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Immigrant Women Especially Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment in Workplace

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Bernard Shusman

Since the earliest days of the Dutch settlers, New York has been the first stop for many immigrants coming into the United States - and in recent years, that has included immigrants from Africa.  More than half a million African migrants have come to the United States since 1980, and many have settled in New York, like other groups before them.   But with them have come serious social issues, especially for young West African women working in the city.

One of the main West African immigrant enclaves is in this Bronx, New York, neighborhood.  They are hard-working, religious people, who are making a life for themselves and their families in this new, different environment.  

Many women work as nannies or domestics, hotel chambermaids or go to school.  And many work in fear, like this woman named Fatou, a home attendant.

"I am scared to talk to people, I do not want to lose my job," said Fatou.

Fatou says the son of a client tried to have sex with her and it was not the first time it happened on a case.  It was similar, in a way, to the case of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is charged with attacking a West African chambermaid, and now awaits trial.  

Dorchen Leidholdt, director of a group called Sanctuary for Families, says her group tries to help immigrant women.    

"Immigrant women, especially young women, immigrant women, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace," said Leidholdt.  "Eighty percent of our clients are immigrants.  Most come from Latin America, Asia, Africa, like the victim in this particular case.  And we hear horrifying stories about what they are subjected to by employers."

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is calling for an international law banning harassment in the workplace.  Ai-Jen Poo says domestics and chambermaids have the same problems.

"The way we like to talk about it in the domestic work industry is, it is almost like our industry is, we call it, 'the wild West,' because almost anything goes," noted Ai-Jen Poo.  "There is no regulation, very little protection, very little standards.  It is often up to the individual workers who are very often isolated to advocate for their rights with very little power to do so."

As a college student at John Jay College in Manhattan, Guinea native Marie Toure was told that she could get a higher grade in exchange for sexual favors.  

"It was a scary situation," said Toure.  "I had to keep my GPA [grade point average] up.  Having a professor do that to you is kind of like scary.  Because if he is in school as a teacher he is supposed to protect you.  But if he is putting you in a situation where you are scared and put in a situation to hurt you.  It is hard to know what to do."

Counselor Miriama Diallo is also from West Africa.  She says the psychological effects and dangers in the workplace or at school are real.

"The women who share their experience, it is a huge effect.  The psychological that it has on them you cannot describe.  Nightmares, flashbacks, lack of sleep, tearful, profound tearful expressions when they come to these sessions," Diallo noted.

New York City's Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, Fatima Shama, says the city and state of New York are trying to reach out to these women and assure them they can get help, whether documented or undocumented.   

"We understand the fear, we understand unfortunately what is happening in our communities," said Shama.  "This is why, I think, a conversation like this today, allowing us to truly repeat and remind people there are agencies and people interested in protecting them and their well-being, whether it is immigration, unauthorized around immigration, or other areas where individuals or consumers are not being protected or victimized."

According to the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services, the fact that the woman in the Strauss-Kahn case came forward and reported him to the police may be a psychological turning point for immigrant women workers and students.

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