“No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family”, the Bandana Project
Founded by Monica Ramirez, at the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Atlanta, the Bandana Project aims to raise awareness on the sexual exploitation and harassment faced by farm worker women in the US. Women are vulnerable to sexual coercion on the part of employers, recruiters and male coworkers. Women without stable immigration status are particularly affected and often have to endure inhumane treatment at work. Women wear bandanas to protect their bodies from the hazards of farm work including unwanted sexual attention.
This project symbolically appropriates bandanas as canvasses for awareness and denunciations of women’s sexual exploitation at work. Bandanas are decorated with people’s aspirations for social justice and the dignity of women workers in the agricultural sector. In the project’s website, Monica explains that “through this project, we try to bring a sense of hope, confidence and the will to be brave. It is our wish that these women will see our encouragement as a sign that they no longer have to suffer in silence.”
In 2009 Rural Women Making Change a CURA project based at the University of Guelph along with El Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador in Puebla and Justicia for Migrant Workers partnered to be part of the Bananda Project’s mission for the year. An educational and arts based workshop was held in Puebla for men and women workers in the maquila auto-parts industry. The workshop provided a space to talk about the situation of Mexican farm worker women, to share RWMC’s research on the topic and to expand on local context of the maquila sector in Puebla.
Over 20 workers in Puebla gathered on Sunday April 19th at El Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador to partake in a powerful workshop on sexual harassment. Ofelia talked about how her body would tremble and perspire when her supervisors at Johnson Controls, that produces car seats for the big auto-makers, would purposely watch over her every move as she performed intensive and dangerous work. She would feel how they would scan her entire body with their eyes. She expressed her discomfort on numerous occasions to only be dismissed. Ofelia, is one of defiant workers, who was organizing an independent workers led coalition against such abusive labour practices and the corrupt employer based union. She lost her work as a result.
Conversely, Maru worked in another maquila where her male supervisor constantly sexually harassed and demeaned her. Without knowing where to turn and lacking support among her coworkers, she was forced to quit and has not been able to find work since.
The women also expressed how unsafe and humiliated they felt on the way home from their night shifts. The company bus would drop them off in dangerous locations and men on the street would offer to pay them for sex. This generated conversation on the sex trafficking of women and girls that was prevalent in workers very communities and that sex workers are often coerced to engage in that work and as human beings they deserved to be treated with dignity and respect as well.
The women also talked about the discrimination they felt as production line workers while women working in the offices of the maquilas were treated with respect. One of the women explained that when one of the male line workers whistled at a female secretary he was immediately fired but when worse things happen to women line workers on a daily basis it is permissible since perpetrators are among management ranks.
The workshop clarified sexual harassment and challenged the misconception that this behaviour is natural and inevitable between women and men. At the end of the workshop, one of the men shared, that he did not know how much this behaviour affected his female coworkers and that he was leaving with much more clarity on the issues and self-reflection.
Participants, including workers’ young daughters, created beautiful and emotive bandanas. Everyone presented their creations before pinning them up on the centre’s walls and shared what the workshop had meant for them. Interestingly, the following Monday, the bandanas served as a powerful background to a press conference held by women workers who had been recently fired by an unscrupulous textile maquila operation. The local press and international human rights organizations present took surely took notice. This initiative is an example of North-South collaboration among women seeking local change and global justice.
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(Case study adapted from the original report)