Over half of women and almost 1 in 3 men have experienced sexual violence during their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Each April, we recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month to draw attention to the global epidemic of sexual assault, uplift the voices and experiences of survivors, and engage everyone in ending sexual violence.
While sexual assault can happen to anyone, certain groups are at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence, including immigrant women. Abuse rates among immigrant women are as high as 49.8%, which is almost three times the national average in the United States.
Why are immigrants at greater risk of experiencing sexual assault?
At its core, sexual violence is a form of oppression, and it disproportionately impacts oppressed communities. Systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, and others all contribute to higher rates of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. Immigrants often have many intersecting marginalized identities that put them at greater risk of experiencing violence, including their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, economic status, and immigration status.
Undocumented immigrants are at particularly high risk of experiencing sexual assault and have a harder time accessing services. Abusers often use immigration status as a tool to control their victims, threatening to destroy documents, controlling access to documents like passports, or failing to file for legal status for their immigrant spouse. 72% of abusive partners fail to give their spouses legal immigration status as a tool of control.
Sexual assault and abuse do not end when a person enters the United States. In 2022, 57% of Tahirih clients reported that they experienced abuse and exploitation after coming to the U.S. According to one study, 48% of Latina women surveyed indicated that the level of violence in their relationship increased with their immigration to the U.S. Recent immigrants may experience social isolation, such as a lack of close family and friends and language barriers, that can increase the risk of experiencing violence.
How can service providers better support immigrant survivors of sexual assault?
Every survivor will be impacted differently and recover differently in the aftermath of sexual assault. It’s critical that services for survivors of violence recognize the impact of a person’s identity on their experience and center the unique needs of that marginalized group.
In addition to the physical and emotional trauma that impacts all sexual assault survivors, immigrant survivors may face challenges such as limited English proficiency, cultural barriers, lack of knowledge about U.S. law, and fear of law enforcement. Undocumented immigrants are often afraid to call police or seek help from service providers out of fear they will be deported, detained, or separated from their children. According to a survey of advocates and legal service providers conducted by Tahirih in 2017, 78% of agencies said that immigrant survivors of violence have concerns with contacting the police.
Finding culturally competent service providers trained to understand the unique needs and challenges facing immigrant survivors of sexual assault is critical to a survivor’s safety and recovery. Immigrant service providers must not only be trauma-informed and trained to work with sexual assault survivors, but also work effectively across cultures and be aware of immigrants’ rights and legal issues.
NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault, “At the intersections,” available at: https://njcasa.org/at-the-intersections/
Jessica Mindlin, Leslye E. Orloff, Sameera Pochiraju, Amanda Baran, and Ericka Echavarria, “Dynamics of Sexual Assault and the Implications for Immigrant Women,” available at: https://niwaplibrary.wcl.american.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/Ch1-DyanimcsSexualAssaultImplications-07.10.13.pdf
National Organization for Women, “Intimate Partner Violence: Undocumented and Immigrant Women,” available at: https://now.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Learn-More-IPV-and-Immigrant-Womenpdf.pdf
National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “Sexual Violence and Oppression,” available at: https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications/2020-08/OppressionFINAL508.pdf