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Assault Cases Focus Attention on Maids' Vulnerability

  • Peter Fedynsky

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, right, with his attorney Benjamin Brafman, is arraigned Monday, May 16, 2011, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, right, with his attorney Benjamin Brafman, is arraigned Monday, May 16, 2011, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.

In recent weeks, two high-profile former bankers have been arrested on charges of sexually assaulting hotel maids in New York City. The cases highlight a danger faced by maids, many of whom are seen as vulnerable, poor and anonymous women. Dozens of hotel maids lined the sidewalk to jeer former International Monetary Fund chairman Dominique Strauss-Kahn as he arrived in court Monday for arraignment on charges of sexual assault.

They shouted, “Shame on you” as he exited. The maids came in solidarity with the alleged victim. One of them, Biviana Vasquez, said they have a basic demand. “We need respect and justice. That is all what we are looking for, because we are working to survive like everybody else," she said.

On May 29, New York’s posh Pierre Hotel was the scene of another alleged sexual assault involving the former chairman of Egypt’s Bank of Alexandria, Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar. He too was arrested on charges of abusing a maid.

Many hotel maids in America are immigrants. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser is a widowed 32-year-old from Guinea raising a 15-year-old daughter.

Dorchen Leidholdt of Sanctuary for Families, a group that helps abused women, paints this portrait of the alleged victim based on her frequent meetings with Guinean women. “If she is typical, she would be somebody who is extraordinarily hard-working, who is doing everything to support herself, and her daughter, and very likely also sending money back to family members in Guinea to help them as well," she said.

Sanctuary for Families Counselor Mariama Diallo says predators often exploit fears that immigrant maids have of losing their jobs if they report an assault. “The criminal is going to think like that, ‘Oh, if I do this to her, maybe she does not know how to make a police report, maybe she is undocumented and she will not come forward because of her immigration status to report," she said. "Or maybe, because she is so needy she will just let me do that.’"

The vulnerability of maids behind closed doors is an issue being seized by hotel worker unions to help protect them against harassment and assault by guests. Security specialist Anthony Roman says hotel management can do things to help maids. “They involve technology, management procedures and protocols, and good security management. Those are things unions can fight for in terms of hotel workers and other domestic positions," he said.

One of the proposed technical solutions is a panic button, an electronic device that would send an alarm in case of trouble.

Whatever the outcome in court, the Strauss-Kahn and Omar cases have focused attention on the plight of hotel maids, who hope the attention will result in better protection against dangerous guests.

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