Farmworker Rape in WA State, It Still Happens

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Photo: Radical Women Seattle Branch

By Shanel Scholz, UW News lab

An event to celebrate Women’s Rights Day will be held on Saturday, August 24 featuring female immigrant farmworkers, speaking out against abuse in the fields. The event is being put on by the Seattle branch of Radical Women, a socialist-feminist organization, and will be held at the New Freeway Hall on Rainier Avenue South.

The event, called  “Farmworker Women Battle for Workers’ Rights and Dignity,” is being held to celebrate the day in history that women were allowed the right to vote in the U.S. It’s also meant to educate the public about the problems immigrant women face while working in the fields.

“Though there’s been some information about the strikes and also the fight of farmworker women, particularly against sexual assault, this is certainly a topic that can use more discussion,” said Margaret Viggiani, the outreach coordinator for the Women’s Rights Day event.

PBS’s documentary series Frontline recently aired a segment titled “Rape in the Fields,” which discusses the problems of sexual and physical abuse immigrant women face as farmworkers. The documentary highlights women who work on farms in eastern Washington, according to Viggiani.

The problem exists in western Washington as well. Pair the documentary with the Sakuma strikes currently happening in Burlington, Washington and the problem becomes very real in this state.

There are currently around 270 workers on strike at Sakuma Bros. Farms in Burlington, Skagit County. The strikers are mostly indigenous Mixteco and Trique Mexicans, according to a July 23, 2013 Seattle Times article. They are fighting not only for better wages, but also for better living conditions.

“It really is this multi-faceted battle and in both struggles women are really in the forefront of the leadership,” said Viggiani.

The event will feature three speakers who are familiar with the issues, including 18-year-old Marcelina Hilario, who has been working in the fields for six years and is a part of the current Sakuma strike. The other speakers are Angelica Villa, a farmworker leader and advocate for women fieldworkers battling sexual harassment, and Sandy Restrepo, an immigrants’ rights activist and attorney with the nonprofit Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, according to Helen Gilbert in a press release.

The event will be a bilingual program and the presentations will be translated. Flyers will be available in both English and Spanish and the speakers will be translated in real time.

A buffet-style dinner will be served at 6 p.m. and will cost between $1 and $5, on a sliding scale. The money raised at dinner will go to the Sakuma strikers’ own organization Familias Unidas por La Justicia (Families United for Justice), which supports the families of the strikers.

There will be an opportunity to socialize before the speakers begin at 7:30 p.m. and a chance for questions and a formal discussion after they are finished.

“The formal part of the program where everyone is together is nice, but it’s almost just as nice as the informal parts before, during dinner and afterwards when people get a little one-on-one time,” said Viggiani.

The event as a whole will be a benefit for the Freedom Socialist, a national, independent press newspaper with no advertisements based in Seattle. There is currently a national and international fund drive for the paper, and supporters in Seattle have taken on the goal of raising $43,000. The Freedom Socialist has been covering news surrounding labor organizers, activists of color, feminists and more since 1976, according to the paper’s website.

Donated goods will also be accepted for the Sakuma strikers’ families.

“It’s to get people to know what’s going on locally and how they can help and how they can get involved and we’re open to get both labor activists and community activists of all stripes or people just wanting to know more and wanting to get involved. Just by coming you’re supporting them,” said Viggiani.

Radical Women is a socialist, feminist organization that has been serving minority communities for 46 years. It was founded in Seattle and now has branches in Oregon, California, New York, and Australia, according to the organization’s website.

The event will be a way of for immigrant, farmworker women to get their stories heard to a wider audience, to people outside of farm life.

“When you’re up on those big farms and live in company housing, it can be a little isolating,” said Viggiani.

For more information:

Shanel Scholz is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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