By: Monica Ramirez
A week after the publication of the ‘Dear Sisters’ solidarity letter from farmworker women to women in the entertainment industry who experienced workplace sexual violence, I was on a call with Elena* a farmworker woman in distress. She had just courageously reported sexual violence against her by a supervisor. Elena decided to report because she needed the violence to stop- for her sake and for her family. As a single mother with children, all she wanted was to be able to work to support her family. Elena just wanted her employer to protect her. They didn’t. Instead, they fired her. Sadly, this response is not new or surprising. Multitudes of individuals who report sexual harassment later suffer negative consequences for speaking out, including being fired.
What was different about that phone call is that it occurred a month after millions of people (mostly women, but many men and non-binary individuals as well) were empowered by the #MeToo movement and shared their truths across the globe, oftentimes at the expense of their own wellbeing and economic status. It was also a week after our letter went viral and the world had finally heard farmworker women, like Elena, in a way they had not before.
Speaking out on the internet, in news stories, and in everyday conversation shook the world at its core and the possibility of change seemed to be on the horizon, but what kind of change and how quickly it would come were questions that remained unanswered. As , I spoke with Elena on the phone and tried to get her to promise that she would not harm herself because the pain and the stress had become too much to bear, I knew that one of the pressing questions that we had to ask ourselves as we collectively encouraged people to share their truths was what, exactly, were people coming forward to and how would we as a society support them in the short and long term.
For years, survivors who spoke out were met with reprisals, broken systems, laws that do not protect everyone, a lack of healing and wellness services, and a deficit in resources for them. Survivor advocates are continuously asked to share and re-live their stories with no expectation or hope of anything in return, and movement leaders work despite a lack of investment in infrastructure and in movement leaders who are best positioned to help meaningfully address these issues in collaboration with the survivors who are the true experts on this issue.
The reality for Elena was that there were no services easily accessible to her. There was no nearby clinic that she could go to for help to assist her with the mental anguish that she suffered. She had not been able to get a steady job to support her family after she had been fired and she was on the verge of becoming homeless because she did not have enough money to pay her rent.
For decades survivors, advocates, and activists have been pushing for more legal protections; increased services for victims and survivors, as well as their families; better care by those who serve victims and survivors; and enforcement of the existing legal protections. This work did not begin a year ago. In fact, individuals with years of wisdom and knowledge garnered from their own lived experiences, work on the ground and in communities, and from serving thousands of individuals in various capacities, such as victim advocates, organizers, social workers, lawyers, doctors and others, have been working tirelessly over many years to win rights, identify the gaps in the law, call for reform of the flawed institutions and systems, and to name the many ways that coming forward to report violence can result in more pain, suffering and trauma for those who have lived it.
As we mark the anniversary of the breakthrough moment of the “me too” movement, let us honor Tarana Burke for her years of work, her vision and for giving us a powerful tool to address one of the most pervasive problems in our society, which prioritizes the needs and care of those who have experienced sexual violence, plus those who have been impacted by the long-term consequences of this violence. Let us lift-up the brave survivors who have spoken out and have been moved to action over the past year and the years before, as well as those who are weighing the risks and deciding whether it will ever be safe for them to disclose. May we honor the work of the many seasoned, as well as new, organizers, activists and advocates working to prevent and remedy this devastating problem, while building power and community along the way. Finally, let us continue to challenge ourselves by questioning what people, like Elena, will come forward to when they disclose the violence against them. And, what are each of us going to do to ensure that fairness, safety, justice, and care are available and accessible when, and if, survivors make the difficult decision to come forward.
A year later as we continue to contemplate and move ideas into action, there are many ways that you can take action. Consider making a contribution to grassroots organizations addressing this issue and those supporting survivors. Attorneys should sign up to provide pro bono legal assistance through the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. Have an open conversations with your friends about sexual harassment and all forms of sexual violence, including sharing information about our rights and resources available to help. New resources can be found at Me Too Movement. If you or anyone who you know are experiencing sexual violence, call the National Sexual Assault hotline at 800-656-4673.
Mónica Ramírez is the daughter and granddaughter of migrant farmworkers. She is national recognized expert on the eradication of sexual violence in the workplace. Mónica has dedicated her life’s work to ending gender-based violence in the workplace, achieving gender equity and fighting for the civil and human rights of the Latinx community, including workers, women, immigrants and children, as an organizer and advocate. She has also represented individuals as a civil rights and gender justice attorney since 2004. She is the founder of Justice for Migrant Women and the co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. Mónica wrote the ‘Dear Sisters’ letter that was published by TIME Magazine in November 2017 from farmworker women to women in the entertainment industry that is credited with sparking the creation of the TIME’S UP movement.
*Elena’s name has been changed to protect her identity.