Latina Sexual Assault Victims: Finding Ways To Empower Them


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Annika Darling

Latinas, an ever expanding part of our society, experience sexual victimization in epidemic proportions. On a national level, 1 in 6 Latinas experience sexual victimization in their lifetime. However, they are the least likely to report these incidents, due to both cultural and linguistic barriers that limit the help-seeking process.
Statistics clearly indicate that the Latina community is in need of sexual assault services. Unfortunately, linkages to services are still weak. Factors which make it difficult for them to get the services they need include: language barriers, fear of deportation, fear of isolation, fear of hardship if separated from a partner, lack of community and family support, cultural issues, and fear of the legal system.


Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, Inc. (CONNSACS) is a statewide coalition of individual sexual assault crisis programs that works to end sexual violence through victim assistance, community education, and public policy advocacy.
“Statistics show that 86 percent of the time the victim knows their perpetrator,” says CONNSACS Executive Director, Laura Cordes. “So that could be their aunt, their father, their teacher, a brother, so it could be anybody in their community.”
For this reason, Cordes says that many victims are afraid to disclose because it will disrupt the family.
Nina Vazquez, Assistant Director for The Sexual Assault Crisis Service (SACS) of YWCA New Britain — a CONNSACS member program — says that one of the hardest aspects of reaching the Latina community is their fear of seeking support outside their community.
“We have fear,” says Vazquez. “So whatever happens to me it stays between us, amongst us. I’m not going to go to an outside agency to talk about what happened to me when I was little or what happened to me as an adult — I’m saying me but I’m generalizing — because we have that fear that that person that I’m going to go talk to might talk to someone else about what happened to me, and then that person is going to be singled out.”
Vazquez adds that many may also fear being deported, but says this fear should be set aside because police are not there to interrogate them; they’re just there to investigate the criminal act. “If that was the case,” explains Vazquez, “there’s a possibility they could apply for a U Visa because they have been a victim of a crime in the state – in this case the state of Connecticut — and we connect them with legal aid or Connecticut legal services.”
Vazquez says the focus of her program is always about providing options and helping a victim regain their power.
Laura E. Zárate, founding Executive Director of Arte Sana (art heals) — a national Latina-led nonprofit committed to ending sexual violence — reports that “barriers in seeking help may be that he or she is not aware of services addressing sexual abuse, or perhaps he or she is aware but does not know how to utilize the services.” (The ‘@’ is used by Latin American human rights and feminist groups to be more gender inclusive and avoid gendered noun endings in Spanish.)
And still other barriers include institutional racism and victim-blaming. In some Latin American communities a girl who loses her virginity to rape or incest may be considered ‘promiscuous’ or ‘damaged.’
“In 2012, a Texas defense attorney described an 11-year-old survivor of gang rape (of Mexican origin) as a ‘spider’ who lured her rapists.” – as reported on Arte Sana’s website.


Spanish is the second most spoken language in the U.S. — over 37 million residents speak Spanish at home.  Yet, the lack of bilingual/bicultural staff and volunteers, along with insufficient programs and information in Spanish, have limited victim assistance and the proactive engagement of millions of Latinos in sexual violence prevention.
Once a victim does reach out, there is a shortage of Spanish-speaking professionals that can render a Spanish-speaking survivor without advocacy services for weeks or even months.
Cordes says that in their time of serving the Latino community (over 15 years) that “we’ve been one of only two states in the country to have a statewide Spanish sexual hotline.”
The language barrier is one of the biggest barriers Latinas face, but something CONNSACS has been committed to resolving. Too often materials created for the Latino community are simply translated into Spanish, and they don’t take into consideration the unique needs of the population.
“We are very thoughtful about creating these in Spanish first and then translating them into English,” says Cordes. “So they would be available for the bilingual community as well. So folks would see materials in both Spanish and English. We not only created postcards and pamphlets and posters, but we also created public services announcements for radio, Spanish and English websites.”
In March CONNSACS and SACS, along with other member centers, came together with different bilingual advocates from the state, and other community centers that had Spanish speakers, and created the Latino Advisory Committee: a committee specifically designed to help CONNSACS develop materials and messages to address sexual violence in the Latino community.
Cordes says, “It’s important to us, considering the Latino community, that our message not only be linguistically appropriate, but culturally appropriate .”
For Arte Sana, culturally and linguistically appropriate victim services via bilingual advocates and programs are also necessary to inform Latina victims/survivors of their rights and to understand how to utilize existing resources. But Zárate added that there is also a great importance to develop “confianza” (trust).
Maria Busineau, Program Manager with the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Eastern Connecticut, confirms the importance of trust: “The technique that works best to reach Latino@s in CT is word of mouth. Latin@s, especially newly arrived immigrants rely on their own network for support. They need to be sure they can trust the provider or that the provider has given good service in the past and is reliable.”
Vazquez comments that another important aspect of outreach programs is their dedication to confidentiality.
“It is a Connecticut general state statute: 52-146k,” explains Vazquez. “Meaning that every conversation that survivor or victim has with a counselor or advocate–everything stays confidential. We don’t’ share that information with anybody unless it is a mandated reporting [suicidal, under age, homicidal, etc.].”

 Support and Empowerment

“I am very pro getting help,” says Vazquez. “It makes a difference in peoples lives when they seek services and they get to talk about what happened to them. Because the more they stay quiet, the more that you hold it in, the more other things can come into play. There could be some type of sickness you could have, you could have a lot of migraines; some survivors or victims tend to self medicate and they might use alcohol or drugs. So not having the right support next to you can hurt.”
Victims can experience many short and long term health effects of sexual violence. They include PTSD, they may have a host of coping mechanisms, many experience difficulty sleeping, challenges in relationships moving forwards, and the ability to gain and rebuild trust is a challenge to many victims.
There are a total of nine CONNSACS member centers throughout Connecticut that are available to meet with clients, and they meet them at the hospital, police stations and can be present throughout court procedures. They also have recently included a Sexual Assault Forensics Examiner Program where victims can be seen at a number of hospitals in the area within 120 hours of an assault for a collection of evidence. While the process can take up to 46 hours, the victim will receive support through the duration and can be provided with a Spanish-speaking advocate.
“We empower the person,” says Vazquez. “We try to empower them and give them back their control, and let them know about the rights that they have as a victim of a crime. Our services are free and confidential. We don’t tell them what to do, we give them options.”
Sexual victimization has devastating effects. It can tear lives apart and injures people physically, emotionally, and spiritually, regardless of the victim’s gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, or economic background. Finding the right support and help is integral to moving on, to healing, and to empowerment.
Sexual assault crisis service program – 24 hour hotlines:
Spanish 1-888 568 8332 — English: 1-888 999 5545
Learn more about CONNSACS and individual sexual assault crisis centers visit CONNSACS’s website: