Women's debate show exposes rape
as cost of entry for female immigrants
by Jennifer L Pozner
May 13th, 2006
Posted by Mahmood Ketabchi
As I write this, I'm watching an important segment on "To The Contrary," PBS's weekly women's political and current affairs debateshow, on the underreported issue of sexual assault as an exceptionallyregular aspect of border crossing for women immigrants.
According to T.O.C. host Bonnie Erbe:
"New studies by the United Nations Development Fund for Women showsexual abuse on the rise among women illegally crossing the U.S.border from Mexico. Rape is so common it's viewed as the price ofadmission to America. Some even take birth control before crossing toavoid pregnancy… So-called 'border bandits' prey on those crossing theU.S. Mexican border illegally. Women are more vulnerable because theirpercentages have risen among illegal immigrants. They're also leavingbehind more children in Mexico and Central American countries. If caught and returned, they're often physically abused again in the Mexican border towns where U.S. agents leave them."
To give viewers a deeper understanding of the impact of immigration on undocumented women, Erbe interviewed Marijke Velzeboer-Salcedo, chief, Latin America and the Caribbean section of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, who explained that:
"Between 60 % 70% of women do experience some abuse, of the womenwho cross the border alone (because some of the women do cross the border with their husbands or their families). But many of the women do go alone and we know that among the Mexican non documented
immigrants, 45% are women. And in Guatemala it's 35% and it's rising."
With some exceptions, much immigration coverage in recent months hasfocused on male activists leading protests, undocumented men workingas day laborers, male DJs at Spanish-language radio stations informinglisteners about the importance of attending immigration
demonstrations, and the like. But as this To The Contrary segment illustrates, there are serious reasons why women's perspectives are needed in immigration coverage–and serious ways to frame immigration as specifically relevant to women.
Erbe's opening question to her panelists was a simple query that should be — but hasn't been — a staple in most media coverage of immigration:
"So, what are their [women's] lives like at home that they're willing to try to cross illegally, so many of them die, and now we find 60 to 70% of them are sexually abused and they're taking birth control before they cross the border knowing that they're likely to be raped?"
It's an important question, one posed far too rarely in the recent spate of corporate media coverage of immigration. Unfortunately, the panelists (a Democratic pundit, a Democratic Congresswoman, aRepublican pundit and a spokeswoman from the right-wing anti-feminist Independent Women's Forum) didn't answer it as fully as they should have, steering the debate away from the motivations of women immigrants and toward border patrol and enforcement issues.
Let's hope more mainstream and independent news coverage further explores the stark realities faced by female immigrants in their home countries, in the transition process, and in the United States. When you see stories like this that frame immigration as the women's issue it is, send a thank-you to the station or publication responsible for broadening the debate (you can reach To The Contrary at mailto:email@example.com). We'd love you to CC WIMN on your letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Likewise, when immigration coverage leaves women out of the picture,WIMN encourages you to send a letter to the editor asking the newsoutlet to delve deeper. Let media know that women's perspectives canonly expand and strengthen reporting and commentary on immigrationissues–and that no reporting that leaves women out of this story can be complete or wholly accurate. Again, feel free to copy WIMN on your letters.
(Postscript: The T.O.C. segment is not yet archived on the show's website, but I'll check in a day or two and post an update when theydo update their site with information on today's roundtable.)