By Sarah Mittermaier
October 8, 2013
As a public health advocate, I’m deeply concerned about the ways our food system works — and in my work, I’ve primarily focused on the ways our food system often fails consumers. I’ve learned a lot about the problems of junk food marketing and the rise of chronic disease that stems from an unhealthy food environment. I’m also well aware that the workers who grow and harvest our food face harsh working and living conditions, from exploitation at the hands of their employers and our broken immigration system to pesticide exposure. But until this summer, I never realized that one of the biggest issues female farmworkers face is sexual violence.
Then I watched Rape in the Fields, a new documentary that aired this summer. Its tagline says it all: “For the women who pick and handle the food we eat every day, sexual assault often comes with the job.” The film sheds new light on the human consequences of a massive policy failure that leaves women who labor in the fields unprotected from sexual exploitation.
Rape in the Fields exposes an issue at the heart of our food system and gives voice to the experiences of the women who go to work every day in “the green motel.” It’s an issue that’s received little attention in the press, leaving the public largely unaware of a form of injustice that powerful industry lobbies, geography, poverty, language and immigration status all conspire to conceal.
But farmworkers and their allies are trying to break through the silence and disrupt the official neglect. The documentary highlights the efforts of community advocates and government officials to assist them Those of us who see ourselves as part of a movement for healthy food and healthy environments in California need to see our work as contributing to these efforts. But first we need to understand the problem.
Half a million girls and women labor in American fields, orchards and food processing plants, and untold numbers of them experience sexual assault and harassment from foremen and bosses. Many of the women affected face steep barriers to speaking out, fearing job loss, deportation and other reprisals if they do so.
A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch found that “farmworkers who push back against the abuse, or report incidents to management, say they suffer retaliation, getting fewer hours, more abusive treatment, or, worst of all, losing their jobs altogether.” What’s more, many farmworkers rely on employers for basic needs like housing and transportation – so job loss can go hand-in-hand with homelessness.
Job loss and deportation aren’t the only factors that keep violence against farmworkers shrouded. Social norms around sexual violence act as additional barriers to women speaking out -- and being heard when they do so.
“Female farmworkers occupy an isolated place in society and sexual violence is enabled, in part, by the shame and silence that conceals it,” says my Prevention Institute colleague Annie Lyles, who works with communities to prevent violence, including sexual violence. Structural power dynamics and isolation experienced by female farmworkers create the conditions for violence. The fact that farmworkers are excluded from a wide range of basic worker protections perpetuates violence. Anemic enforcement of the laws that do exist obscures a path to justice.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: violence can be prevented. Some women, like those interviewed for this documentary, are speaking out. For farmworkers and their advocates, there’s a long history of advocacy to build on—the call for justice reverberates through a history of campaigns led by the United Farm Workers for fair wages and health and safety protections for those who labor to feed us.
Juanita Ontiveros, a community education and outreach advocate with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, says that what’s needed is a network of farmworkers, advocates, and consumers to come together and demand policy changes to protect female farmworkers. These include immigration reforms to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, labor reforms to provide greater protection to farmworkers who are now excluded from many labor laws, and stronger enforcement of existing laws. “It needs to be cheaper to follow the law than evade the law,” Ontiveros says.
Efforts to turn the tide on sexual violence in our food system would benefit immeasurably from support and activism from a much broader range of advocates, including the growing network of food policy councils across California, violence prevention advocates, and people working in public health. It will take everyone invested in a healthier, more just and sustainable food system to bring about the policy changes we need.
Four years ago, the Strategic Alliance for Healthy Food and Activity Environments, a statewide network of California advocates, defined healthy food as food that “comes from a food system where food is produced, processed, transported, and marketed in ways that are environmentally sound, sustainable and just.”
When it comes to protecting the human rights of the people we rely on to bring food to our tables, we’ve got to do better. How much human suffering per bushel are we willing to accept?
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Rape in the Fields was produced by Frontline, The Center for Investigative Reporting and Univision.