women farmworkers.

Although undocumented women farmworkers are the most vulnerable, farmworker men and children are also victims, said Ramirez. Women who work at hotels, restaurants and factories also suffer sexual exploitation, she noted.

In a soon to be released Southern Poverty Law Center report, based on an informal survey of 500 Latino immigrants in the Southeast, 77 percent of women say that sexual harassment is a major problem on the job.

However, Ramirez said, “few women have come forward. The current climate facing immigrant workers today makes it increasingly difficult for women to speak out.”

The hostile environment created by anti-immigrant campaigns fuels harassment of undocumented women workers, she said. Many undocumented women workers do not report sexual abuse because the perpetrators threaten them with deportation.

“Silence is the biggest weapon against these women,” said Ramirez. “Many of these women don’t speak English, don’t know their rights and don’t know where to go.”

“So we’re here to come together and speak out publicly about this important matter and strategically tackle this problem. We are trying to let vulnerable immigrant women know that they do have rights and that they don’t have to suffer in silence. Together, our voices will make a difference.”

Ramirez said her group plans to continue working with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address this issue.

It is developing tools such as a “Know Your Rights” video to help women confront the problem. It is also working toward improving workplace policies to protect immigrants and women farmworkers on the job.

Anne Ream, founder of The Voices and Faces Project, which has produced materials exposing sexual abuse of women, told the gathering, “Every two minutes in America women are in some form victims of sexual exploitation. And what farmworker women encounter is amplified by broader social factors including what is portrayed on television and in the media.”

“This problem shouldn’t just make you feel upset. It should make you want to act and call others to action,” she said.

Of the estimated 3 million farmworkers in the U.S, about 1 in 5 are women, according to the Department of Labor’s 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey.

Farmworkers are employed in fields, packing sheds and nurseries. They harvest and pack fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, sod and a range of other agricultural products.

Low-wage immigrant women are also employed in meatpacking, poultry, hotels, cleaning services, restaurants and factories, where they also face sexual harassment and violence.

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