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How Women Across Industries Are Finding Their Voice in the Fight Against Sexual Harassment

5 minute read
Ramírez is a leading activist, attorney, and the founder and President of the nonprofit Justice For Migrant Women, co-founder of The Latinx House, and founding principal of Poderistas (formerly She Se Puede).

Last year, farmworker women captured many people’s attention when Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance) published what became known as the “Dear Sisters” letter in TIME. It was a letter written on behalf of women employed in agriculture to the women employed in the entertainment industry who had disclosed sexual violence against them by powerful people in their industry. It began:

We write on behalf of the approximately 700,000 women who work in the agricultural fields and packing sheds across the United States. For the past several weeks we have watched and listened with sadness as we have learned of the actors, models and other individuals who have come forward to speak out about the gender based violence they’ve experienced at the hands of bosses, coworkers and other powerful people in the entertainment industry. We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well.

The response to the letter was both unexpected and, in some ways, overwhelming. We never anticipated a response from anyone in the entertainment industry. We did not write it in the hopes of receiving a response. We wrote it because it was right to speak out in support of the women who were coming forward to share some of their darkest truths in an environment that was not necessarily welcoming to these admissions.

In the weeks and months following its publication, people readily expressed their opinions about the letter. Many shared their own words of solidarity and relayed instances of similar violence that exists in other industries. Some critiqued us and the letter; they said that we should have “called people out” for not paying attention to the plight of women working in low-paying jobs sooner. Some thought that it was interesting or odd that farmworker women, who are perceived to be less visible and powerful, would speak out for women who are very visible and powerful.

It was not an aberration for us. Over the years, we have demonstrated support on behalf of domestic workers, janitors and hotel workers, among others. Though the difference was that this time the world took notice.

As organizers who are part of the farmworker movement and as people who identify with the farmworker community, we, the founders and members of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, believe that no matter where someone works, no matter how much they get paid or how well-known they are by society, they deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and fairness. All workers, irrespective of their profession or their place on the economic ladder, deserve to be safe from sexual violence. Everyone should be able to live and do their job free from all forms of violence, whether it be sexual, verbal, emotional or physical. This belief is among our core values.

The reality is that many workers suffer indignities and harm, not just women working in the fields or those employed on movie sets. Sadly, workers — especially women — employed in every sector of every industry experience workplace sexual violence. Some women are more vulnerable to this mistreatment, like those who are of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, disabled, young, employed in low-paying jobs or any combination of those factors. The result of this is devastating emotional, physical and economic harm for all of those who experience it.

Countless people also suffer retaliation when they speak out, complain or seek a remedy. Sometimes this retaliation comes in the form of firing, demotion or other negative economic consequences, like denying people raises, bonuses or opportunities for advancement. In addition, speaking out may, ultimately, result in social isolation, bullying or public ostracization regardless of the industry, the income bracket or the person’s visibility to the rest of the world.

As women, and as a society, we are finding our collective voice when it comes to speaking out against harassment, retaliation, violence and all the ensuing issues that come with them. In our pursuit of this shared voice, may we remember some important lessons: No one — no matter where they work — should suffer from workplace sexual violence. And, no matter the identity of the victim or the perpetrator, allies should feel a moral imperative to speak out so that victims will know that they are believed and supported. As we wrote in our first letter:

In these moments of despair, and as you cope with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed against you, please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.

Immeasurable change is possible every time we speak out against injustice and for human rights — no matter the form or fashion. The potential for monumental change resides in the reverberation caused by a message of shared concern and struggle. Millions of people worldwide have seen and felt this power over the past year.

May we never return to a time when an act of mutual care is deemed extraordinary or rare. Instead, may this be the way that we treat each other, look out for each other and show up for one another forever into the future.

This story is part of TIME’s Person of the Year 2018 issue. Discover more stories here.

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